Too much, too soon

By: Alison Dunn Dec 17, 2010

Working out is a good thing, but remember that slow and steady wins the race

Both newbie exercisers and workout vets can fall prey to the temptation to go overboard with exercise. Whether the goal is to lose weight or achieve a particular fitness goal (like a goal time in a race), the temptation is great to work out as much as you can, as often as you can. After all, more is better, right?

Wrong, says Connie Beaulieu, owner of C.U. Fit Personal Training Studio in Ottawa. In fact, by overtraining your body, you could be putting yourself at serious risk for injury and illness.

“A lot of people set their mind to fitness and just do too much, too soon. And there’s really no advantage to it,” she says. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Are you overtraining?

There’s a fine line between training hard and overtraining. When you’re training for something specific (like a marathon or triathlon), you often have to put in quite a few workouts in a week. Same goes for those trying to lose weight – if you want the pounds to come off you’ve got to put in the work. But when does it become too much? Beaulieu says there are a few signs to watch out for:

  • Increased illness: Your body needs time to rest and recover to ensure you’re regenerating all the cells in your body. If you are overtraining, your body gets overworked and shuts down, leaving you susceptible to colds, flus and other illnesses.
  • Extreme fatigue: Yes, regular exercise can help you sleep better at night, but too much training can lead to excessive and overwhelming fatigue. If you’re falling asleep at your desk in the middle of the day, you might want to take a look at your training schedule to see if overtraining is the culprit.
  • Decrease in energy and strength: Exercise is supposed to make you feel energized and stronger. If you find you can’t lift the weights you used to or you run out of energy during the day, you may be training too hard.

Train smarter, not harder

It’s hard to straddle that line between hard workouts and overtraining, and of course, it can be different for each person. A marathon runner might be able to put in more days of exercise than a complete newbie, but both can be at risk of overtraining.

Want to get the most out of your workout without overdoing it? Here are some of Beaulieu’s dos and don’ts for training.

Do take 48 hours between weight training sessions to recover. Beaulieu recommends you take that time between working the same muscle groups because it’s actually during the recovery phase where your muscles start to build. She recommends weight training or resistance training no more than three times a week.

Don’t do the same thing over and over again. The body gets used to doing the same thing, and can even plateau after six to eight weeks of doing the same thing. Change up your routine from time to time and be sure to alternate workouts within a week. If you run, for example, keep changing your route to challenge the body. If you do circuit training, don’t do it on Monday and Tuesday – do it on Monday and hit the elliptical on Tuesday to change it up.

Don’t spend more than 90 minutes at the gym. For the average person, 90 minutes in the gym doing both cardio and weight training is plenty long enough. You don’t even need to go that long – Beaulieu says for most people, 60 minutes is more than sufficient. If you think you’re spending too long in the gym, hire a personal trainer to see if he or she can help you maximize your workout time.

Do get enough rest. Getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night is important to help regenerate and rebuild your cells. If you’re not getting enough, you won’t get the full benefit of your workout and risk overtraining. “A lot of people will wake up at 5 a.m. for a run when they’ve gone to bed at midnight,” Beaulieu says. “They’re better off just sleeping in.”

Do eat a balanced diet. If you’re burning a ton of calories at the gym, you need to be sure your caloric intake is enough to compensate. If you’re not taking in enough calories, your body will go into shock and you won’t lose any weight. Beaulieu recommends a balanced diet with all the vitamins, minerals, protein and carbohydrates you need to make it through the day and a tough workout.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.