How to Prevent Overtraining, Avoid Injuries, and Still Crush Your Workouts

KB swingNot too long ago, I had a nice little chat with my ‘ol buddy Shane Heins from Dare to Evolve (aka the “Clubbell Evolution guy”). We got talking about training, as we often do, and I even recorded the whole thing for you to listen in.

And I lost it. No, not my mind. Why would you think that? Just the recording. I lost the recording. We had a lapse in Internet connectivity, and I lost the whole kit and caboodle. Talk about a major bummer because it was a really good discussion.

So, in an attempt to salvage all of my best points from that discussion and plaster them together here to enhance my reputation and improve my self-confidence, I’m going to share what I think is one of the most over-looked aspects of physical training that can make a really big difference in your results.

Because the truth is…

Most people who live in fear of overtraining wouldn’t know a real day of training if it punched them in the face. – Ross Enamait

I’m sorry, but did that hurt? The truth does.

The Unfounded Fear of Overtraining

One of the most common, yet unfounded, fears of athletes and fitness trainees is overtraining. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, “overtraining is a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual’s exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. They cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness. Overtraining is a common problem in weight training, but it can also be experienced by runners and other athletes.”

There will always be differences of opinion, but all things considered, I think that’s a pretty good description.

So, the problem is that many people are afraid of overtraining. Naturally, many people try to avoid and prevent overtraining by adjusting their training program to account for it. They deliberately train less often, or for less time, or at a lower intensity, etc. Or worse yet, they hold back on themselves. Or, perhaps the worst case of all, they get stuck in a perpetual cycle of making little, if any, progress on a regular basis because they can’t seem to break through an invisible plateau. Maybe you can relate.

But here’s the thing. Overtraining is like the Boogeyman. It just doesn’t exist for the vast majority of people.

My point being that the vast majority of people do not need to worry about overtraining at all. It shouldn’t even be on their radar, and if they think they’re experiencing it, or may be at risk of experiencing it, then the problem is probably not what they think.

The truth is that most people don’t even come close to training at a high enough level to actually experience overtraining.

And yet, many of us experience many of the very signs of overtraining regularly (ongoing muscle soreness, excessive fatigue, decreased performance, moodiness and signs of depression, among other things). But I would propose that in the vast majority of cases, the real culprit that many people face is not over-training at all. Overtraining is an illusion most people believe. A farce. The real problem is more-often-than-not a little something called “under-recovering” which shares all the same symptoms of overtraining – a deceptive beast, is it not?

Overtraining VS Under-Recovering

The fact of that matter is that most people are not overtrained at all. They’re under-recovered. And this is not just semantics. Understanding the difference can mean the difference in your results.

For our purposes here, under-recovering refers to not fully recovering from whatever stimulus you’ve given your body from exercise/athletics/recreation/life/etc.

Everyone knows that you need to stimulate the body to adapt, and that we do that while training. Almost everyone also knows that you adapt (ie get better) while you’re not training. Your body starts to rest, recover, and rebuild when you are finished training. This is why bodybuilders, weightlifters, and other strength athletes have typically used split routines and “off days” to recover between sessions (among other things). It’s when you’re resting and recovering that you actually adapt, make progress, get stronger, fitter, leaner, and ultimately, better.  In essence, physical training is a short-term temporary stimulus that cues the body to adapt, and then it’s how your body responds to that stimulus that determines what kind of adaptations you make (positive or negative).

It’s vitally important that we understand the training side of the equation. And the good news is that I think we’ve got it down pretty well, in that we understand that we need to create as big of a stimulus as possible while training. At least, as much as can be done safely. But focusing almost exclusively on training is only half of the equation. In fact, I would argue that without proper recovery, all the training in the world isn’t going to make a difference in your results. Both parts of the equation are critically important.

So, we need to prioritize recovery.

I think this is one of the most over-looked aspects of achieving practically any fitness or athletic goal. And that doesn’t surprise me because recovery isn’t exactly cool. Or hot. Or sexy. It’s just plain ‘ol boring recovery, right? Well, not exactly.

The Difference Between Rest And Recovery

It’s important to note that a living human body is never truly 100% at rest or 100% at work. We are in a constant flux of training and recovering. We are always training (ie conditioning) the body in some way, shape, or form, whether we think of it as “training” or not (even sitting down is “training”). Similarly, the body is constantly trying to reach homeostasis, and it does this through recovery. Even during a grueling workout, your body is recovering – even during an exercise itself. It’s a never-ending, unchangeable process of stimulation and adaptation.

Now, rest is a form of recovery. And while rest and recovery go hand in hand, there is one important difference: rest is passive, whereas recovery is active. And we need both rest and recovery to varying degrees depending on our circumstances.

Sleeping is a good example of rest because it’s passive, but not all recovery should be passive. This is why the simple recommendation to “get enough sleep” that many personal trainers and fitness coaches commonly make is altogether inadequate. Sleeping enough is not sufficient. On the contrary, remaining passive about recovery is a surefire way to sub-optimal results. A much better approach is to be PRO-active about your recovery needs in order to not just maximize your results and the benefits you receive from training, but also to minimize the risk of injuries or other problems.

