It’s a maddening situation to find yourself in. You workout six days a week, occasionally twice a day, and you flex your discipline muscle seven days a week with regard to your diet. It’s low-fat, low-carb and low-sugar. But something truly awful is happening. Despite your herculean workout regime and monastic eating habits, you can’t seem to lose a pound. In fact, your body fat percentage is inexplicably increasing and your weight loads in the gym are doubtlessly decreasing. Your toned arms seem softer and your jeans feel just a bit snugger than they did last month. No wonder you are in such an awful mood, not to mention that you are unable to concentrate, sleep, or even enjoy, well, much of anything.
Anyone’s knee jerk reaction to this sudden backward slide in his or her progress is to hit the gym harder and to bring down the calorie count even further, but as counterintuitive as it may seem sometimes eating more and working out less is the ONLY solution to this nightmare. While this advice may be difficult to swallow for hard-core fitness enthusiasts and chronic dieters, once the basic science behind this phenomenon is understood, the benefit of turning everything you know about diet and fitness on its head becomes clear.
The culprit behind a stubborn stall in fat loss and plummeting gains in muscle size and strength is overtraining. Overtraining is defined by the National Academy of Science and Medicine as an accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in long-term decrease in performance capacity. In other words, when it comes to achieving your fitness and body composition goals, there is in fact a point of diminishing returns. If you are constantly working out at a high intensity level for long periods of time most days of the week and not scheduling in recovery days then you are dangerously towing the very fine line between admirable dedication and counterproductive overtraining.
Ideally a proactive approach is taken toward overtraining by preventing it from occurring in the first place. However, since overtraining is a condition that grows worse over time, it makes sense to be on the lookout for its earliest markers, which are a host of physiological and psychological signs:
Mood changes such as irritability, depression, and the inability to concentrate are among the easiest to detect.
Altered heart rate and blood pressure, especially an elevated resting heart rate early in the morning, are blaring signs that you are overtraining. A low heart rate and low blood pressure are the trophies brought home by the fittest among us, but if your resting heart rate is elevated from your normal baseline and your blood pressure has increased then your body isn’t recovering.
Hematological alterations, which can be determined through a blood test, including changes in iron status, protein status, electrolyte balance, phosphorus / calcium balance, elevated blood urea nitrogen, elevated uric acid, and a skewed lipoprotein balance (including cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids) are markers that your body is suffering from the shock of overtraining.
Abnormal aches and pains, nagging injuries that seem not to heal, or other related symptoms are usually brought on by the “cumulative microtrauma” of overtraining.
Succumbing easily and frequently to cold or flu bugs or other pathogens in the environment, which signifies a compromised immune system.
Muscle wasting or easily putting on fat despite low-calorie dieting. Interestingly overtraining is almost always accompanied by appetite suppression despite increasing energy expenditure.
Another way to confirm the suspicion that overtraining is to blame for a stubborn plateau is to monitor energy levels during three workouts according to Boris Sapone, a certified personal trainer from Las Vegas. Sapone recommends that clients who are no longer seeing progress toward their goals should time the duration of their workouts.
“If the point of exhaustion comes earlier and earlier with each workout then they are overtraining,” says Sapone. He gently explains to these clients that they ought to back off at this point. “Those who don’t listen are the people you see in the gym week after week month after month with the exact same body they had when they started,” he adds.
Once overtraining is diagnosed, reversal of the condition and its detrimental effects may take up to a year. This of course is gloomy news if you have become both physically and psychologically dependent on (or even addicted to) your superhuman regimen, but fortunately trainers and sport specialists have prescribed specific steps to follow so that you can free yourself from the viscous cycle of overtraining.
- STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING. As difficult as it may be since you are overwhelmed by your body’s stubborn refusal to respond to an increasingly demanding workout schedule and stringent diet, you must REST. Take off a week or two. Eat sensibly. Sleep more. Overtraining has altered your body’s hormonal balance, wreaking havoc on your adrenal glands and insulin levels, as well as your body’s ability to fall into deep cycles of sleep. Restoring this balance will improve mood and brain functioning.
