Overtraining and the Importance of Rest Days
By Daisy Peters
It’s well known that a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular physical activity, has many benefits, including prevention of chronic conditions, improved mental health and a decrease in mortality. Sounds great… but can there be too much of a good thing? In short, yes.
Given the current situation, it’s easy to lose track of our routines and this can include our exercise and training. There is an unlimited amount of fitness content and advice available online, and alongside our allocated outdoor exercise it can be easy to get carried away. Maybe you’ve started running as well as your usual HIIT and strength training sessions, or added yoga, cycling, Pilates, handstands and home PE sessions with Joe Wicks to your daily to-do list. Now this is great, and keeping fit, strong and well is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing but it’s important to get the balance right and know when it’s ok to take it easy.
Excessive volume or intensity of training can lead to overtraining or burnout. This can show itself in various ways:
- Increased fatigue – mental and physical
- Mood disturbances
- Interrupted sleep or insomnia
- Getting ill more often
- Increase in injuries
- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) for 72 hours+
- Decreased performance
- Increase in perceived effort during workouts/training
People often think that overtraining and burnout can only affect elite athletes and professionals, but this is not the case. It has individual variability, meaning that it can affect anyone at anytime depending on certain aspects, such as:
- Personal tolerance to fatigue
- Whether your body is used to the stress you’re exposing it too
- Ability to deal with physical and emotional stressors
So when analysing whether or not you’ve been overtraining it’s worth taking a holistic approach, consider your whole day, not just the training sessions.
- Have you had a particularly stressful week with the family at home?
- Has work (or lack of) been causing you stress?
- How much sleep have you had recently?
- How has your nutrition and hydration been?
Overtraining can lead to an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone), which in turn can lead to a constant break down of the immune system and a greater risk of injury.
Let’s think about how a training session works, when you expose your body to regular levels of activity it remains in a state of equilibrium it doesn’t get stronger or weaker as long as this state is maintained. However, when we introduce something new or different to our routine, such as a hard run or strength session the body undergoes catabolic stress/ stimuli (breaking down of the cell tissue). So by the end of the session you are actually weaker than at the beginning, but fear not… this is all part of the process. When we stop, and the recovery process begins the body begins to adapt and prepare for the time the stimuli will appear, and the repair, regeneration and growth of the broken down cell tissue will happen, known as supercompensation. During hard exercise, we also start to deplete our energy stores (glycogen) and unless we can give them the chance to replenish, performance will be compromised. If hard training happens too often, there is no time for the supercompensation to happen and symptoms of overtraining will start to appear.
So how can we ensure that we recover properly?
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to recovery, active rest days and complete rest days. Rest is critical to performance and well-being, physically but also psychologically.
Active rest days:
This is where you can do familiar forms of exercise at a low intensity, for example walking, cycling, cross-training, a gentle jog, or some yoga and mobilisation work.
Complete rest days:
Take it easy, put your feet up and read a good book or watch something! If you’re really struggling with these days, think about doing some gentle stretching or meditation. Healthy mind, healthy body.
The most important thing to remember is that training progress CAN occur during rest and recovery, in fact it’s when the most progress happens.
Finally, don’t forget to feed and hydrate yourself before, during and after training sessions and recovery days. It is SO important, and that includes ALL food groups.
I know, from experience that the symptoms of overtraining can make you feel very frustrated and downbeat about your training but if you can flip the switch and tell yourself that recovery is a key part of your training, you will reap the benefits.
Stay safe, stay healthy and rest up!
Dalleck, L., 2020. The Science of Post-Exercise Recovery. The Ace Scientific Advisory Panel, pp.1-14.
Eccles, D., Balk, Y., Gretton, T. and Harris, N., 2020. “The forgotten session”: Advancing research and practice concerning the psychology of rest in athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, pp.1-22.
Kreher, J., 2016. Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education strategies. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 7, pp.115-122.
Low, W., 2020. Active Recovery: The Importance Of Rest Days – Athlete Lab. [online] Athlete Lab. Available at: <https://athlete-lab.co.uk/blog/2014/11/11/active-recovery-importance-rest-days/>