The Dangers of Overtraining
Whether you hit the gym, play sports, dance or run, exercise a good thing. But is it possible to do too much? Absolutely. I'm not talking about a spontaneous 10K charity run or being sore after an extra long bike ride. Rather, I'm focusing on continuously exercising too much over a long time period. While there's no consensus on the exact definition of overtraining, it generally refers to increased exercise with inadequate rest. It can be with or without psychological symptoms.
I shared last week How I Lost 30kg, essentially by moving more, drinking less alcohol and making healthier food choices. But after five years of progress, my weight loss had stalled at 66kg (145 lbs). I was determined to get below 65kg. I drew a table with the next six months on it and wrote my fortnightly weight loss targets next to each one so I could track my progress. I wanted to be 60kg by Christmas. Where did I get the numbers and timeline from? Just my head. But I was completely committed.
Going to the gym had helped me lose weight up to this point, so I increased how much I was exercising. My weekly routine became:
- Monday: Body Attack & BodyPump (60 mins cardio, 60 mins weights)
- Tuesday: BodyCombat & BodyBalance (60 mins boxing, 60 mins stretching)
- Wednesday: Run (up to 10km)
- Thursday: Yoga (60 minutes - my "rest" day)
- Friday: BodyAttack (60 mins cardio)
- Saturday: BodyPump & BodyBalance (60 mins weights, 60 mins stretching)
- Sunday: BodyCombat (60 mins boxing) or run (up to 10km)
I realise there are plenty of fitness enthusiasts who workout 10 hours or more each week. The difference was my attitude towards exercise. If I had an unavoidable commitment one night such as a birthday or a late meeting, I believed I "owed" myself a workout and had to make it up the next day. I had strict weekly quotas for each class (BodyAttack x2, Body Pump x2 and so on) and if I couldn't reach my target because of events or bad weather, I felt like the week had been a failure. The irony is I wasn't satisfied even when I did meet my goals - I told myself I could do more exercise, run further or lift heavier weights and so I adjusted my targets accordingly. I was never happy.
I knew it was important to rest, so I did yoga once a week. Honestly, I didn't enjoy it much. I wanted to work my abs, sweat and feel like I'd had a workout. So I pushed myself, challenging my legs during warrior poses and focusing on upper body strength during sun salutations. While I did BodyBalance as well as yoga, I didn't do any stretching specifically for running. This would haunt me later.
Notably, the biggest problem with my exercise regime was I didn't have a true rest day. I was occasionally hungover on a Sunday so I'd skip that class or drag myself to a later session. It was years before I learnt exercise causes micro-tears in your muscles, and they can't repair and grow unless you rest.
What I recall most about this time was how hungry I was. I didn't count calories but I did restrict my intake of carbohydrates like bread, rice and potatoes. I had oats for breakfast as my naturopath had recommended, a vegetable soup or salad for lunch and dinner was usually a stir-fry or curry (without rice). I snacked on fruit or plain crackers and I only ate bread on weekends, but eventually I cut that out too. Going low-carb wasn't based on any science, but a false instinct gained from magazines, the media, and chatting with colleagues.
The truth was I didn't know much about nutrition. I assumed I got enough protein from soy milk, tofu, beans and nuts. In hindsight, I was probably getting less than 50 grams a day - far below the recommended protein intake for moderate intensity exercise. I ate lots of big salads that were full of vegetables, vitamins and nutrients, but they didn't give me enough energy (calories) to fuel my workouts.
limiting Social Activities
Working full-time and spending an hour or two at gym every day didn't leave much time for socialising. I started to get angry when I received a last minute dinner or weekend brunch invitation, especially if it conflicted with a gym class. I'd often say no, turn up late, or reluctantly attend if it was a special occasion like a birthday. But I'd make up for my skipped workout by exercising twice as much the next day.
I was in a relationship at this time too, and my boyfriend and I would often meet friends for drinks on a Sunday afternoon. I loved seeing everyone and chatting over a wine or beer, but over time these catch ups became a dilemma. I knew the alcohol was undoing my gym work (even just a glass or two) but I didn't want to seem anti-social by ordering water or soft drinks. I also didn't want to be the person in the group who skipped dinner, despite wanting a healthy meal at home over a pub meal. My weight loss goals had begun to seriously impact how much I enjoyed seeing friends.
