Identifying Overtraining

Apparently, overtraining is a Thing. And since I’ve never been able to sustain a decent workout routine (see previous posts about learning about a leg length discrepancy, old shoulder and back issues, and the miracle of finding a great physical therapist who could identify and help with both), there is no reason I ever would have known what overtraining was or what it felt like.

After several weeks of feeling constantly exhausted, not sleeping well, feeling irritable all the time, and every workout feeling as though I was trying to move through molasses, I had enough. I thought it was just my allergies kicking my ass, but friends who suffer seasonal allergies far worse than me didn’t seem as dramatically impacted. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

Between asking for opinions from two of my closest friends who work out regularly, then an old friend who is a CrossFit instructor, and, finally, my cousin, who has been in more mountain biking competitions over the past 25 years than I can possibly fathom, I was able to piece together what was going on.

The friends suggested I take a few days off. The CrossFit guy concurred, and also suggested I drop my number of workouts per week from 5+ per week to only 4. Apparently, even he only works out 3-4 times a week himself, and considers more than that rather extreme for folks in their mid 40s like us. My cousin then agreed with all of the above, and suggested I might look at heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring to determine when I was ready to work out and when I needed more recovery time.

It was while looking at information about HRV and seeing if my Fitbit could help track it that I stumbled on a blog post from Fitbit about overtraining.

…there’s a fine line between consistently challenging yourself and developing overtraining syndrome—a physical state that is often characterized by persistent fatigue, irritability, and a marked decline in performance and from which it can take weeks or months to recover.

Fitbit News, “Are You Ready for Another Hard Workout? Here’s How to Tell”

After reading the article, I took a look at the resting heart rate data in my Fitbit app. A sudden increase over time would, theoretically, indicate overtraining and a need for some recovery time.

One month of resting heart rate data, showing a dramatic increase over the last several weeks

And there it was. All the symptoms I’d been dealing with for weeks were not because of allergies or anything in my already closely controlled and very clean diet. It wasn’t (only) due to any emotional fatigue caused by physical distancing and feelings of isolation. No, in fact, it was not any of these things.

Instead, I had fallen victim to overtraining. Me, who 2-3 months ago could barely empty the dishwasher without injuring myself, was dealing with one of the issues suffered by elite athletes. Pretty cool, I’d say.

Today I am taking my second day off in a row from exercise. I haven’t taken more than one day at a time in months. Already, my mental and physical energy has improved dramatically. I’ve done chores I’ve put off for weeks. I’m able to focus better. My body feels less like it’s immersed in cement and movement no longer feels exhausting.

I doubt I’m alone in not having known the symptoms of overtraining. It surprises me that nobody I talked to mentioned it as a possibility and makes me wonder how familiar with it the average Joe might be.

Have any of you experienced overtraining? Did you know what it was the first time you dealt with it? Did you, too, struggle to identify overtraining as the issue? What was your recovery like?

What are your thoughts on this post?

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