Exercise is a stressor. It’s usually a good one, but a stressor nonetheless.
If you exercise intensely and/or often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other things in life like work, relationships, travel, late nights, etc. This isn’t a bad thing. Exercise can indeed help relieve stress. But in terms of a physical demand, we still need to help our bodies recover from all the stress we experience.
How well you’ll recover (and how much extra recovery you might need) depends on your allostatic load — i.e. how much total stress you’re under at any given moment. In other words, those days when you were late for work and your boss yelled at you and you spilled ketchup on your favorite shirt and you were up all night caring for a sick child — and then you went to the gym and tried to hit a PR? It’ll take longer for you to recover from that workout than it would have if you’d done it on a day you slept well, woke up to sunshine, and had a terrific breakfast.
With the right amount of exercise, at the right intensity, and the right time, we get healthier and stronger. With too much exercise, at too high of intensity, and too often, we break down.
Mission Control: Our bodies
Overtraining isn’t a failure of willpower. Our bodies have complex feedback loops and elegant shutdown systems that actively prevent us from over-reaching or pushing ourselves too hard.
Two systems are at play:
- Our central nervous system (CNS) acts like a car engine regulator. If the engine on a car revs too high for too long, it shuts down. Similarly, if we exercise too much, our brain tries to protect our muscles by reducing the rate of nerve impulses so we can’t (or don’t want to) move as much. And we certainly can’t work as hard.
- Local fatigue, the result of energy system depletion and/or metabolic byproduct accumulation, makes your muscles feel really tired, lethargic, and weak. Using our car analogy, this is sort of like running out of gas.
Training too frequently and intensely — again, without prioritizing recovery — means that stress never subsides.
We never get a chance to put gas in the tank or change the oil. We just drive and drive and drive, mashing the pedals harder and harder.
If we “lift the hood” we might see:
- Poor lubrication: Our connective tissues are creaky and frayed
- Radiator overheating: More inflammation
- Battery drained: Feel-good brain chemicals and anabolic (building-up) hormones have gone down
- Rust: Catabolic (breaking-down) hormones such as cortisol have gone up
As a result, you might experience:
- Blood sugar ups and downs
- Depression, anxiety, and/or racing thoughts
- Trouble sleeping or early wakeups
- Food cravings, maybe even trouble controlling your eating
- Lower metabolism due to decreased thyroid hormone output
You don’t get to decide if you need recovery or not. Your body will decide for you. If you don’t build recovery into your plan, your body will eventually force it. The more extreme your overtraining, the more you’ll “pay” via illness, injury, or exhaustion. The more severe the payback, the more “time off” you’ll need from exercise.
Exercise should make us feel, look, perform, and live better… not crush us. Movement should help us function freely… not incapacitate us. What if you could leave the gym feeling energized not exhausted? What if, instead of doing more, you could do better?
Recovery: Overtraining antidote
“Overtraining” isn’t exactly the problem. The problem is more like “under-recovering”. Your body can actually handle a tremendous amount of work… if you recover properly and fully from that work.
Your stress-recovery pattern should look like rolling hills: For every up (training or life stress) there’s a down (recovery). For every intense workout, there’s an equally intense focus on activities that help your body repair and rebuild. This doesn’t mean you need to retreat to your dark and quiet blanket fort and get massages every day… although that does sound awesome.
Here are a few steps you can take to start feeling better.
- Do a little self-assessment.
For some of us, skipping a workout is no biggie. For others, taking a day off requires effort because doing less makes them feel uneasy. If you’re beating yourself up and not getting anywhere, maybe it’s time to take a different approach.
- Trust your body — and listen to it.
Do a mind-body scan: Lie quietly for a few minutes and bring your focus slowly from your feet to your head. What do you feel? Practice becoming more aware of your body cues. What does your body feel like when it’s well-rested? How do you know when it needs a break? If you’re feeling aches, run-down and blah, anxious, or fatigued or annoyingly sleepless…it might be a sign you need some time off.
- Make time for recovery.
Recovery won’t happen by accident. Plan it, prepare for it and hunt it down. Whatever you do, remember that your recovery — what you do between workouts — is just as important as training.
- Go for a walk, preferably in a natural, outdoor setting – put away your phone and observe what’s around you
- Meditate – it’s easier than you might think
- Do yoga. (Remember: it doesn’t have to be ‘hot yoga’ or ‘power yoga’ to count)
- Go for a swim
- Get a massage
- Achieve the balance.
There’s time for tough workouts and time for taking it easy. There’s time for long runs, and there’s time for throwing a frisbee around. Find some new ways to get active. Incorporate some silly, goofy play time into your routine and see how it feels.
- Have fun.
Here are some ideas for good old-fashioned fun:
- Play a sport you love. Or discover a new one.
- Actively play with your kids. Run around with them on the playground – swing from the monkey bars, climb trees, chase a frisbee, etc.
- Dance. Have a night out with friends, or just goof off with the music cranked up in your living room.
- Pay your pet some extra attention. Give your dog an extra run for his money at the dog park.
- Go for a hike or take a walk in the city. Explore a new neighborhood.
Getting out of the gym and into your life is the best way to experience the benefits of exercise. As my dad would say “Play hard, have fun!”