Skipping Rest Day
After a few months of increased exercise and restricting certain foods, I finally got my weight below 65kg. I was ecstatic. The weight loss assured me my methods were working, and that I'd lose even more weight if I intensified my workouts. I wanted to reach 60kg, telling myself that'd be "the perfect weight" and it'd be the "final goal" in my weight loss journey. I stopped doing yoga on Thursdays and replaced it with cardio. I further restricted what I ate, scrutinising everything that went into my body.
Because I could weigh myself, count gym classes and tally up consecutive days of exercise, I kept trying to beat my previous records. I would see how many days in a row I could workout, each week trying to go longer without a rest day than the week before. My record was 13 days. Often, it was a party or special occasion that prompted a rest day, because I was hungover. Although I was drinking far less than I used to, alcohol seemed to be the exception in my strict food regime.
My body once hurt so much after eight days of straight workouts that I heeded the 'listen to your body' message. I slept in until 9am on a Sunday and it was glorious. But then I felt guilty. I could've gone to the gym. I didn't really need the rest. I was going to gain weight. My sister called and invited me to brunch, but I told her "I hadn't earnt it". I sat in bed and cried until lunchtime.
Restless Legs Syndrome
It's one thing to have DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but another to wince each time you sit down, raise your arm or simply walk. I was exercising so much, my body constantly ached. Sometimes it was my quads or glutes, other times it was my shoulders. My hips were extremely tight from running.
I also craved the ache in my muscles and took it as a positive sign I was pushing myself. But I became worried when I started waking up during the night with my legs shaking. It happened a few times and I knew, deep down, that something was wrong. I didn't see a doctor as it wasn't painful, but my symptoms most closely matched "restless legs syndrome." My quality of sleep was significantly affected because of it.
With inadequate nutrition and rest, it's little surprise I got sick. I had a cold for a month, I started having naps on the weekend, and I developed a painful stomach virus where even tomatoes made my tummy turn to knots. I had to take time off work and I was in immense pain anytime I ate anything other than toast or tea. I lay on the couch in tears one afternoon with my stomach twisting and wringing.
I didn't see a doctor as by chance, I had an annual check up booked with my naturopath. He identified I had an iron deficiency. As a female in my late 20s, who was vegetarian and exercising vigorously, I was in three high-risk groups. An iron deficiency explained why I'd been so sick and so tired. I began taking iron supplements which also had Vitamin B12 (a vitamin your body can't make, so it needs to be obtained through animal sources, like meat or eggs, or fortified foods). Deficiency in Vitamin B12 can also lead to mood swings, which I thought explained my frequent crying. Soon after taking supplements, I stopped napping and my cold and stomach illness passed. It was a temporary improvement.
I'd had some minor injuries from exercising like a rolled ankle, but I'd managed to escape anything serious. However, running had started to get tough. The outside of my right leg (iliotibial or "IT band") would get really tight, and I'd have to stop and stretch before continuing. The problem didn't go away and within a few weeks, my right knee started to hurt as well. I refused to get medical help, despite suggestions from friends and family. I was too afraid a doctor would tell me to stop exercising.
I had to modify how I ran to manage the pain and tightness, and eventually I reduced my distance. Soon, BodyAttack became too painful and I stopped doing BodyCombat as well. I replaced the classes with lower impact indoor cycling classes. My running distance dropped from 10K to 7K, then 5K. But the reduction in exercise over a few wasn't enough to let my injury heal. I reluctantly reduced the intensity of all my workouts, but kept doing as many classes as I could.
It was 2012 and I weighed 63kg. I should've been overjoyed as I was just 3kg (6.5 lbs) from my target weight. But my right leg felt like there was a crank between my knee and hip, growing ever tighter. I was going to the gym everyday but doing the lowest impact option possible. On one Saturday morning during BodyBalance, pain surged through my right knee and my eyes watered. I knew I was in trouble.
I was about to leave for a trip to New York, so I decided to get help when I returned. I spent three glorious weeks with friends in my favourite place on earth, relaxing, shopping, eating, and doing light weights and yoga. It was wonderful! On one of my last days in NYC, I attempted a run believing I'd given my body "a break." I was staying in Gramercy, and I jogged through Stuyvesant Town and along FDR Drive. But I couldn't even hit 3K before pain struck through my knee one more. I limped back. I was defeated.
I returned to Australia and finally made an appointment with a physiotherapist. I was so upset, and petrified an enforced rest period would result in weight gain. But part of me was also relieved that I didn't have to keep pushing myself anymore. The funny thing is, the pressure was only coming from myself.
In coming weeks, I'll share how I overcame my injury and found balance between working out and living. Sign up to my weekly newsletter to get notified when it's posted.
QUESTION: When have you had too much of a good thing?