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A Delicate Edge

January 10, 2011


When I start thinking that I want a dog's life--sleep 22 hours, eat, walk, repeat--I know I'm overdoing it.

So I did hill repeats last Saturday, and then a long endurance workout last Sunday. And guess what? I was a mess all this week. I was exhausted, in a crappy mood, especially snappy with my kids, overwhelmed with work and life.

I don’t think one weekend of hard work equals overtraining, but I know that my body is especially sensitive to doing too much. So I prematurely took a week of recovery–just two easy workouts with as much sleep as I could snag–and I feel much stronger and better now.

In the interest of keeping you superwomen from falling into the same trap I am susceptible to–and for the sake of your kids–I wanted to share this article I wrote about overtraining a few years ago. I was assigned to write it for an (unnamed) woman’s magazine but for various reasons, it never saw the light of day. Bums me out because it goes above and beyond the typical lose 10 pounds in 6 weeks! and get buns of steel to boot! stories they run every.freakin.month.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, no worries. (I’ve bolded the parts I think apply especially to RLAM’ers.) But do scroll to the bottom of the story to take a helpful quiz about workout recovery. Because what woman’s magazine article is complete without a quiz?

Training Gone Wild
My only strategy to survive a year of intense training and try to make the 1996 Olympic rowing team was this: pull as hard as possible, all the time. Coming from a collegiate club team—read: we partied as hard as we pulled—I was shocked by our two- and three-a-day workouts, which ranged from rowing to running sprints to weight lifting. Within weeks, I was a zombie. I’d wake up at 2 a.m., and read for hours because I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I cried way too much, usually in the shower to mask my tears from my teammates. I never felt rested, even after a day off. My progress, performance-wise, was minimal compared to the energy I was expending, but I continued to pull harder and harder. Not surprisingly, after eight months of hell, I didn’t feel capable, physically or mentally, of taking another stroke.  Totally broken, I packed my car and slipped away from camp before official selection even began.

In hindsight, I was clearly overtrained, a stale, overexhausted state caused by a massive imbalance between training and recovery. On the court, road or field, you stagnate, while off it, you suffer nasty side effects like sleeplessness, irritability, loss of appetite and depression. While it may seem like those going for the gold are most prone to the syndrome, recreational athletes are also at risk. “Overtraining is a product of the cumulative amount of stress to which your body is exposed,” says Jack Raglin, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Indiana University in Bloomington, “For elite athletes, training alone can do it. But lack of sleep, poor nutritional habits and over-packed schedules also stress the body and add to the bottom line.”  In other words, if you stay up all night preparing a PowerPoint or nursing a sick kid, then pound out five miles at the crack of dawn and skip breakfast, you’re pushing maximum stress capacity. Repeat the drill frequently enough without giving yourself a break, and you’re setting yourself up to go into OT.

Don’t Try this at Home: The Basics of Overtraining
Whether you’re doing roundhouses in kickboxing or intervals in Spinning, your muscles respond to intense exercise the same way: they break down. If you refuel and recover properly, your body goes into worker-bee mode, producing, among other things, proteins that prompt healing blood flow to the muscles and hormones that reduce swelling.  With a few days, your guns are more capable than before, and they’re ready to hammer hard again. “A workout only sets the stage for you to become stronger and fitter,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D, assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University, “but the real process doesn’t happen until you recover.”

When you slack off on recovering, though, your body falls off the back of the proverbial treadmill.  Although there are various theories, from genetics to overactive hormones, floating around about the physiological cause of overtraining, the jury is still out. “What we do know is that your body responds systemically to overtraining,” says Raglin. Translation: nearly everything is out of whack. In fact, there are over 130 signs of overtraining, from those measured in a lab (changes in blood-lactate levels, for one) to symptoms more easily self-diagnosed, including a rise in resting heart rate (measured before you get out of bed in the a.m); a cold you can’t shake; the inability to get into the fluid, effortless zone when you exercise; feeling as though you have Clysdale-heavy legs; and trouble falling—or staying—asleep.

But most likely, the first place overtraining will materialize is your mood. “Psychological changes are the best indication of doing too much,” says Raglin.  When you’re overtrained, you feel like you’re in that irritable, weepy and tired PMS mode 24/7, and sucking down Advil or M ‘n’ M’s don’t help. Going for a run, which usually is a quick fix, is no longer effective at putting a smile on your face. “You can’t settle into that calm and relaxed state that you normally feel after a workout,” he says.

