Hello and welcome to the Balanced Vibes Podcast, episode 2!
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The first episode of the Balanced Vibes podcast was the introduction. In this episode, you learned what this podcast is about and what to expect, as well as little bit about my personal story.
Today, we’re going to dig into one of the major topics that I’m really passionate about, and that is overtraining, or under recovery.
Overtraining is one of these things that often causes our bodies to be out of balance. We want to get our fitness results too fast, and do extreme things to achieve them…
But doing so can cause a lot of harm to our bodies.
Is It Overtraining Or Under Recovery?
There's some debate out there whether chronic fatigue and other symptoms that are caused by too much exercise and not enough rest should be called overtraining or under recovery. There's not a big difference in my opinion, other than this: When we constantly ignore proper rest, recovery and nutrition, we're always under-recovering, and if we do that often enough, we eventually end up overtraining.
So overtraining is made up by many days, weeks, months or years of under-recovery. But in my opinion, in the big picture it doesn't really matter whether we call this state of chronic fatigue that's caused by a lot of exercise and not enough rest, overtraining or under recovery. I'm going to use both.
What Is Overtraining or Under Recovery?
Overtraining or under recovery is our body’s inability to adapt to stress that we put on it. That stress is exercise. Yes, you may not think that working out is exercise, but it really is.
Here’s what we want to happen when we’re working out. Let’s say that you’re a runner or go to a gym regularly. Ideally, your workouts should help you get better because your body adapts to the stress you put on it. That’s what really happens when our recovery, sleep and food are on point because the body gets stronger. We build muscle, our cardiovascular health improves, our overall fitness improves, we get faster, we’re able to lift heavier weights, we put on muscle. These are all great results of working out.
However, when we’re overtraining or under recovering, we’re not getting better. We may spend several hours a day in the gym, run more and more, but not get better because the body is unable to handle the workout load and stress. The body is not recovering properly, there are hormonal shifts happening, we're constantly tired and ever ready for the next workout.
What Causes Overtraining?
The main reasons for overtraining are too much exercise, too intense exercise, and/or too long exercise. Let’s look at each one of them separately:
Too Much Exercise
Too much exercise means that we simply do too many workouts. Many of my clients used to work out every day, sometimes even twice a day, up to 10 workouts a week. Working out so much doesn’t only take a lot of time but it also puts a lot of pressure on the body. Eventually, the body ends up under recovered and overtrained.
Too Intense Exercise
Too intense exercise can get very stressful on the body and lead to overtraining or under recovery. HIT training is super popular right now, and it’s not hard to see why. These intense workouts are quick, they’re done in 15-20 minutes. They’re easy to market and sell because they’re done in a short amount of time and give you quick results.
Yes, that sounds amazing, but here's the problem: Too intense exercise, while being the best fat burner, is also really taxing on the body. It’s really individual to say how much HIT training is right for each individual, but 3-4 times a week is enough. I would not recommend more than that. Besides, it’s absolutely possible to get fit without HIT training.
Too Long Exercise
Too long exercise can be taxing on the body as well and cause overtraining if done too often. Long distance running is a good example. I used to run long distances for years, when I was 21-26 years old. I ran every day at least an hour, most of the time, fasted, to make sure I got it done first thing in the morning… Because I was so tired all the time, I was under recovering and ended up very, very overtrained.
From the outside, what I was doing looked like massive dedication, but on the inside, I was getting really drained.
Here’s one thing we have to know about long distance cardio: It can really increase our cortisol levels. And here's why this is a problem:
The Connection Between Overtraining, Cortisol And Sex Hormones
There's a very important connection between overtraining and cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands together with other stress hormones such as adrenalin and norepinephrine. That’s all normal — that’s what’s supposed to happen. But too long exercise may cause a situation where the cortisol stays elevated, which can result in suppressed immune function, increased blood sugar, loss of libido and period irregularities or loss of period… This is the main connection between overtraining and cortisol.
Here’s why our periods and libido get affected when we're overtraining or under recovering, and as a result, have too much cortisol lingering in our bodies:
In order to have a healthy libido and regular periods, we need to make certain level of sex hormones. Cortisol and sex hormones are made from the same mother hormone pregnenolone. When we’re working out excessively, the body thinks that we have to run away from something or someone, so it makes more cortisol to help us escape. It increases blood transportation into muscles, speeds up our heart beat, turns down non vital functions such as digestion…
Increased cortisol helps to achieve all that. The body doesn’t know that we’re just running on the treadmill, in already completely overtrained or under recovered state! And again, when the cortisol is up, sex hormone production is often low. That's how overtraining and high cortisol are messing with your period and sex drive.
I experienced all that myself too: When I was severely overtrained, I was cold all the time, my sex drive was non existent, my period was gone for 10 years, I could barely sleep at night. Here’s what else can happen if we’re constantly overtrained: We’re super sore all the time. It’s not just regular tightness; we’re sore for days and days. Chronic fatigue, no matter how much we sleep, is yet another symptom.
However, because we’re so dedicated, we still go to the gym even though we barely slept at night. That was me too! I was too afraid to “lose my body” and was dedicated to do whatever it took to maintain it.
