We’ve all experienced the Zone, that magic moment in a workout when our mind and body work harmoniously. We're supercharged, and feel like we can keep our training effort going on forever. But there is a sinister alter-ego to this blissful state, which can prematurely end our training and break our spirits. It’s called burnout.
When we think of burnout, we tend to think about work or relationships, but it also applies to exercise, and is often associated with overtraining. Sadly, it can become so demoralizing that it takes us away from our training and puts us right back on the couch with a bag of potato chips.
Fortunately, you can identify overtraining syndrome with a variety of symptoms:
1. Your pace begins to slow at the same effort.
You may regularly post a 9-minute mile, but for some reason you're huffing and puffing at your regular pace. It could be a significant change in the weather, but it could also be due to overtraining. Scale back your effort or take a few rest days to see if your pace improves.
2. You're feeling fatigued during the day.
Exercise should leave you feeling energized, not exhausted. If you're feeling like you just don’t have the energy, you may be overdoing it.
3. You're unable to sleep at night.
Many people who are overtrained have felt the frustration of feeling so tired that they can barely stand, only to hit the pillow and stare at the ceiling fan all night. If you're tired yet unable to sleep, you may need a few rest days from exercise.
4. “Nagging” minor injuries begin to creep up.
This could be minor foot pain after a run, knee pain after a bike ride, or any variety of clicks, pops, or limps. It is important that you listen to your body and slow it down when these hints of pain arise, otherwise they may become more severe over time.
5. You crave sugar (more than usual).
As you begin to feel the affects of overtraining, you begin to require more “fast” energy to meet the demands of the body under stress. Therefore sugar cravings become quite common. However, giving in to that demand can negatively affect your workouts for the long term and create unhealthy eating habits.
6. You become more irritable.
Do you find yourself yelling at your toaster for burning your breakfast? Excessively bad moods and anxiety can be caused by overtraining. Remember: your workouts should be making you happier, not angrier.
If you suffer from some of these symptoms, take a few days off from your workouts.
I'm not saying you need to give up on your training completely, or forfeit your fitness goals altogether. On the contrary, this could be a signal that you need to take care of yourself, which is the whole purpose of becoming fit. If your workouts are causing injury, frustration, and fatigue, they aren’t doing you any good.
As a general rule, consider limiting any increase in your workout (intensity, time, or distance) to no more than 10% per week. Additionally, it's a good idea to scale back about 15% on training every few weeks to recover from the stress your body is under.
I also recommend supplementing your regular training routine with light yoga, meditation, and massage. These additional steps will help your body and mind recover from (and prepare for) intense workouts, and make the overall training experience more enjoyable.