4 Tips to Avoid Exercise Burnout & Stick to Your Plan

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

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I prevent burnout by knowing when to push myself. On "bad" days I try to do the minimum but don't force myself to exhaustion.

On my "good" days I try to maximize my efforts.

Keeping true to myself keeps me going. Report
Thanks for the reminder!!! Report
I tend to be this way if I don't keep myself under control... I am too impatient
and I have learned the hard way that overtraining is not safe... Still needs a reminder from time to time though... [grin]
Thank you for this great article Coach Nicole! ♥ Report
The last time I worked out I experienced burnout. I was doing full body strength training almost everyday. I was exercising hard and seeing results and one day I took a break and never started back. Trying to do differently this time but I have noticed an inability to sleep since I've been working out this time. Since I'm doing the New You Bootcamp I can't take a day off. Once the bootcamp is over I will start taking two days out of the week to rest but right now I need to jumpstart my fitness goals for the year and begin building endurance because I am horribly out of shape. Report
Nicole... You're in a magazine? Cool... This is great advise for the newbies. I think that my success this time in weight loss has been largely due to the fact that I insist that I move some every day but I don't try to push myself too hard. I'll never win a race but it has become more important to me to be able to run for months on end than to win...

Writing another column about soreness for long time exercisers would be helpful to me. I would like to figure out how to avoid being sore most of the time while still building that necessary endurance, and strength. I'm doing yoga, ice hockey, and snowboarding (1-2 hours a session) this time of the year as well as have an active outdoor job, get about three days of rest a week, but still fight the soreness. Report
Burn out is a big problem for group exercise instructors. I too had to learn the hard way to rest my body or I did end up exhausted. Fitness instructors have to take care of themselves every bit as much as the person taking the class.

It's tough for instructors to follow their own advice and that's because we're always doing what we can to stay in shape. And well, that means we are prone to over-doing it.

I know there are days when I do too much and that's not good. That's why I try to take at least one day off a week from intense cardio. Otherwise, I do risk burn out and it can happen before you even know it.

I've become a big believer in the importance of rest and recovery. It has made a difference.

I've had to learn these lessons the hard way. Thankfully, now I listen, rest, and adjust my program accordingly. Once you move beyond the stage of GOTTA DO (as in gotta exercise because I'm supposed to in order to drop 10 #s in 2 weeks) to really enjoying the full benefits of exercise in mind, body and spirit, it means the world to have this level of understanding. I hope a lot of the newbies really listen to the message here. It will save so much frustration during the early stages on the wellness walk. Report
First, Nicole, I saw your name in a little Kroger magazine I got about eating healthy :) Hehe!

I avoid burnout by mixing it up - I try to do as many different things as I can. Elliptical, strength classes, Spinning classes, circuit, jogging...I have to keep it interesting and have a variety so I don't get bored! Report
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