- Once training has been reinstated, keep workouts intense but short and be sure to build in rest days. Gains in strength and size do not occur on workout days, but on rest days. Remember, NO REST=NO GAIN.
- Incorporate periodization into your workout schedule. You cannot train at 100% all year round if you want to avoid overtraining. Schedule in easier periods leading up to more intense periods. This is an effective strategy the pros use all the time.
- While you are taking time off from the gym, make the effort to learn about nutritional supplements that may be useful in helping your body repair itself, both now and in the future. Be sure to speak with a reputable person who is knowledgeable. The salesperson at the national health store chain may not be the best source of information.
No discussion about overtraining is complete without emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between under eating and overtraining. While under eating is counterproductive to weight loss efforts whether one is working out or not, under eating in conjunction with frequent and high intensity workouts puts you on the fast track to overtraining. Eating enough calories to meet the energy and recuperation requirements of your body is good insurance against overtraining in the first place.
According to Sapone the perfect formula for continually seeing results in the gym can be broken down into a 20/20/60 split. Effective workouts make up 20% of your results. Adequate rest makes up 20% of your results. And balanced and adequate nutrition makes up the remaining 60% of your results.
Sixty percent is too large a number to ignore. While eating only skinless chicken and avoiding highly refined carbohydrates is certainly virtuous, depriving your body of the calories it needs, not only to survive but to sustain effective workouts, is downright self-defeating. Here’s why:
Your body needs energy for strength training, cardio, weight lifting, walking, sleeping, digestion, etc. This energy comes from food. The calories in food are fuel for your body. If you don’t supply the fuel then you will suffer from the following:
- Strength Loss. Your body doesn’t receive the energy it needs for the physical activities you do. You’ll feel tired and weak at the gym.
- Fat Gains. Fat is emergency storage for your body. Your body burns muscle for energy first when you don’t eat. You’ll become skinny but fat.
- Muscle Loss. The weight loss is muscle loss. Muscle loss equals fat gains as muscle burns more calories than fat.
“The body is like a chimney,” says Sapone. “If you don’t feed it fuel, it won’t burn.” In other words, if calorie intake drops too much your body enters a protective starvation mode in which it hoards fat. Sapone adds that in this mode you are simply building muscle to tear it down over and over again. So, it makes sense that in addition to building in scheduled days of rest once you return to working out, you must fulfill your body’s daily caloric requirement. You can find this number using an online calculator based on your lean muscle mass weight, height, age, and activity level. Once caloric requirements are known, you must consider two more non-negotiables: the appropriate balance of macronutrients and meal timing.
As often as you have heard it, the body is truly a finely tuned instrument in need of very specific ratios of nutrients to perform at its best both in the gym and out. You must regulate carefully the ratio of healthy fats, adequate protein and low-glycemic carbohydrates in your diet. Also, with regard to meal timing it is essential to keep glucose levels as steady as possible so that you can perform at your best during each workout. Eat five or six small meals throughout the day to avoid the common tendency to crescendo your calories-that is, to eat little or nothing early in the day and to consume the majority of your calories in the evening. Inadequate caloric intake prior to working out leads to subpar workouts, and without a steady supply of glucose in the blood the body is likely to burn hard-earned muscle rather than fat while you are working out.
Once all of these steps are implemented the body will recover, but the most difficult aspect of treating overtraining is the psychological one. It takes a true leap of faith to eat more and workout less when doing the opposite is so highly touted. And the truth is you may feel worse before you feel better. You may become more agitated without the release provided by your daily workout, and you may gain a few pounds of water weight as your body readjusts to the changes you are making. These issues according to Sapone work themselves out within two to four weeks. “I recommend to my most hesitant clients to simply trust the process,” he adds. Through, it seems, is the only way out.