New Research Says That Overtraining Can Take A Toll On Your Brain

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Ray searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them).

Image by Jovo Jovanovic / Stocksy

If you've ever trained for something—specifically a physical feat—you've likely encountered one of the following scenarios (or perhaps all of them): 

A) You're very eager at the beginning and start training like a maniac.

B) You think you have plenty of time to train, so you don't, and then suddenly you're rushing to prepare.

C) Either A or B happens, and you're unable to perform due to injury or burnout.

Needless to say, training (and physical exertion in general), is not something to take lightly. Our bodies are extraordinary machines that we can push within an inch of their limits, and yet, somehow they recover without residual damage. Unless, of course, we push beyond the limits—otherwise known as overtraining. And according to new research, overtraining can be as psychologically taxing as it is physically. 

In a study published in Current Biology, researchers found that triathletes' decision-making was compromised after several weeks of overtraining—they were more likely to opt for immediate gratification than long-term gains. Brain scans echoed this observation, showing decreased neural activity in the part of the brain responsible for decision-making. In other words, overexerting themselves on a physical level negatively affected their cognitive function

The participants (male triathletes) were split into two groups and given one of two instructions. The first group was to continue exercising as usual, and the second was instructed to increase their weekly training load by 40%. Then, three weeks later, the athletes were asked questions that tested their choice impulsivity—in other words, would they make a sound choice or a rash one? (Think of it like the marshmallow test.) The athletes who overtrained experienced mental burnout, or, in scientific terms, had "a decreased excitability of the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) specifically during choice tasks and, at the behavioral level, an increased preference for immediate rewards in choice tasks."

While this isn't a PSA to stop exercising and moving your body—on the contrary, most of us need more of that—this is a red flag (or at least, an opportunity) to stop and take a look at your training regimen. Are you tired all the time? Do you feel slower on the uptake than usual? Are you taking rest days and sleeping enough? Training for a race, triathlon, and other endurance events is exciting (you're challenging your body in new ways!), but no desired outcome, whether it's a time or a completion, is worth sacrificing your brainpower. We can't emphasize brain health enough, y'all.

This wasn't the first study to find that physical fatigue lends itself to mental fatigue, and it won't be the last. Also, this study was conducted on a small scale—only 37 male triathletes were involved—so it's wise to take the findings at face value. That said, when you put two and two together, it's not all that surprising, right? People who are exhausted tend to make poorer decisions and experience lower cognitive function. We've probably all felt that before. I guess the major take-aways are to get adequate rest and train consistently, not unreasonably.

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