January is one of the best times to be a fitness professional. My exercise classes are packed with participants, the gym is teeming with energy, and people have high spirits and good intentions to get fit. It's the second full week in January, and you're still going strong as you pursue your resolutions for the year. But one of the biggest mistakes that I see right now—from novice and seasoned exercisers alike—is overdoing it. Too much exercise—especially when combined with too little recovery—can hurt your efforts.
Recovery is just as important as the workout itself. Without proper rest, you will not get stronger, faster, or fitter. Why? Because when you rest, your muscles do two important things: repair (which helps them get stronger) and prepare (for future workouts by storing the food as muscle glycogen). When you skimp on the recovery time, your muscles tear and breakdown from your workouts, but don't have enough time to rebuild. But proper recovery benefits more than your muscles. Sometimes you need a mental break from working out just as much as you need a physical one. Without it, you risk burning out, which can get in the way of you reaching your goals. So how do you know if you're doing too much?
Here are a few common signs that you might be doing too much exercise:
- Exhaustion instead of energy. Exercise should make you feel better, not worse. If your mood is low or you feel abnormally tired, you could be spending too much time in the gym.
- Difficulty sleeping. If you work out too much, you could interrupt your sleeping patterns, either making your really tired (see point above), or interfering with your ability to fall and stay asleep.
- Perpetual muscle soreness. This is a tough one, because most people who are starting a new exercise program will be sore for a couple weeks or so, and that is pretty normal. But if you're sore longer than that, you could be overtraining. For example, once I was sore for more than a month from a heavy load of fitness classes I was teaching. It wasn't until I started to slow down and rest more that my soreness went away.
- Muscle weakness and fatigue. Over time, exercising should build strength and endurance. So if you notice things going the other way, or that your workouts feel just as difficult or even harder, it's time to take notice.
I know what you're thinking. You're afraid that taking a day off will turn into two or three days off and that you'll lose your motivation. Or that doing a little less exercise will turn into a downward spiral, making your lazier and decreasing your "new year" willpower. Not to worry. You're more likely to fall off the wagon from burnout than you are from following a reasonable and moderate fitness program. Here are my top 4 tips that will aid in recovery and prevent burnout:
- Take 1-2 days off each week, especially if you are a beginner. Your body does perceive exercise as a stressor, and like any stressful situation, sometimes you need a break. You don't have to lie on the couch all day to recover, either. You can do active recovery on these days if you prefer.
- Recover for 1-2 days after strength training. Again, this usually applies more to beginners who might not know the right way to recover after lifting weights. After a strength training session, wait 1-2 days before lifting weights again. This applies to the specific muscle groups you used, so doing upper body one day and lower body the next is fine. But doing a full body strength routine two days in a row is not. Learn more about the guidelines for strength training here.
- Vary your aerobic workout intensity. Find a happy medium between going all out and dawdling, and remember that you don't have to push it to the max to benefit from your gym time. In fact, you shouldn't work out at or close to your max during every workout. Instead, mix up your cardio sessions day-to-day with a combination of intervals (which vary high and low intensity in a single workout), low-intensity endurance efforts (such as a steady pace that you can maintain for 30-60 minutes), and the occasional short but high-intensity workout.
- Vary your workout program. Cross-training, trying a variety of fitness activities and exercises, will not only improve your chances of seeing results, but will also bust boredom, prevent burnout, and help you utilize your muscles in a variety of different ways so that they stay surprised. That means you have more fun and see better results.
How to you prevent burnout? Have you ever learned about overtraining or exercise burnout the hard way?