So, how do we do that? We get proactive about rest and recovery. It takes a balance of both. Call it what you want: recovery, restoration, rejuvenation, revitalization, or regeneration. Regardless, we need to get better at this.

9 Recovery Strategies To Help You Double Or Triple Your Results From Training*

I can tell you with full confidence that I could not train at the level I do as often as I do without the following recovery strategies. Maybe I’m just one of the “weak humans” in a fringe minority, but my body just can’t handle consistent high intensity training without doing my due diligence with regard to recovery. But even if you’re not as “weak” as I am, you’ll find immense benefit from using the following tools.

So, here are my top recovery strategies. You may (read: will) benefit from using just one or two of these, or you may want to work towards drawing on all of them eventually. What you actually need to do will depend on your unique situation and circumstances. This is a general, blanket list of ideas to get you started. So, choose wisely.

Do the important stuff that most people ignore and neglect. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about: all that fancy joint mobility and yoga stuff. This is probably one of the most under-appreciated and under-used collections of tools for active recovery. Seriously, you need to feed and heal your tissues. We all do! And we do this with movement (laying down to rest every night isn’t going to cut it).

Joint mobility training and yoga are especially good tools toward this end, and they both have unique benefits. Sure, you could wait for your body to “pump” some nutrition into your body’s organs and tissues. Or, you could rapidly accelerate that process by “pumping” those tissues with nutrition yourself. It’s your choice. The tools are widely available and accessible to anyone, and these simple practices will rapidly increase your body’s ability to recover. Use them generously, and daily, if possible.

Perform low intensity physical activity frequently. That may sound like a tedious, and time-consuming task, but don’t think of this as something you have to do. Think of it as something you get to do. I mean, seriously, I’m telling you to go and do the things you love. Take the dog for a walk. Throw a Frisbee around. Do whatever you like to do that involves low intensity activity, and do it regularly. Also, look for opportunities to be active. Take the stairs. Park further away. Shop in stores instead of online. You get the idea. These little bits of non-exercise physical activity will not only add up and deliver outstanding health benefits, they’ll also greatly enhance your recovery, too. Every little bit helps.

Respect and practice the recovery week regularly (aka the rest week, deload week, etc.). There comes a point in your training program where you need to back off a little bit because your body just needs a break from moderate and high intensity exercise. There are many different methods and strategies for the recovery week, which I won’t get into here, but the general recommendation is to take a recovery week every 4-12 weeks. Now, that’s a wide range, which means that you need to figure out which end of that spectrum you fall into – and it will change with time.

Generally speaking, unfit “beginners” to fitness will be able to go a little longer before needing a recovery week off from high intensity training. On the flip side, experienced athletes and highly fit persons will fall on the lower end of that spectrum. For perspective, I’ve been training for many years, and almost never go more than six weeks without taking a recovery period (usually a week – sometimes shorter, sometimes longer). You’ll need to evaluate when to take one based on your results, energy levels, and disposition towards training, among other things. This is an essential tool for all serious trainees that will profoundly effect your body’s recovery ability. Use it.

Continually work to optimize your food and nutrition while not losing sight of the fact that food is meant to be enjoyed. Nutrition is an extremely complicated subject with layers of sophistication that few people on Earth really understand. Heck, even the dieticians and nutritionists are in the dark on a lot of issues simply because there is still so much to learn in the science and research community. So, the lesson is that we should strive to do the best we can when it comes to nutrition, but not fret too much over the little details.

It’s not worth giving yourself a heart attack over whether celery or asparagus is better for ______. Just eat your vegetables. My point being that you should work from what you know, and customize to your individual needs, goals, and eating preferences accordingly. There’s no reason one cannot enjoy delicious food that is both healthy/nutritious and appropriate for your fitness goals. Everyone knows that “you are what you eat,” and the fact of that matter is that what you eat will determine how well you can recover because food is fuel.

Just keep in mind that pursuing optimal nutrition is a war, not a battle, and it may take a long time before you hit a breakthrough. Commit to your continuous improvement for the long haul.

Optimize your sleeping habits. Please note that I didn’t merely say “get enough sleep,” which is an all-too-common insufficient recommendation. It’s not as simple as getting X amount of hours of sleep. Although, sleeping enough is part of it, getting enough quality sleep is what’s truly important. And you can only get enough quality sleep if you optimize your sleeping habits. Of curse, a whole book could be written on the subject, and many have been, but here is a short list of action-ideas to get you started:

-Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, if possible (even on weekends).
-Sleep in a totally dark room and avoid artificial light as much as possible before bed (especially blue light).
-Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or other stimulants late in the day (including “screen time” and even high intensity exercise).
-Sleep at least 7-9 hours a night, but avoid oversleeping. You can figure out exactly how much sleep you need with this simple self-test.

Work as hard as you can when you can. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing we can do to prioritize recovery is to work extremely hard while training. This will not apply to everyone, but the rationale behind this is that by bumping up your training intensity, you will send a signal to your body that you need to rest and recover – and that you need to now more than ever. Thus, you’ll be more likely to actually follow through with it because your body is trying to get you to follow through with it. But the important point here is that you should only bump up the intensity when it feels feasible. If you train recklessly, you’ll run into problems faster than you can say “dad-gummit!”