Who me?
In one competitive season—just a couple months— studies have found about 10 to 15% of athletes are overtrained. “When you pull back and look at a lifetime, nearly one in three athletes have been overtrained,” says Raglin. Stereotypical type-A personalities—you know, the superwoman who is married, works full time, has kids, does triathlons— are easily prone to overtraining. “Most super-driven people say they exercise for stress relief,” says Dieffenbach, “But because they’re so driven, training becomes more focused and starts adding, not relieving, stress.”

Two other groups are also at a higher risk for going overboard. The first are former high school and collegiate athletes, who use their glory days as a measurement for what’s appropriate long after they donned a cap and gown. “Clients tell me, I’m not training half as much as I used to,” says Dieffenbach, “But with a job and a family, don’t have time to nap or just sit around like you did in college.”  The others are those who have already been overtrained at some point. “Think of a sprained ankle,” says Raglin, who has seen the syndrome in athletes as young as nine years old, “You twist it once, and it’s weaker and more prone to injury for the rest of your life. If you’ve gone over the edge of overtraining, your whole body has been hurt. It’s easier to do it again.”

Step—and Stay—Away from the Edge
But the threat of overtraining, looming like a thunderstorm, isn’t enough to justify slashing your workouts or effort in half. Rather, it should force you to think about both sides of your schedule: workouts and recovery. The latter is especially if you’re on a preparing for a marathon, century or other long-distance event that requires consistent training. “If you know you’ll have a hectic day at work on Wednesday, don’t schedule a tough workout for Tuesday night,” says Dieffenbach.  As a rule, give yourself between 24-48 hours to bounce back after really hard workouts; the day after you do sprints on a track, go for an easy jog. “Active recovery, or doing something at an easy pace, is actually better than doing nothing because it helps healing blood flow to your muscles,” she explains.

Similarly, plan out big breaks (a vacation is a no-brainer for a break from the routine) and smaller ones too. Schedule a massage at least once a month and map out ten minutes daily to stretch, meditate or do something similarly low-key that helps you unwind. Try to bank seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night and, when you can, grab a nap. Finally, pay attention to what goes into your recovering body. Eat within 30 minutes after a workout to optimize your recovery. Good choices=Whole grains, fruits and veggies , lean meats, unsaturated fats. Bad=carbs made with enriched flour, anything that comes glopped with special sauce or mini-sized snacks that usually get tossed in a Halloween bucket.

If that advice comes too late and you’ve already crashed to the bottom of the proverbial canyon, the cure for overtraining is refreshingly simple: rest. That doesn’t mean parking yourself on the couch and emptying your Netflix queue, but rather giving up intense exercise for at least two weeks. (Chronically overtrained athletes may need up to a year to recover, but a few weeks is probably sufficient for recreational athletes.) If you’ve been focusing on one sport, just say no to it—and while you’re at it, throw your heart rate monitor, Garmin and other indications of your performance in the closet too. Chill out with a game of pick-up basketball, go to a yoga class, go hiking with your dog, spin on your bike up to the store.  Sleep as hard as you used to train, and eat like the food pyramid tells you to.

Any extra energy you have, devote to overhauling your training regimen. “If you recover, then go back to trying to cram in 60 hours of work, family demands and an intense training schedule, you’re going to repeat the pattern,” says Dieffenbach, “Slow down and realize you shouldn’t take yourself—or your sport—too seriously.”

Total Quality Recovery
This quiz, designed by Goran Kentta, Ph.D., a Sports Psychologist at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, determines how primed your body is for a workout. Answer the questions based on the previous 24 hours and add up the corresponding points. Then use the chart, which indicates how well you have recovered, to know how hard you can push during your next workout.

Over the previous 24 hours, I ate…
Breakfast: 1 point
Lunch: 2 points
Dinner: 2 points
Snacks between meals: 1 point
Carbs and protein after exercise: 2 points

I replaced my fluids…
Throughout the day: 1 point
During and after my workout: 1 point

I got in…
7-8 hours: 3 points
A 20-60 minute nap: 1 point

I felt…
Totally relaxed, both psychologically and physically, after my workout: 2 points
Relaxed during the entire day: 1 point

I made sure to…
Do a proper cool-down after my workout: 2 points
Stretched the muscles I worked: 1 point

Score yourself:

If your score is… Your recovery is… And your next exercise effort can be….
6 No recovery No exertion
7-8 Extremely poor Extremely light
9-10 Very poor Very light
11-12 Poor Light
13-14 Reasonable Slightly hard
15-16 Good Hard
17-18 Very good Very hard
19-20 Extremely good Maximum
28 Comments leave one →
  1. Heidi permalink
    January 10, 2011 4:48 am

    Great piece Dimity!! I am going to have to save this, as I am a habitual overtrainer and I never recognize it until it’s too late. Even now, during what I consider a rest period, I scored a “poor”. Very eye-opening. Thank you for this!

