Fitness after 50: Overtraining Syndrome – How much is too much?
By Vicki Morgan, CPT
It’s 6 a.m. in the health-happy Favre household. Mr. Favre and the dog have already been around the neighborhood for their usual 3-mile morning run.
After everyone leaves, Mrs. Favre is ready for her jog. She grabs the leash, grabs the dog and takes off. In the middle of the day, she goes on another 2-mile walk/jog, dog in tow. When her 9-year-old football star son gets home, he grabs the leash and goes on his 5-mile afterschool run with their faithful furry friend. Mr. and Mrs. Favre enjoy their nightly walks … another two miles … just the two of them, with the family pet.
This was their routine for nearly two years. As busy as they were, they still had time for fitness. But, as busy as they were, they didn’t notice how skinny their dog had become. One afternoon, the son grabbed the leash and called the dog. The dog did not come. He called and called. The whole family was looking for the dog, who they found cowering underneath the couch. The dog, it seemed, had had enough. For the next two weeks, the dog ran and hid every time he heard the jingle of the leash. He had discovered new and inventive places to hide. Upon examination, the vet said he was entirely pooped out and a little hungry!
We don’t like to think that we’re abusing our bodies when we train. We like to think that we’re “pushing ourselves” or “challenging ourselves.” The old adage, “No pain, no gain” still rules our hearts and minds. We think we’ve mastered our bodies; we’ve assumed control. We are certain that if we stop training, we will lose everything we’ve worked so hard for and just shrivel up and die.
Believe me when I say, I have dear, dear friends who believe this. They cannot imagine taking one day off from “pushing themselves to the limit”. Even when they’re sick, they get up at 4:30 and go to extremes to stay fit. Some of them take it too far. Those that overtrain are prone to injury, infection, pain and burnout. And in my humble opinion, they aren’t running gleefully towards fitness; they are running away from death and disease.
Which one are you? One who trains joyfully towards fitness? Or one who trains because you’re in fear for your life? For most people, it’s a healthy balance of both.
Not everyone who pushes themselves overtrains. In fact, overtraining is a rare condition. Overtraining does not mean training too much. The sports science definition is “A physiological state caused by an excess accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stress that leads to a sustained decrease in physical and mental performance, and that requires a relatively long recovery period.”
Overtraining is much different than overtaxing. How can you tell if you’re overtraining? It’s a fine line. If you do a workout that is too rigorous, you’ll stress the nervous system. In addition to the normal muscle soreness and fatigue, you may feel something similar to a hangover. You may lose focus and energy. A headache might trouble you for days.
Those symptoms may indicate a simple case of overdoing it. When you overdo it, chances are you’ve overloaded the hormonal system.
It’s likely you’ve elevated your cortisol, which causes inflammation and depletes testosterone. Both men and women need normal levels of testosterone. Working out too hard has its risks. But overtraining is a different animal. If you’re the most rigorous athlete in the room, constantly sore and drained yet not seeing any noticeable results, you could be overtraining. Overtraining will kill your progress and replace it with muscle loss and apathy. It’s more of a mental state similar to burnout, depression, or illness.
STRESS AND OVERTRAINING
Overtraining Syndrome begins with the release of stress hormones (glucocorticoids like cortisol, for example) and an overexertion, or fatigue of the adrenal glands. If you already suffer from job stress, relationship difficulties, grief or chemical toxicity, you are at high risk for overtraining. With that said, a few no-gains workouts does not mean you’re overtraining. It means you’ve either got a hidden injury or you need to back off for a week. If you actually develop honest-to-goodness Overtraining Syndrome, it will take you months to recover … not days or weeks.
STIMULUS AND OVERTRAINING
Most fitness junkies are actually addicted to the stimulus, using your muscles not so much for gains but for the emotions and sensations you experience during the workout. Stimulus addicts rarely lose motivation to train. Your enthusiasm will keep you reading up on the latest training techniques and being proud of what you’ve mastered. But take heed. If you pride yourself on working harder than everybody else you know, you may end up with a feeling of stagnation or failure when the physical results don’t come.
In fact, people around you who don’t hit it as hard as you may even seem to get better results! Why? Because you’re forcing your body into cortisol overproduction, rendering your workouts at least 50 percent useless. Not that cortisol in and of itself is a bad thing, but too much of it reduces the amount of pregnenolone that you have available to produce testosterone. Hence, you may notice increasing flab and decreasing muscles despite your pounding away … and you may generally feel like crapola.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
Overtraining manifests itself as the blues. No energy. No motivation. No joy. You get an anxious feeling when it’s time to go to the gym. You can barely drive yourself there. You have to drag yourself onto the treadmill even though you’re dreading it. You can’t even imagine picking up a 5lb dumbbell. The thought of it just about makes you get sick. And despite being the hardest worker you know, you keep hurting yourself. The gains are not happening. In fact, you’re getting weaker. The doctor can’t find anything wrong with you. Even though the condition is rare, you probably have Overtraining Syndrome. The Favre’s dog is a perfect example.
NOT HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
Most of you probably don’t have it. So for the rest of you whiners who are simply pushing yourselves too hard lately, take a few days off. It won’t kill you to rest. Don’t be a showoff. Humble yourself into submission and give your hormones a break. Then get back in the saddle whether you feel like it or not, and hit it hard!
Vicki Morgan A.C.E. is a Senior Strength & Fitness Trainer at Flex Gym and Fitness. You can reach her at seniorstrength.pro. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. If you experience pain or difficulty, stop and consult your healthcare provider. This article is not meant to take the place of any treatment or activity your physician has deemed necessary.