Overtraining Issues – Too Much Exercise Without Enough Food

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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.

overtraining-exercising-2Ideally 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.

overtraining-exercising-5“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.

overtraining-exercising-4Sixty 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.

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About Author

Molly Mokros

worked with Equinox gyms in New York after completing graduate school. She is also a freelance writer. I'm a certified Pilates instructor and a certified personal trainer. See my profile page for more information!

21 Comments

  1. It’s possible to gain fat while eating at a deficit? I’m gonna need a cite there chief, and not from some 1 day cert “personal trainer” who’s spewing starvation-mode broscience. Everyone I know who has legit overtrained has lost both muscle and fat mass. They get gaunter and gaunter as they up their training load in response to their dropping performance. Among the symptoms of overtraining syndrome are suppressed appetite and weight loss. If you’re gaining fat, you’re eating too much. Period, full stop, end of story. Your body does not have a net fat gain while in a calorie deficit. That’s not how the body works. That’s not how homeostasis and adaptive thermogenesis works. Your body may push back under severe starvation conditions, but never so much that you actually gain fat. Fat is there so you have something to fuel when you’re not getting enough to eat! In your 1 day cert’s chimney analogy, your fat is the full cord of wood that’s stacked right next to that chimney.

    • shapefit

      John – Thanks for your feedback. One of the key points the writer is trying to make is that limiting calories too severely can cause a loss in lean muscle tissue over the course of time which results in a decrease in a person’s overall metabolic rate. This will most likely result in fat gain if the person goes back to eating their normal diet/calories due the inability to burn the same amount of calories as before.

    • As someone who has worked super hard to get rid of 60+kg (about 132 pounds) I have put on weight. Although my clothes still fit the same, the scales are telling a different story. I have had absolutely no changes to my food and no changes to my exercise plan. I workout twice a day, 6 days a week. Upon advice from a trainer, I have kept track of my food and my exercise routine and on average, I am deficit in my calories by 320 calories. Yes, I am moody, I can’t sleep and I’m continually sore, but with the fear of going back to square one, I kept going. Being new to the fitness world, all this over-training and under eating is new to me. But, it’s very real. So, I’m now in the process of revisiting my workouts and diet in order to find a good, comfortable balance.

  2. I think I am experiencing a catabolic state and muscle degeneration. I have had muscle spasms for a month now but they have increasingly become more painful and last much longer. I have lost weight due to this and my athletic performance has decreased significantly. I notice that my body is getting weaker so I have decided to completely stop going to the gym because it’s such a dramatic change for my body. I would really like feedback and advice because these past couple of days I have still been losing muscle but somehow also gained fat. I know it’s not muscle because I feel heavier and weaker but I am definitely eating more. You mentioned that it may take up to a year for recovery. Do you have any personal advice about that and should I see a doctor because I feel as if this whole process completely messes up my hormone balance.

    • shapefit

      Cristina – Yes, you should definitely go see your doctor and have them run a full blood panel on you in order to check all of your levels (hormones, blood count, etc). It sounds like you might be experiencing something more severe than just overtraining. It’s important to get checked out to be on the safe side.

  3. I’m currently marathon training. I’ll eat an egg before my run but after I’m not hungry. I do drink a recovery protein drink. A couple of hours later I may eat cottage cheese, tomato and half an avocado. Then dinner is protein, salad and veggies. I cut out sugar and don’t eat too many carbs. I will eat pasta the night before a long run of around 14-20 miles. I’m not big into eating bread. My heart rate is low, energy is good, sleep great but I hold onto fat and am gaining more as I try to eat more good fats. I rest Sunday and Thursday with 2 easy runs and 2 longer runs on the other days. Saturday is a light biking day. I take vitamins, I don’t get sick ever and don’t have injuries, but I am not toned and I’m actually jiggly! I just want to be toned and enjoy my swimsuits! I run and bike because I actually like it. I know I don’t eat enough but I’m just not hungry. I try to eat some string cheese as a mid-day snack and a handful of almonds or pecans later. So, do I need to cook chicken and snack on it every couple hours? Will that help get my body out of starvation mode?

    • shapefit

      Hi Lis – You probably need to cut back on all the cardio and add some heavy weight training days to your routine. With all the intense and long cardio sessions you’re doing each week, your body is most likely burning lean muscle tissue and limiting fat loss. A good example is the difference in the physiques of a marathon runner and a sprinter. The marathoner is “skinny fat” and looks weak while the sprinter is well muscled with a lean and tight physique. All the running is probably breaking down muscle, especially on those long 14-20 miles sessions. Add the limited diet to this and it’s a recipe for a weak physique. So, cut back on cardio, add multiple heavy weight lifting days per week and increase your protein intake to maintain and build muscle mass. Snacking on chicken breast every 2-3 hours is actually a great idea 🙂