  2. January 10, 2011 5:23 am

    This is oe of the best, and (dare I say) most timely articles I’ve EVER read. I just started tri training … I could NOT figure out why I have been in such a horribly foul mood, why I’m starving but have to force myself to eat (or end up eating crap I completely regret), why I can’t sleep past 6 even when I didn’t fall asleep before midnight, and why I have been crying my eyes out over all of the above.

    What’s worse…being completely honest…I do NOT want to share this information with my husband out of fear he’ll want me to chop down my plan. I think, if I read without my “I-must-train-no-matter-the-cost” filter OFF (which may, or may not have happened)…the real key is to make sure I recover as “hard” as I’ve been training. I need to put as much “effort” into my rest as I do into my work-outs.

    Not sure why this wasn’t published-that magazine must be complete crapola!! Thank you so much for sharing this here!!! I’ll take head and attempt to go back to bed instead of trying to do P90X on a score of 7!!

    • January 10, 2011 8:15 am

      Glad you went back to Bed, Dana. I am like you, and like to stick to the schedule 100%, but your body is obviously telling you otherwise. Listen (says the woman who has a hard time listening) so that you can actually enjoy and perform in your triathlon. Sending you good, healing vibes. xo.

      • January 10, 2011 2:27 pm

        Thanks….I wrote a blog post on this topic…and then had a great discussion with my hubby…and then slept for about THREE hours!!! 😀

  3. January 10, 2011 6:50 am

    This could not have come at a better time for me!! I’ve been suffering from all the classic symptoms of overtraining. I’m definitely saving this — great piece Dimity!!

  4. Muti permalink
    January 10, 2011 7:02 am

    a great piece – sounds like a caring mother’s almost worn out advice 🙂

  5. BigDogMom permalink
    January 10, 2011 7:43 am

    I would love to see an article like this in a magazine. I read the same stuff all the time and it is boring.

    I had a bout with this while training for my marathon over the summer. I kept my feelings to myself and had a horrible group run and finished crying one week. When asked by my group why I was crying, I explained my feelings….horribly embarassed. My group all smiled and were so great. They all started sharing stories of over training and how it is really sort of a taboo topic. No one really admits it but everyone has faced it at one point or another. It was so liberating for me. Had I seen an article like yours, I would never have felt embarassed to ask about this….or have my meltdown!

    Thanks again!

  6. Val permalink
    January 10, 2011 8:25 am

    This is awesome! Thank you! I especially love the part about not sitting on the couch to recover. This spoke to my heart because I absolutely want to do this when I’m burnt out. I am truely motivated to recover in a more responsible way. 🙂

  7. Robin permalink
    January 10, 2011 8:37 am

    Great article!! This really spoke to me and my family — despite good support and being able to let things go (Mt. Laundry is now piled half-way up the wall), it reminded me recovery and self-care was not optimal in a weekend complete with 13ish miles per parent plus rounding at the hospital both days plus a two-morning swim meet. We made it through and I am glad we did, but my swimmer and I are both taking much needed rest days today!

  8. Alecia permalink
    January 10, 2011 8:55 am

    Talk about perfect timing. I woke up a total bitch this morning. The house was a mess including dog poo and I was losing it with the kids. I kept thinking “It’s way too early for flo to be messing with my head”, and now I see it. I ran 10 miles on Saturday and worked a full and hectic shift at my part-time retail job on Sunday. I put quite a bit into a small window.

  9. January 10, 2011 9:12 am

    love this
    hard to apply…..I need a plan and once I have one I tend to follow no matter what and sometimes not always the best way to go.
    I have ignored pain and I have paid for it, I went back to the plan way too soon after being hit with the monster FLU…and when I say hit I mean it, I passed out twice!
    all I could think about was my plan….
    I also would never let my husband read this post!!!!

  10. January 10, 2011 9:21 am

    Great article Dimity. Something we can all read over and over until the message finally sinks in!

    What were they thinking not publishing it? You were very tactful there…

  11. January 10, 2011 1:01 pm

    I did awesome – next time I’ll just have to snag a little nap. 😀

  12. Laurie A. permalink
    January 10, 2011 1:30 pm

    I am actually going to MAKE my husband read this! Last night he (who is a former now non exercising athlete) was smirking when I told him I had changed my running schedule because I could not run on Monday mornings when I had to shift my long runs to Sunday afternoons. I told him rest was just as important as the exercise when done properly, but he acted like I was just being a slacker. Of course, he is a very black and white, all or nothing kind of guy. When he does start exercising, he goes all out. Then quits. Yup, he is going to read it. Thanks for posting it.

    Oh, and the only point I missed on the quiz was a nap!