Take Rest Days to Avoid Overtraining or Under Recovering
I like the following saying: If you like your body whisper, you never have to hear it scream.
It’s so important to listen to our bodies. If we don’t, we may and up with adrenal fatigue, and other serious symptoms that I mentioned before and that are totally avoidable.
It’s hard to take rest days because we have this mentality that we have to work out, no matter what. We even feel guilty if we skip a workout although we know that we really really needed it. Here’s something to think about:
Why are we feeling guilty for something that’s good for our bodies?
When we’re tired, skipping a workout is the healthiest thing to do. That's how we avoid under recovering which can later lead to overtraining. When we say we want to recover but at the same time keep working out hard, what we're doing is counterproductive to what we said we wanted. I like the following metaphor: You're on a river, one leg in one boat and the other leg in the other boat, hoping to get somewhere. You're not getting anywhere at all!
Rest days are hard also because we like to compare ourselves to other people or even the old versions of ourselves. I know when I had recovered from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and got back to training, I compared myself to the old version of me who used to do all these hard core workouts…
I also compared myself to other people on Instagram, for example. I tried to work out like them, but my periods would get super wonky… And I got exhausted. But of course this happened, because I hadn’t been working out in a long time! Instead, I started working out like this, and my body recovered completely.
Stop Comparing Your Workouts To Someone Else's
I remember one time when I was talking to my chiropractor and complaining to him that I cannot believe where I am now… I told him:
“I’m not even close to doing the things I was able to do 6 months ago! Why is this happening to me??”
And he told me:
“There’s only one person whose workouts you should be thinking about and that’s YOU. You were a different person 6 months ago, with all the overtraining symptoms – why do you think you have to go back there?”
This conversation really made me realize how right he was! Although I wasn’t as strong as I had been before, and although I had lost a lot of cardiovascular health, I was finally hormonally healthy and had to take a reasonable approach if I wanted to improve my fitness again. It didn’t make sense to compare myself with the previous version of myself or with someone else.
How To Know What Workout You Should Do Today
Sometimes we don’t know what workout we should be doing today. For that, I have a helpful tool for you – the Traffic Light Metaphor.
Instead of pushing hard every day of the week, use the traffic light metaphor to assess whether or not you're ready to work out today, and how you should move. Because no one should go at a 100% every day! Most people would end up overtraining or under recovering if they went at 100% every time they worked out.
Here's how the traffic light metaphor works:
Green Workout Days
These are the days when you feel really good. You slept at least 7, or even better, 8 hours, and you feel rested. You have been eating well and enough calories. Your stress level is moderate.
On Green workout days, do the workout you were planning! It can be more intense and longer, if you'd like to.
Yellow Workout Days
You slept at least 7 hours, but you were restless or still felt a little bit tired when you woke up. Maybe you didn't have time to eat enough throughout the day, but you still had some snacks and other foods so that you got your calories in (remember, you don't want to cut calories and start working out at the same time if you recently had Hypothalamic Amenorrhea). You have some stress in your life, but nothing major.
This is very likely a Yellow workout day.
You can move your body and do a simple workout, but skip anything too intense. You can do yoga, walk, stretch, or modify your workout. Maybe do half of the workout you had planned for that day, or less reps or rounds. You want to avoid under-recovering and overtraining, right?
Red Workout Days
You're tired. Your sleep was bad. You slept less than 6-7 hours and woke up constantly. Maybe you're sick. Perhaps you had a really stressful day at work or home. You haven't eaten enough. You're just exhausted!
This is clearly a very red day!
Not all the things above need to happen to have a red workout day. One can be enough. Be really honest with yourself. Are you actually ready to work out, or is it better to rest today?
On Red days, skip your workout. Sure, you can go on a walk to get some fresh air, but don't turn it into a workout or try to hit tens of thousands of steps. Do what feels really right for you right now. Maybe it's taking a nap, eating nutritious food, journaling, asking someone else to put away the laundry or simply leaving it on the floor… Nothing bad will happen!
Your workout can wait. No shame or guilt for skipping it! You're doing what's best for your body, and you should never feel guilty for that. Besides, you get so much more out of your next workout that you do when you're actually rested.
If we are in the red zone but don’t take rest days, we will never get out of the red zone. We don't want to be constantly overtrained or under-recovered. And to stop that, we have to do something differently.
Can I Still Exercise When I'm Overtrained?
Let’s say that you’re feeling overtrained but want to move a little bit. Is it possible? Are there any workouts you could do? Yes, there are. First, understand where you are on the overtraining spectrum:
You recover from your workouts well, your periods are good, your mood is great, your hunger is normal — you actually don’t have overtraining issue, so keep doing what you’re doing because it clearly works well!
Mild overtraining is best described by muscle soreness and fatigue after a typical hard workout. That soreness and fatigue should go away in 2-3 days.
Do the workouts that you were planning to do, that’s okay — but listen to your body. 2-3 workouts per week is fine, but also add 2-3 restorative workouts to make sure you don't continue to overdo it every time you work out.
