I started writing this article 2 weeks ago, and it is now two days before my Spartan Beast race.  See my initial Spartan training plan but that quickly morphed into additional endurance sessions – but still no days off.  Hence, this article.

I’ve always been skeptical about the concept of overtraining.

I get questions all the time, usually from newer lifters, who are worried about “overtraining”.  In almost every case, they are nowhere near the “overtraining” point.

Sure, I know people can push too hard too fast (like I did last year; see http://leanlifters.com/can-you-spot-the-mistake/ and also note the update at the end of the article).  That’s called “overreaching”.  You’ll see this in newbies who do body-part splits with insane volume for the first week but then are too sore the following week.  Some even then give up and go back to sitting on the couch.  But that’s not overtraining.

The term “overtraining” is usually applied differently.  Overtraining is characterized by (in no particular order)

  1. Long Term – Overtraining isn’t about what you do in a certain workout, no matter how off-the-hook intense or stupid.  Overtraining is about what is happening over many weeks.
  2. Not Beginner Affect – In my experience, it’s very, very hard for a beginner to overtrain. Beginners often overdo things, like lifting too much too soon.  Or using crappy form. Or the classic of starting out all intensely, then missing workouts because they are “too sore”.  That’s not overtraining.  Overtraining is much more likely in intermediate or advanced lifters.
  3. Systemic Regression in Your Lifts – I’m not talking about one week not being able to lift as much as the previous week.  That’s normal and happens from time to time (especially if you start a new routine using higher weight than you should). I’m talking about over the period of several weeks, all – or almost all – of your lifts are getting weaker.
  4. Constant Joint Pain – You are always in pain, including joint pain and pain in places you’ve never really had pain before.
  5. Persistent Muscle Soreness – Similar to previous, but this is in your muscles.
  6. Strong Desire To Skip Workouts – I always look forward to lifting.  Always.  But not always psyched for my runs.  However, in an overtrained state, you really loathe the idea of exercising.  And even dire-hard lovers of lifting/running start to hesitate.
  7. Decreased Motivation – Even outside the gym, you are unmotivated.  Could lead to depression, irritability.
  8. Susceptibility to Injury – The combination of chronic pain leads to compensation.  Also, your mental focus is off, so you might not tighten your core during your squats.  Etc.  Injury is just around the corner.
  9. Inability to Complete Workouts – If you are finding that you can only get half way through workouts that you have previously been doing in full, then that’s a warning sign.
  10. Other Biological Changes – for example, resting heart rate increasing, disordered sleep, lack of appetitie, elevated cortisol (for a full list see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overtraining)

Not just lifters – happens to runners too.  Any regular activity where you are pushing yourself daily (or almost daily).  And this isn’t just about “recovery time” though that plays a part.

So what causes overtraining and how do you prevent it?

Here’s My Experience

So I’m writing this article, because I can confidently say that I’ve reached that point myself.  Here’s what the past ~6 weeks were like….

  • I’ve been training for the Spartan Beast.
  • Because the past couple of years I’ve emphasized lifting much more than running, I needed to expand my endurance.
  • But I kept my lifting high – 4 days a week, moderate to heavy loads (usually 6-8 rep days, though some days moving to 4-6 reps).  Kind of a blend of my 6x6x6 Routine and my Hypertrofreak routine, but this is something new I hope to write about at some point.
  • TRI once or twice a week (think of this as Rugby).

After about 3 weeks, I started experiencing many of the items on the “warning” list.  But I kept going.  After all, this Spartan Beast is no picnic.  After another 2 weeks, I was exhibiting almost all the items on the list.

What To Do?

The solution is pretty simple.  Take a full week off.  And then avoid the things that got you into this situation to begin with.

Some of you (probably those who are NOT overtrained) are saying “duh, of course you should back off”.  But part of the tendency to overtrain is a personality thing.  Overtraining might occur when preparing for a particular event or it might just be because you are borderline addicted to the activity (e.g. lifting).

Let’s make this personal – I simply took 3 days off.  No lifting, no running.  Almost like a light switch, on day 3 I was suddenly not sore, I couldn’t wait to lift, etc.  I started back with a much lighter volume, even though I still had this event comping up.  Now, about 10 days later, I’m feeling really good and can’t wait for the Spartan to be over so I can get back into my regular training!

Are you overtraining?

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