Rest as hard as you can when you can. When you take time to rest or relax, it should be restful. And when what you really need is rest, it’s important to make sure you’re getting it as effectively as possible. So, if you normally relax at the end of the day by watching some TV or surfing news websites, and it gets you all worked up (rightfully so!), then that’s probably not the best way to rest. If you’re going camping, and you brought your ipad or mini-TV with you, then that’s probably not as restful as it would be without it. If you’re on vacation, but you’re constantly checking your email, your stocks, etc., then that’s probably not very restful either. Every one of us needs some serious down time once in awhile. So, when that happens, make the most of it. You can thank me later.

Try additional recovery interventions as needed. There are times when you need a little bit more recovery than you’re getting from the above suggestions. You might be doing the joint mobility, yoga, and eating and sleeping well, etc. But you just need that last little bit of help. This is when you plug in the hot tub, contrast showers, sauna, Epson salt baths, massage, ice, etc. These are the last resort options that will provide the remaining 5-10% of recovery that you need (if that). Don’t count on any one of these to make or break your success, but use them as necessary.

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Now, when all of the components listed above just aren’t enough, it may be time to take a step back from your training program altogether. If you’ve been doing everything you can to prioritize recovery and are still struggling to fully recover between your training sessions, and you start to feel like you’re falling behind, then it may be time to take your foot off the gas pedal. You may need to decrease the frequency of your sessions, the intensity in those sessions, or the volume in those sessions, among other things. When all else fails, don’t keep training at the capacity or intensity you have been. Your body just can’t handle it. And trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor, and will progress even further in the future because you held back now.

Making These Habits Your Own With Synergy

One thing to remember is that all of these elements work together to varying degrees, and the importance of each element will vary from person to person. Sure, you could get massages, take Epsom salt baths, and do gentle exercises for circulation all day long, but if you don’t get enough sleep (ie rest), then it isn’t going to matter one bit. Similarly, even good sleep may not be enough to help you recover from excess stress. You may need to just totally and completely relax, or seek other alternatives depending on your exigent circumstances. Training and recovery is all about ebb and flow, and it’s important to be flexible and constantly trying to figure out what works best for you.

The Bottom Line

You see, it’s not enough to simply train hard 3-5 times a week and then get enough sleep and take “off days.” And in most situations like that, it does just as much harm as good. So, we need to change this paradigm in our training culture. Here are the most important things I want you to remember from this diatribe on recovery:

Take-home point #1: When we look at the big picture, we need to focus on two main things: 1) creating an appropriate stimulus to cue the body to adapt (and I would add, as big of a stimulus as can be done safely – within reason), and 2) giving at least as much attention and effort into our recovery as we do our training to not only make an adaptation, but the best adaptation we can.

Take-home point #2: You need to train as hard and as often as you can fully recover from.

And here’s the cool part…

Take-home point #3:  You can greatly increase your training capacity by incorporating recovery strategies into your fitness plan and your lifestyle as a whole. Said another way, you can get so much more out of your training, and make more progress (getting better results) when you emphasize recovery. It increases your fuel tank, so to speak.

Final Words

I am becoming less and less impressed by the men and women who achieve short-term fitness goals and live to tell about it. Now, don’t get me wrong, because I’ve seen some incredible short term body transformations that have shocked me almost beyond belief. But what really impresses me are the men and women who continue to succeed over the long term. I’m talking over a period of years, and especially into old age. That is impressive!

I can tell you with complete confidence that the best way to ensure you’re able to train hard, and look, feel, and perform at your best today, and for the rest of your life, is to make recovery a high priority. And if you think about it, this is what most of the people who do continue to remain fit and active well into old age are doing. They’re the ones doing yoga, and tai chi, and joint mobility training, among many other things.

It’s tempting to just hit the gym, put in your time, and then get out and get back to your normal life. But as we’ve already discussed, this is problematic for many reasons. Instead, we should be planning our workouts around our ability to recover – not the other way around. So, if you want to drastically improve your results, performance, and the benefits you receive from training, it’s time to get pro-active about your recovery. And I think this is one of the most over-looked elements of a training program, that if accounted for, will make a major, immediate impact on your results. I know it has for me.

What To Do Next

Now, most of the suggestions I listed are fairly simple and intuitive. You don’t need much instruction to help you get to bed on time (you may need a little something else, though!). But recovery-based training is a fairly new trend in modern physical culture (though it’s been around forever), and there are many ways to do it – most of which merit some instruction. So, here’s a free program called Recuper8 that will help you get a taste of recovery-based training (note: it’s not just for police, firefighters, and military personnel. And you’ll feel amazing when you’re finished with this routine!).

And if you want to go deeper, and most people should, there’s a killer deal (ie 75% off) on a recovery-training package available here. That’s the exact stuff I use every day, and it works like gangbusters.

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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arcticwarrior/

*These are arbitrary, but possible, figures. Heck, it could be quadruple results for some people!

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