  4. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I can’t seem to lose this stubborn fat, especially around my mid-section (belly). I workout REALLY hard and try to keep my calories in check (around 1,300 per day). I tried to follow a IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) eating structure, but don’t know if I am doing it right. According to the IIFYM calculator I should be eating 1,530 calories (159 Carbs, 132 Protein, 40 Fat). I think I eat less than that, so is that a problem? I always had issues with food and was afraid to eat carbs since I have a bit of a sweet tooth. But I have been eating pretty close to my macros. Maybe I am calculating wrong? I am a 34 year old female and weigh 113 pounds at 5’1″. I’m sedentary most of the day I think and I workout 6 days a week (sometimes 7 days and sometimes twice a day) for about 90 minutes each session. I think my workouts are pretty intense but I’m not sure if it is considered “moderate” or “difficult”. I do full body circuit training 40-60 minutes 3 or 4 days a week and I always do 15-30 minutes of cardio after. I do weight training 40-60 minutes 2-3 days a week. I also go road biking for 2 hours once a week and sometimes even do a cardio session in the evenings for 60 minutes in addition to my morning workout. My HRM calculates that I burn between 500-1,000 calories each session (mostly around 800 calories). So am I calculating everything all wrong? Am I eating too little or too much, or just the wrong things? I have no clue right now. I mostly cook at home with fish and chicken, eggs and lots of veggies. My carbs usually include brown rice and oats. Snacks are usually fruits, dark chocolate, almond butter on rice cakes or Quest bars.

    • shapefit

      Hi Liss – Your workouts and diet look pretty spot-on. For all of the exercise you’re doing, I recommend eating at least 1,500 calories per day to help keep your metabolism up. You might even need to go a little higher since you’re burning a lot of calories during the week with your workouts. Pay close attention to the types of foods you’re eating later in the day (after 5pm). If you focus mainly on fruit and other carbs, you should probably cut these out at night and really focus on eating protein, veggies and a little healthy fat. Make a chicken stir-fry with a bunch of veggies and 1-2 TBS of EVOO. By cutting out carbs at night, you can optimize your fat burning ability. To kick it up another notch, once you wake up in the morning perform 30-45 minutes of cardio on an empty stomach. You can sip on a BCAA drink during your workout to supply important amino acids to your muscles but make sure not to eat anything, especially carbs. Early morning cardio will tap into your fat stores right away.

  5. Hi Liss – You should be eating way more than 1,500 calories, probably closer to 2,000. According to you, you expend about 800 calories every session. You are not giving your body enough energy to fuel your workouts as well your daily life, so your body thinks you are in famine and tries its best to hold onto the fat it has while burning away muscle.

  6. I am about to turn 71 years of age. I am a female and have been trying to lose weight on and off for years. I have done a few of the weight loss programs plus walking approximately 3-5 miles daily. While I have been successful in the past I am now finding that I am at a stand still. I recently began a modified resistant starch eating program and the first week I lost about 5 pounds then three more the following week but this week I noticed despite riding my stationary bike for 1 hour daily (20-21 miles) which burns 500 calories in the process, I stopped losing weight. So I reevaluated things and thought perhaps I was over exercising, so I did nothing yesterday or today and all of a sudden I dropped two pounds. I eat very healthy meals of fish, chicken breast, lean pork and turkey breast with loads of veggies and salads. I snack on roasted chick peas which satisfy the crunch factor. I also eat small servings of almond butter on an unripe banana and that also helps to curb bad snacking habits. I eat things like eggs, small avocados, oatmeal with blueberries, cherries, non-fat yogurt, etc. Additionally, I eat 2-3 squares of dark chocolate that is 72% cacao with almonds inside. I think I was trying to do too much too soon and was sabotaging myself in the process. Tomorrow I will go back to riding my stationary bike for 1/2 hour and to HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) as I have been doing but for less time and if I burn only 250 calories that’s okay. The next day I will walk for about an hour and do about 3 miles of steady walking. I will switch off one day walking and one day riding. Hopefully this will help reset my system and put it on a steady path to achieving my weight loss goals. Any suggestions?

    • shapefit

      Hi Maria – First off, fantastic job at being so active and focused on your health at your age! You are a true inspiration to seniors who want to live a healthy lifestyle into their later years. You’re on the right track with cutting back a little on your intense exercise routine. Give it about 3-4 weeks and see how you look and feel. I wouldn’t focus too much on the scale since it can swing a bit with water retention and other factors. Try to go by the mirror and how your clothes fit for your measurement of success. Your diet looks spot-on and great job sticking to a very healthy, nutrient dense diet. Keep up the awesome work 🙂