Moderate overtraining is where you start running into bigger problems. For example, you sleep a ton but never feel rested, or the opposite, you have insomnia. Other signs are prolonged muscle soreness, intense cravings, loss of libido, and the time between your ovulation and your period getting shorter — 10-11 days or less.
Here’s how you should train: Do 2-3 strength workouts a week, but rest fully between your rounds. Lift fairly heavy weights, do 8-12 reps, then take full rest. Let your heart rate drop and don’t do kettlebell swings or burpees between the rounds!
It's important to have long breaks between the sets so you don't end up overtrained or under-recovered, and that you avoid falling into the next phase of overtraining which is severe overtraining.
Typical signs of severe overtraining are loss of period, chronic fatigue, low libido, hair loss, feeling cold all the time, having brain fog, having low body temperature, experiencing anxiety and even depression.
If you have these symptoms, focus on movement — walk, take easy bike rides, just move your body. When you go for walks, don’t do crazy uphill walks. You don’t want to increase your cortisol even further! You can also do yoga, but not intense yoga — keep it light and restorative, to help your body calm.
And also, lay on the couch, watch Netflix, and simply rest! It takes some time to get out of severe overtraining, sometimes even 6+ months. That’s why it’s important to catch it early so it doesn’t get so bad.
How Do I Exercise In A Balanced Way?
If you’re wondering what’s the best exercise for you, ask yourself the following questions:
What Workouts Do I Enjoy The Most?
If we want to be consistent with our exercise, we have to like the things that we’re doing. If we only work out in order to lose weight or fat, our workouts start to feel forced.
So ask yourself: How do I like to move my body? Some people may say that they don’t like anything… But I believe that everyone can find something they like. Try out different things. Classpass is a good option to try different classes in your area.
What Do I Want to Get Out Of My Workouts?
Is it increasing cardiovascular health, add muscle, get as strong as possible? Whatever it is, make sure to choose something that is not just physique focused. It can be part of it, but shouldn’t be the main thing.
Am I Doing At Least Some Strength Training?
It’s important to do at least some strength training to maintain our muscle mass. Even if you like your cardio and it doesn’t mess with your hormones, still do a few strength workouts a week as well, to gain or maintain muscle. It’s very important especially as we age!
A Basic Balanced Workout Template for a Healthy Person
The following template is meant for a healthy person who doesn’t have any hormonal issues. If you do, you first have to get yourself out from the red zone! If you're overtrained or under recovered, working out more only makes things worse.
If you’re feeling strong, healthy, and have no hormonal issues, here's the basic template for you. Of course, you can change and tweak it based on your preferences, but overall, this pattern will give you healthy results and helps you to stay away from burning yourself out.
- 2-4 strength sessions a week
- 1-2 yoga or other restorative workouts a week
- Walking, leisurely bike riding, etc — anything is chill and relaxed and isn’t about going faster and harder.
I remember how I tried to turn even hikes into workouts. I was always trying to make my workouts as hard as possible. That’s not what we should do all the time. It’s important to relax!
There’s a big difference between walking outside in the nature setting, and walking on the treadmill while responding to work emails. There was a study where they looked at cortisol levels of two groups of people. One group walked in the nature and the other group walked in the shopping mall. You can only guess whose cortisol levels were better… Of course, the ones who walked in nature setting.
Try to walk outside, even when it’s cold outside! I understand that it’s not always possible, but try to do it as much as you can.
Build Rest Days Into Your Routine
Built-in rest days have to be a part of your workout routine. I personally take 2-3 days off, but it can be different for you. I used to take only 1 day off… and I had all the symptoms that I told you about before, I was constantly under recovering and overtraining.
Also remember that it’s okay to have unplanned rest days when your body is telling you it’s time! I take them all the time, with no guilt, because they are good for me.
Also breathing and meditation exercises are very beneficial for relaxing the body and mind, and I recommend you do them daily.
Stress Comes From Multiple Sources
Finally, remember that stress doesn’t only come from workouts. It also comes from work, deadlines, family life… all these things affect our bodies very similarly to workout stress, so pay attention to them.
Here are 5 takeaways from today's podcast:
- Find a workout that you enjoy. Do what you like, not what is the best calorie or fat burner!
- Use the traffic light method to know what workout to do today. Is it red, yellow or green day? And decide then!
- Do some strength training, even if cardio is your first love.
- Pay attention to your recovery. Is your sleep good? For me, when I start waking up 4am, that means that I’ve been doing too much. Other signs of under recovery: Your periods can get wonky, you’re constantly sore and cold, extremely fatigued and tired.
- Have some rest days built in to your routine. Don’t freak out if you have to take a few days off. All you’re doing when taking rest days, is letting your body recover. You don’t have to stop eating, or do jumping jacks in the bathroom to burn at least some calories (like I did in the past…). If you catch your overtraining early, you don’t have to take weeks or months off!
Thanks for listening to this episode!
Next week, we’re talking about balanced diet. I’ll talk to you soon!
If you have any thoughts or questions, please comment below or connect with me on Instagram. If you liked the episode, please leave a 5-star review on iTunes.
Simple Strength For Women — A Bodyweight Strength Training Program for Women after Hypothalamic Amenorrhea