A training plan is made up of a few simple things—a schedule to build strength, a warm-up routine, a little bit of stretching to work on your mobility and some time off for recovery. But we (me included) often take the last item out of the deal in our bid to push ourselves and get better at whatever we are aiming at. What you get then, is overtraining.
Overtraining can happen in two ways—when you push yourself too much in a single session or when you push your body over a period of days, without allowing for rest days to recover. This is a major problem with training schedules of all kinds. “Most beginners and sometimes even intermediate trainees think that the harder they train the better they will get, without understanding the stress-recover-adaptation cycle. You need to put adequate stress on your body and then give adequate rest as well so that you recover for your next training session,” says Rahul Kaul, founder of Boxfit, a multi-model fitness centre.
The constant pressure to perform and to look a certain way also has a role to play. Too many of us have been led to believe in simplistic sayings like “the harder you work, the better results you get” or “no pain, no gain”. “You have to do optimal work for optimal results. The moment you exceed that optimal effort, you are basically fatiguing your muscles. Your muscles will take time to recover. If you keep breaking down the muscles without giving them time to recover or rebuild, you will never get to a stage where you will feel optimally strong. So the risks here can actually be higher than the reward,” explains Gurugram-based fitness coach, Arjun Lal.
Symptoms of overtraining vary, but a few of the more general effects include chronic pain, lactic acid build up and a reaching a performance plateau.
When someone starts working out too much, without properly building up to it, or without being fit enough (being fit is subjective, of course), there is a build-up of lactic acid in the body. This happens when there is not enough oxygen to break down glucose for energy, and the body instead creates lactic acid. “If it builds up more than what the body is equipped to handle, then you can start getting cramps, which is one of the most common symptoms. Sometimes this cannot be pushed out of our bodies through our usual metabolism and has to be released medically,” explains Ashish Philip Zachariah, senior specialist—orthopaedics, Aster RV Hospital, Bengaluru.
While this is true for both weight training and cardio, lactic acid build-up happens more often in the latter. The reason for this is that during any cardio exercise we use a group of muscles simultaneously, which increases the demand for glucose (which we use for energy). “The most basic signs of overtraining remains unusual soreness that lasts more than a few days (1-2 days) and prohibits you from doing your usual day-to-day routine. This is not the usual soreness after a good workout, which lasts only a day or two. One can also see performance plateaus,” adds Lal. For example, if you are training your abs every day, you achieve a certain set of results but after that, you don’t get anything more out of it. This happens when you are not letting your muscles recover enough.
It might seem like overtraining and not resting is just about little aches and pains, but it can have serious side effects—including tendon tears and kidney damage. “When we work out and try to build bigger muscles, what we essentially do is damage the muscle fibres and then we heal it, repeatedly doing this until the muscles becomes bigger and bigger. This process is called hypertrophy,” explains Zachariah.
But if you have not gradually built up to the weight you are lifting or the movements you are doing, your muscles may seem to grow but their attachment to the bone doesn’t grow in tandem. If this attachment is not so great, the bone tendon can rupture while lifting heavy weights. Don’t lift weights that you aren’t ready enough to lift! Build up to it and only then will you see results.
Another risk is a build-up of myoglobin (a protein that stores oxygen in your muscles). Every aspect of our bodies needs balance. When you exert too much, there is a complete breakdown of this protein, which releases its content into the bloodstream and can clog the kidney, sometimes leading to renal failure. This is often seen in marathon runners who may have not prepared enough and therefore run the risk of collapsing during a race.
“This is not something that will happen to everyone who runs a marathon or lifts heavy weights. The problem arises when you are not systematically building up to it. Our body is resilient and it can acclimatize itself to various changes. But you cannot keep pushing yourself beyond a point where it starts to break down. You must understand the signs the body is giving and step back if you are pushing it too much,” says Zachariah.
Rest is vital. But before we think about rest we need to actively and accurately track the workouts we are doing and make sure we are following the program laid down for us by an experienced coach, believes Kaul. “Once we determine the adequate level of load, frequency and duration of workouts, then we need to make sure we are recovering adequately between our workouts. Recovering from your workouts include taking enough breaks between your sessions (24 to 72 hours), high quality sleep and a good diet, i.e. a proper intake of protein, calories, water and micronutrients.