  13. January 10, 2011 3:35 pm

    I love the aritcle & quiz. I need to save it and remember to refer back to it.

  14. joan permalink
    January 10, 2011 3:36 pm

    such an interesting post… thank you!

  15. Erica Richards permalink
    January 10, 2011 5:56 pm

    it’s funny how the symptoms of over training are so similar to the symptoms of not being able to train due to an over training injury. Crap! Thanks for the great article. PT starts on Wednesday!!

  16. January 10, 2011 6:34 pm

    Great article. I’m sharing it with my gal pals tonight.

  17. Jennifer F permalink
    January 10, 2011 6:36 pm

    this article really speaks to me on RESTING. I have always been a napper. I work from home and try and squeeze in even and hour whenever I can. The problem for me is FORCING myself to say NO and take time for ME. The part of my work out that gets compromised because I am so go go go is the stretching. I was just saying to my husband tonight that I am frustrated that my knee still hurts after just starting running again. I took 7 weeks off after my half to let my body heal. Only to find, I am not healed enough and still not taking enough time for myself. Thanks for reminding me (yet again) that there is just as much value in NOT GOING as there is in GOING.

  18. January 10, 2011 7:35 pm

    “Bums me out because it goes above and beyond the typical lose 10 pounds in 6 weeks! and get buns of steel to boot! stories they run every.freakin.month.”

    I haven’t read the article yet, but I’m so happy you made this comment! I am so SICK and TIRED of those stupid magazines and all those stupid titles that grace their cover. And they don’t care. Real women are so over “lose 10 pounds in a month” Real women know better, we eat healthy, and sometimes splurge, and we sweat and workout, and yes, sometimes we feel like crap because that stupid number on the scale isn’t as low as we think it should be. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such crap if those stupid magazines weren’t shouting in my face every time I go to the grocery store that I need to lose weight!

    Ok, now I’m going to print your article and read it. Thanks for posting!

    • Sue permalink
      January 11, 2011 6:47 am

      So true, so true! Amen to that! If we really could lose (and keep off) 10 pounds in 6 weeks and have a washboard stomach after having kids, then wouldn’t we all look amazing and not need these stupid articles anymore? Bring me a glass of wine and a really good piece of chocolate 🙂

  19. January 10, 2011 8:27 pm

    Excellent piece, who the heck wouldn’t print that? Right now, I’m alright, but definitely have the potential for over doing if I were to do a marathon this year. Looking back on how I recovered from my back injury: told to do 2 sets of something by my PT, I thought that 4 must be better. Do it once a day, well I’d do it twice. After being totally frustrated with my lack of progress, my PT told me that sometimes the hardest work is just to let your body rest. As soon as I did and just the did the modest exercises she gave me, I started getting better–my body was doing it’s thing. Recovering. All on it’s own.
    Hopefully I can remember that lesson if I’m tempted again. If not, I’ll just revisit this post! 🙂

  20. January 10, 2011 8:41 pm

    I def can be on the overtraining side. I get stressed if I miss a training run or am not running at my needed pace. I am working on not doing this this time around! I will learn from my past, no more overtraining!!

  21. January 11, 2011 6:52 am

    If more of those women’s magazine printed articles like this, I would subscribe to them all. It’s a real shame this one didn’t see the light of day. Thank you for sharing it with us. It’s really fantastic!!

  22. Kathy permalink
    January 11, 2011 7:57 am

    This is an excellent article! I love the total recovery quiz, it is a great tool for managing training for anything. I will incorporate it into my marathon training program this spring. Dimity you rock!

  23. January 11, 2011 12:30 pm

    Dimity& Sarah,
    I just have to tell you how much you’ve inspired me–in more ways than one! I’m a wanna-be runner, and an amateur writer.. so when I recently got your book, I quickly began eating it up. You covered all the bases, and then added laughs to the mix! This was also a GREAT article, and I don’t know why the unnamed women’s mag didn’t publish it. The quiz at the end was great, and reminds me of how many areas must be covered in order to completely take care of our always-on-the-go selves. Awesome!!

  24. Christina permalink
    January 11, 2011 12:47 pm

    Great article! I don’t get why it wouldn’t be published. Maybe because it has nothing to do with “How to please him 864 ways tonight!” LOL

  25. Cindy from the north permalink
    January 11, 2011 7:23 pm

    Thanks so much for posting this article! It helped me realize that the same things had happened to me before Christmas, but with overworking rather than overtraining. I was far too busy at work through the fall and really let my physical activity slide. Couldn’t understand why I was having crying stints right before the holidays. Thank god I had 10 days off that I spent sleeping and getting back to some fun physical activity. I will definitely hang on to this one to remind me to stay balanced all around.

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