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How to Prevent Overtraining

How to let members know when too much exercise is harmful.

While the majority of exercisers are healthy individuals with a positive view of themselves, a few use fitness as a means of perpetuating compulsive, obsessive exercise patterns. In fact, according to the American Council on Exercise, about 1%–3% of the population experience some degree of exercise addiction (Matthews 2009). Overtraining—or overexercising—is fairly common.

Overtraining is defined as training or exercising more than the body can recover from, to the point where performance declines (Stevenson 2009). It’s a common problem for people who weight train, but runners and other athletes can also experience it. Many highly motivated exercisers are obsessed with training and are afraid to rest. They believe that the harder they exercise, the bigger, stronger and fitter they will become.

As a training principle, rest and recovery are widely undervalued and underused (Stevenson 2009). Yet if a training program does not include sufficient rest, then recovery cannot occur and the exerciser’s performance will plateau. If this imbalance between excess exercise and inadequate rest persists, performance will decline. And too much overload and/or too little recovery may result in overtraining syndrome, which has both physical and psychological symptoms (Quinn 2011).

Exercisers who overtrain or overexercise will participate in physical activity even under unsafe conditions (e.g., when they are injured), and they will follow extremely regimented routines that typically don’t include recovery time. To help prevent this, it’s essential to teach your facility’s members that proper conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery (workout time and rest time). A well-designed exercise program involves a constant and progressive increase in training, with intervals of recovery time. As exercisers increase their workloads, their bodies respond by adapting to the increased stress. If they then allow time for recovery before exercising again, their cardiovascular fitness, strength and skill level increase as well.

Symptoms of Overtraining and Overexercising

Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of an overtrained client and the ways you can help change this behavior. The first step is to recognize the symptoms and signs of overtraining.

Physical Symptoms

  • muscle or joint tenderness or tightness
  • decreased performance
  • increased rate of overuse injuries
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • increased susceptibility to colds, sore throats and other illnesses
  • excessive weight loss
  • decreased appetite
  • elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • changes in menstrual pattern in women
  • decreased muscle glycogen levels

In addition to causing physical symptoms, overtraining can affect mood and stress levels. Too much exercise can reduce exercisers’ enthusiasm and desire for training, leaving them irritable and depressed, especially as the quality of their workouts declines (Matthews 2009). Thus, it is important to recognize the psychological and emotional signs of overtraining.

Psychological Symptoms

  • depression
  • apathy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • emotional sensitivity
  • reduced self-esteem

Helping Overtrained Members

The next step is to offer help to clients who may be overtraining. First, express your concern in a supportive manner. Keep your focus on health, not on weight or appearance. Offer private consultations with a qualified counselor or other allied health professional who can advise clients on incorporating the following adjustments into their regimen:

  • Allow for sufficient recovery time after intense workouts.
  • Reduce the volume and/or intensity of training, including frequency and duration of workouts.
  • Introduce cross-training programs to keep workouts varied and interesting.
  • Get enough sleep: 7–8 hours per night.
  • Ensure adequate intake of carbohydrates and protein.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water and carbohydrate replacement drinks.
  • Use a heart rate monitor.

Also, suggest that exercisers use a training log to monitor their progress. In addition to tracking distance and intensity, they can record resting morning heart rate, weight, general health, and levels of muscular soreness and fatigue. The last two (soreness and fatigue) can be scored on a 10-point scale. Significant changes in any of these parameters may signal overtraining.

The Goal: Healthy Exercisers

The key to avoiding overtraining is prevention. You are responsible for the health and safety of your facility’s members and for educating them about the dangers of overtraining. It’s difficult to identify overtrained exercisers, because there is no simple test or clinical diagnosis for the condition. So the best thing you can do is to teach all your members to recognize for themselves the general symptoms of overtraining and the importance of rest and recovery time.

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