Overtraining or Under Recovering?

It's a vicious loop. Train, train too hard or too long, and now you're sidelined. Once healthy, train, train too hard, and you're sidelined again. If the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results, then I've been insane a few times over.


But I know others can relate.

We embark on a journey - usually too ambitious for our current self - only to be forced to take time off. We're either too sore, injured, or mentally burned out. Classic symptoms of "overtraining," right? I don't think it's all that simple.

Instead, we need to shift our focus. Because what if these symptoms weren't from overtraining? What if we're actually "under recovering?" And no, it's not just semantics.

We've always been told that that harder we work the better our outcomes. But most people who are serious about fitness don't fail to reach their goals because they lack effort or intensity. It's usually too much of both and not enough recovery.

If you're picking up what I'm putting down, below is actionable information to help you achieve more and feel better while doing it.

The "Under Recovering" Argument

The most common symptoms of overtraining are cumulative. Sure, people do get injured by trying a new exercise they just weren't ready for. But from my experience, symptoms frequently occur in the following scenarios:

  • Runners increasing their weekly mileage too aggressively (or not incorporating anything but running)
  • Lifters lifting at too high of a percentage over a period of weeks
  • Clients sticking only to high intensity programs

It's easy to argue that if someone just trained less frequently, they wouldn't suffer from injuries or burnout. But in a culture where looking at a screen dominates our daily life - estimates now state that half the world will be nearsighted by 2050 - is less movement and more sitting really the solution?

Further, if overtraining tends to be cumulative, is it really the training that's the problem? Or does the fault lie in our body's inability to adapt to that day's training and be 100% ready for the next session?

We don't think of recovery because, well, we haven't been told to. We like clear connections between hard work and progress. In fact, I used to think that in order to see measurable progress in the gym, I needed to put forth a heroic effort.*

(*I was much weaker and, predictably, had many more nagging injuries at the time.)

But when you rub two brain cells together, is the gym really where our body changes? It's not. The training process is what breaks your body down. This is only the stimulus for change. And it's a stimulus that might not yield results if we're not getting proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, or stimulating our recovery with lighter workouts.

Some recent research illustrates that staying longer and working harder in the gym may not equate to burning more calories. As this study illustrates, there isn't a linear correlation with how hard we work and how many calories we burn. Instead, there's an upper limit to how many calories we can use in a day. Beyond a certain point, doing more won't burn more calories. It just prevents you from being 100% the next time you're at the gym.

Let that sink in for a moment. Because it's contrary to everything you've heard. (The mechanisms behind these findings have been more fully explored in animals.)

On the left - the calorie burn we  think  happens when we work hard.  On the right - what the relationship  actually  looks like.  Figure source:  O'Neal, et al. 2017

On the left - the calorie burn we think happens when we work hard.

On the right - what the relationship actually looks like.

Figure source: O'Neal, et al. 2017

For example, if we're in bed all day, we still burn a set amount of calories - our resting metabolic rate (RMR). If we walk 10 miles, we'll burn our RMR plus the additional calories from walking 10 miles. 

But if we walk 20 miles, we're not going to burn our RMR plus the equivalent of 20 miles of walking. The amount of calories we burn will look more like our RMR plus 10 miles of walking, even though we're putting in twice the work. Unfair? Maybe. But this is because our body conserves energy for other vital processes - feeding our brains cells, vital organs, and repleting our energy stores (which takes energy itself). Our brain won't allow us to burn enough calories to put these vital processes in danger. And only when all these processes are completed can we use the leftovers to recover from our workout.

Again, it's easy to blame the training for why you're injured rather than a lack of recovery. But stick with me.

Mental Stress

Just like estimating calories we've burned or consumed, humans are notoriously bad at estimating how our mental stress impacts our lives. Deadlines, family issues, health worries, financial troubles, as well as a general lack of sleep are just a few of the stressors the average person has.

All of this mental stress may not affect your workouts - and if anything, it might even help in the short term. One of my best squatting sessions ever came after I was fired up from a meeting that didn't necessarily go my way.

But how did I perform during the following workout? Not nearly as well.

As I've written here (in my most popular post ever, btw) these stressors affect our recovery by turning on our sympathetic nervous system. As this "fight or flight" response is turned up, you're shuttling energy (calories) away from your workouts and your recovery so that your brain can function on a high level. And since we can only expend a limited amount of calories in a day, our body may be unable to repair itself properly.

If you've made it this far, I suspect that you're buying some of what I'm saying. And rather than leave you out to dry, here are three ways you can improve your recovery and your workouts.

3 Ways to Improve Your Recovery

1. Know that "recovery" doesn't mean rest.

Rest and recovery are not the same. Even for canines.

Rest and recovery are not the same. Even for canines.

I made this mistake for a long time. It never occurred to me that recovery could be anything but sitting around. I was wrong.

One of the best ways to stimulate your recovery is through exercise that will drive the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system - the "rest and digest" system. As I've mentioned many times on here, the best way to target this system is keeping your heart rate between 120-135 beats per minute for 30-45 minutes. And no, it won't hurt your gainz.

Instead, think of this type of work as "stimulative" - because that's what it is! It shouldn't be taxing, and it should make you feel more relaxed. It also triggers many of the adaptions we need from the aerobic system, which is the main system responsible for helping you recover between sessions. Translating this to English, it means that for many people (myself included) a brisk 30-minute walk in the sun will suffice.

If you look at your overall training week, a good rule of thumb is to match the number of "hard" workouts with stimulative sessions. Doing so will make you feel better and allow you to train even harder on your "hard" days.

2. Kickstart your recovery at the end of your training session.

I'll just come out and say it: if you're walking out of the gym all jacked up, you're doing it wrong.

Why? Because immediately leaving your workouts to resume your hectic and busy life is most likely compounding your stress with just more stress. Your workout is going to inflict stress on your body - which is the necessary stimulus for change.  But if you can't tone yourself back down afterward, it all adds up. The best training session should end with some form of relaxation to drive recovery by your parasympathetic "rest and digest" system.

It doesn't have to be all that fancy. Take 5-10 minutes at the end of your session to help you relax. This could be some form of meditation, but I'm partial to the use of positional breathing drills. In truth, anything that gets you between 15-20 full exhales and inhales is going to stimulate this system.

3. Be aware of caffeine intake and develop a better sleep routine.

Throughout my 5+ years in the industry I've encountered some interesting stories about sleep. I'll keep the identities a secret, but here are a few:

  • A client that only slept well between 10 PM and midnight. Why? That's when their spouse would come into the room and turn on the TV. They'd proceed to wake up every hour, on the hour, from midnight to 5 AM. Other times, they wouldn't sleep for hours at a time because they'd be listening to whatever was on the TV. Yes, this was every single night.
  • Someone who was in chronic pain and wanted to lose weight, but only slept 5 hours on a good night. They always told me "long days were good days," but wondered why they weren't seeing progress.
  • Countless others who had regular fits of insomnia.

And all I can really say from all of these stories is that most of our sleep problems are also stress problems. A typical chicken and the egg problem, but there are ways we can ensure we're doing all we can to recharge at night.

Start by consuming just a little bit less caffeine. That doesn't mean abandoning your morning joe (I know, the horror!!). But start with decreasing your caffeine for a month and notice if you have any difference in your sleep patterns.

Finally, developing a sleep routine works two ways. It ensures that you have ample time to step away from electronics and relax before sleep. But most importantly, you start to have a Pavlovian response as you finish your routine.

And then, of course, you get to dream about mo' gainz.