Are You Overtraining?
Today's guest post is near and dear to my heart because it's something I have been dealing with for over five years, but only began recovering from in the past year. I've had to cut back on training, which was incredibly hard, in order to get my body back to a healthy state. I was inspired to share my experience with overtraining and amenorrhea by my friend Kersten Kimura, an overtraining recovery coach. Her authenticity on Instagram talking about her personal experience encouraged me to share my own story last year. While the topic of overtraining is not often talked about publicly, I feel it should be. I asked Kersten if she could write a post on the topic that I could share with my readers. Especially my female readers, because overtraining occurs more frequently in women. If you've had experience with this and would like to share, please leave a comment or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need help and guidance to restoring your health, check out Kersten's ebook 9 Reasons Why Not Having Your Period Is Dangerous to Your Health.
Are You Exhausted, Cold, and Have No Period? You Might Be Overtraining…
Overtraining can happen for many reasons. Maybe your goal is to lose weight and get fit, and you hope that this will help you feel better in your body. So you hit the gym (or running trail, or whatever your choice of exercise is) hard, and double down your nutrition so that it helps you to lose weight faster.
Soon you find yourself exhausted, demotivated, cold all the time, struggling with sleep and experiencing odd cravings… You have no idea why this is happening because everything you did was supposed to be healthy!
Maybe you just loved working out so much that you didn’t even realize you did too much of it. Maybe you under ate by accident. Maybe you didn’t feel the hunger, as intense exercise can sometimes suppress appetite. Maybe you thought the amount of food you were eating was enough but it actually wasn’t.
Either way — when you work out a lot but don’t get enough recovery and/or you don't eat enough, you can get overtrained. In this article, I will tell you specifically what happens to women when they overtrain, help you recognize the signs and symptoms of overtraining, explain why you should care that you're overtraining, and give you advise on how to recover from this condition.
More is Not the Answer
I like the saying that your results are only as good as your recovery is.
I learned the meaning of the above saying the hard way: at one point in time I was working out a ton, yet my health went downhill because I didn’t eat and rest enough.
I used to run 1-2 hours every day, on an empty stomach, to “maximize” my fat loss. I kept my calories and fat intake low. My goal was to lose weight. Yes, I absolutely lost weight, but I also lost my sleep and my period (eventually for 10 years!). I was always cold, I was constipated most of the time, and I got really depressed.
I'm just one example that working out more, especially if your recovery isn’t what it should be, can actually be extremely damaging to your health.
Unfortunately, the work out more, eat less, sleep is overrated-mentality reflects just what the diet and fitness industry is telling women to do. Unfortunately, many people who take this advice, thinking they are on the path to being fit, end up ruining their health in the process.
How Do You Know You’re Overtraining?
Overtraining symptoms may not start the same way for every woman, and not all women get all these symptoms. However, here are some common signs that you should look out for:
You’re exhausted. You may be really tired and want to sleep all the time. No matter how much you sleep, it never seems to be enough and you never feel truly rested. Maybe you force yourself to work out anyway. Usually there’s a fear of gaining weight or losing strength; however, you would likely experience a more stable body weight and increased strength by taking a few weeks off or taking one 1-2 extra rest days each week. You will come back more rested and stronger, and avoid exacerbating the fatigue.
You have lost your period. No, that’s not normal, even though many doctors will tell you that it is. Just one year without a natural period (Pill periods don’t count!) can lead to loss of bone density. Not having your monthly cycle can also set you up for cognitive diseases like Alzheimers.
I didn’t have my period for 10 years! Many doctors assured me that this is not a problem. But it is. Getting your monthly cycle is a sign of being healthy. On the contrary, not getting your period means that something is out of rhythm in the body.
You have insomnia. You may want to sleep all the time, but you may also have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. The problem could be high cortisol, which indicates chronic stress. High cortisol levels can be caused by working out too much, or too intensely, not eating enough, or dealing with stress outside of the gym (work, relationships, family life).
For years, I couldn’t sleep! I would wake up around 3-4am every night just to stare at the ceiling. This problem went away when I finally took a break from working out and allowed my body to fully recover.
You’re cold. Why are you so cold when everyone else around you is wearing a tank top and shorts? Your body needs energy to keep your body temperature normal. If there’s not enough energy because energy out (via exercise) is more than energy in (via food), your body simply doesn’t have resources to keep you warm.
You’re losing your hair. I’ve noticed that this one is especially common in the bodybuilding community. If there’s not enough energy in the body, the body must be efficient: What can I spend my resources on? As much as you may hate it, your hair is not your body’s priority. To get your hair growing again, you need to eat more.
You’re losing your motivation. You used to be excited about your workouts, but now you’re feeling just…. meh about them. If you’re a perfectionist or an athlete, you will still do them, because you have strong willpower. However, if you are finding yourself struggling to find the motivation to do the physical training you used to enjoy, your brain and body are telling you something.
I remember feeling this way and even getting upset with myself: I’m a personal trainer, I’ve worked out my entire life, why can’t I just feel excited and motivated? But it was simply because I was so burnt out.
How to Recover from Overtraining
Your recovery time will vary, depending on how serious your symptoms are. Here are a few things that will help:
Eat a lot of food. No low calorie diets, no skipping carbs or fat. I know that you may be tempted to go on a low carb diet because that’s what the entire world around us seems to be doing. I don’t recommend low calorie diets or fasting for anyone who is overtrained or even just physically active. Especially if you’ve lost your period — avoiding carbs is the worst thing to do.
Please stop trying those 1400 calories a day diets. This is absolutely not enough for an active woman. Would you believe me if I told you that most of us could eat 2000-2200 calories without working out, and not gain weight? This is absolutely possible if your metabolism is healthy.
If you’ve been starving yourself, your metabolism is down regulated, and not healthy. To get your metabolism back to normal, you need to start eating more, and yes, it may (temporarily) lead to weight gain. But your goal is to recover from overtraining and feel healthy again, and few added pounds are nothing compared to that.
Cut back on exercise. How much you need to cut back varies a lot. If you take rest days as soon as you start noticing the first signs of overtraining, you may be able to recover by incorporating an additional rest day or two into your week.
If you have let things go further and have more overtraining symptoms such as the ones I mentioned above, you may need months to recover. I personally needed 3-4 months off of working out in order to start feeling more energized and sleeping better. During that time, I only walked and did yoga. My period returned 5 months after I started making these changes.
Reduce your stress. You may think that you aren’t stressed out… but many people don’t realize how stressed out they actually are! Learn to do deep belly breathing and spend 5 minutes a day doing it. Find more ways to have fun and laugh, as these things can really help to balance your hormones.
If you need to take time off from working out, it may be hard to accept. It’s important to understand that being an athlete cannot be your only identity — think about what other things in life matter to you and focus on them. This mandatory time off from working out is a great time for self-reflection and re-prioritizing!
As motivating as the No Excuses! mantra can be for some people, overtraining is not an excuse to take a break. It’s a real reason and you need to do it to recover fully.
The sooner you start your recovery, the faster your health will come back and the sooner you can return to your favorite activities. Pay close attention to your body’s signs and respect those signs. You only have one body, and you need to take care of it.
Kersten Kimura is a personal trainer and a group fitness trainer located in Richmond, California. After years of overtraining and then recovering, she’s now helping other women to recover from binge eating, loss of period (hypothalamic amenorrhea) and other overtraining symptoms.
Get her ebook here: 9 Reasons Why Not Having Your Period Is Dangerous to Your Health.