  7. I have got myself into a position where I have been really struggling to put on muscle and also realized that I’ve been under eating. The problem is now that I’m experiencing a lot of symptoms that relate to anxiety. I’m am laying off the weight training at the moment and trying to eat 2,000 kcal per day but I’m constantly bloated. It’s like my my body is holding food rather than storing it as energy in order for me to burn therefore I have a lack of energy and I’m even struggling to do any cardiovascular exercise. Also, I noticed that the more exercise I do the more my body wants to gain and hold resulting in weight gain and because of this, people think I’ve turned into a fat person all of a sudden and think I don’t need help. I just should go back to the gym and I’ll be fine, but I don’t have the energy for the gym. I’m a male and 6’1″ and used to weigh 13 stone. Now I’m around 15 stone but it’s not muscle because I haven’t gained size or strength and I don’t think it’s fat because I haven’t been eating enough. I honestly don’t know how I got to this way but I need to know how I can recover fast? Can anyone help?

    • shapefit

      Hi Adam – You should go down to your local gym and have your body fat tested to see how much lean muscle and how much body fat you currently have. This is the only way to find out if you’re gaining fat or muscle. Once you have the facts and find out your body fat percentage then you can start making changes with your diet and exercise program.

  8. I’m 5’2″ and about 100 lbs. I have been walking 8-9 miles per day and eating about 1,300 calories just to keep my weight stable. I’d love to walk less but fear I’ll gain rapidly. Advice is needed!

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Elise – That sounds like way too much exercise and too little food. Your body is probably holding onto as much body fat as possible and won’t release it since it’s most likely in starvation mode. We recommend cutting way back on your cardio (1 hour maximum per day) and include some weight training into your routine which will build lean muscle mass. You should also increase your calories to at least 1,500 calories per day.

  9. I have been binge training at least 3 times daily beginning at about 4am, then mid-day and again at about 9:30pm I do a hard sprint workout. During the mid-day workout, I run poorly and feel weak. I have cut down to about 800 calories per day. My calculator says I should be consuming 2,800 calories per day! I am a 63-year-old man with 50 years of training. I am compulsive and feel like if I don’t train hard every day then I am a quitter. Also, I like to drink but not enough by my standards and would like to drink more. I would like to eat more but it always makes me feel bad when I do. The laws of physics seem violated by my approach as I always seem to fail to improve in weight, comfort, muscle tone and strength.

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Neal – Wow, that’s a ton of training and so little food! Your body is most like screaming for nutrients and a break to rest and recover. You really need to increase your calories and give your body the fuel it needs to run optimally. You also need to cut back on your training and let your body recover fully. Even if you “feel” you need to be working out all day long, that doesn’t mean it’s the best approach. If you’re talking about drinking alcohol then try your best to limit your consumption. 1-2 glasses of wine with dinner is not terrible but if you’re throwing back a bottle each night, that can become a problem.

  10. I just stumbled across this post and I’m suddenly confused as to what I’ve been doing. I’m 30 years old, 6’2″ and weigh 186 pounds. I was never a fit person and got out of college weighing around 205 pounds and due to work and a poor diet, I skyrocketed up to 245 pounds. I decided to make a lifestyle change, and through diet and cardio, I slimmed down to around 190 pounds. My caloric intake was limited to around 1,900 calories per day during this period. Unhappy with my general lack of lean muscle, I’ve started lifting weights (1.5 hour sessions, 4 times a week) and increasing my protein intake (100 grams on non-training days and 150 grams on training days). I’ve kept my overall caloric intake at 1,850 per day. I expect my TDEE is close to 3,000 calories per day and I assume that I’m under this since I’m logging my food with a diet tracking app on my phone which might have some inaccuracies, although I try to weigh everything I eat (hence the 1,850 calorie goal). Does this seem like I’m undereating and overtraining? I’ve been considering seeing a dietitian since I have no idea what I’m doing (to be honest). Thanks!

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Yaw – It’s always a smart choice to consult with a dietitian when you have doubts about your nutrition plan. Dietitians are licensed experts who will be able to provide you with specific recommendations and meal planning to help you reach your goals. For a general guideline, if you’re trying to add lean muscle mass, focus on eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. So, you should be eating 186 grams of protein per day broken up into multiple meals. Eat this amount every day, whether you’re training or not. The macronutrient you want to tweak is your carbohydrate intake. Eat more carbs on your weight lifting days and cut back a little on non-training days. You might also want to read our Zig Zag Diet article and see if this helps you. By upping your calories on heavy lifting days (legs, back) you can shock your body and make it grow.

      • Thanks for the response! Since I’ve started weight training, my weight hasn’t budged from 186 pounds. I’ve read plenty of articles which say you cannot build lean mass on a deficit (which is my situation) so it’s hard to understand why I’m the same weight 3 months later. I read the Zig Zag Diet article and according to the calories per day calculator, I need 2,941 calories per day to maintain my weight (I’m currently eating 1,850 calories per day). The thought of increasing my calorie intake is quite disconcerting but I’ll give it a try.

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