Healthy Outlook: Overtraining, under-recovering and how to handle both

Lawrence expert weighs in on causes, healing, prevention

As you get more fit and healthy, you ought to see many pleasant side effects. In addition to the obvious and visible physical changes to the body, a decreasing resting heart rate is a good indicator that your overall health is improving.

Until it’s not anymore — and something isn’t quite right.

“How can my resting heart rate be spiking?” I asked myself, flustered. “I’ve been working out every day!”

Oh. Bingo. Sometimes, talking to yourself is the only way to really hear how dumb you sound.

I’ve touched briefly on how monitoring your resting heart rate can help you spot an anomaly and determine when something might be not-quite-right with your health. A few months ago, my Fitbit allowed me to track the numbers and make the connection to figure out I was pretty deep into overtraining, even before I actually felt like anything was wrong.

Chris Dellasega, owner of the Athletic Strength Institute at 720 E. Ninth St.

I talked with Chris Dellasega, owner of the Athletic Strength Institute at 720 E. Ninth St., who holds a master’s degree in exercise science from KU and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, among other credentials. He explained the basics of overtraining — or perhaps more aptly, under-recovering.

Here’s the deal: Our bodies are really smart, and they’re good at a lot of things. However, they’re not so good at differentiating between types of stress because they respond the same way to all of it.

Exercise, as beneficial as it may be, is a type of stress on the body. Dellasega said that combines with all of the mental, emotional and circumstantial stress in our lives to amount to the “allostatic load.”

Put simply, overtraining is “an imbalance between training and recovery time,” Dellasega said.

When that allostatic load gets too heavy, bad things can happen. Some fairly universal signs of overtraining, Dellasega said, are chronic fatigue, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite, susceptibility to colds and a drop in performance. Runners who are overtraining may see their times go up instead of down, for instance, and you won’t be as strong in the weight room.

When dealing with overtraining, it's important to restore basic balance in sleep, nutrition and hydration.

Before, I thought you had to be at a super-athletic level to worry about overtraining. I didn’t think I’d been pushing myself too much until I realized that along with my rising resting heart rate, I was experiencing severe mood swings and anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping well, or nearly enough.

“You could have two athletes that are more or less identical, but if one tends to be a little bit more susceptible to stress and anxiety, overtraining for them can happen much, much sooner,” Dellasega said.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to always give your body plenty of time to recover, and provide it the tools it needs to do so.

Dellasega said sleep is No. 1, and oftentimes the other issues will start to settle themselves. Catching up on good, quality sleep is the first key.

It’s also important, he said, to evaluate your nutritional status. If you’re struggling with decreased appetite as an overtraining symptom, it can be difficult to get all the necessary fuel the body needs to recover, but it’s crucial. Hydration is also essential.

Going forward, depending on the extent to which you’re overtrained, it may be best to take a week or two completely off from working out. If you can nip it in the bud early, though, Dellasega recommends cutting down on the volume but not the intensity of your workouts.

For instance, those who lift weights can keep up the intensity of their max reps but complete fewer sets; runners who are used to running 5 miles five days a week might consider cutting back to two or three 5-mile runs per week.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t collapse overnight,” Dellasega said. “What I mean by that is if you’re used to running five days per week, if you cut it back to two or three days for (two to four) weeks, you’re not going to lose that much (progress).”

He said as a matter of fact, if you do cut back after taking a week or two completely off, “you’re probably going to come back feeling a lot better, a lot stronger, and you’ll be a lot faster.”

It can also be beneficial to mix up your routine, Dellasega said. It’s easy to get burned out, physically and mentally, if you’re doing the same thing day after day, or even working with the same trainer or coach all the time.

He also recommends taking active recovery days. As one example, he said perhaps a coach of a football team could have players participate in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament — it’s still plenty of activity, but it’s completely different from what they’d normally do to prep for their sport. He’s also seen coaches have their teams participate in table tennis tournaments.

On an individual level, Dellasega humored me by agreeing that my suggestions of going to play on a playground or going dancing would be good ideas for active recovery days.

The bottom line is that your body needs time to recover from exercise. Taking time to rest and recover is essential to your health and well-being; don’t counter your hard work by pushing too much.