One month, you’re working out like a boss. The next, you feel like you’ve hit a wall — literally.
Exercising used to make you feel awesome, but it’s just not doing it for you anymore. You’re not making gains, you’re feeling anxious and you’re even having trouble sleeping.
You know that exercise is good for your physical and mental health — and that you need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week — but can you have too much of a good thing?
When this happens, you can seriously injure yourself. And we’re not just talking about the typical muscle soreness that leaves you waddling around after a particularly tough workout.
“Signs that you’re exercising too much are when you have pain that’s not a good sort of sore,” Liem explains. “It’s the kind of pain that prevents you from doing daily activities. If you need to bend down to tie your shoe and you start second-guessing it due to your pain, then you’ve probably pushed too far.”
Other potential overexercise pitfalls include shin splints, tendinitis, stress fractures and something called overtraining syndrome, which most commonly affects higher level athletes but can also occur if you’re simply pushing your body too far.
“With overtraining syndrome, your performance decreases, exercise doesn’t feel fun anymore and there’s a potential for developing associated psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression,” Liem says.
So how can you stay active and reach your fitness goals without falling off the training treadmill, so to speak?
Liem shares his top tips for safely exercising within your limits.
Get your rest days in
Believe it or not, rest days are just as important as the days when you’re working up a healthy sweat.
When you exercise, Liem explains, your body undergoes a three-stage biological condition called general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
In the first stage, shock phase, your body responds to stress — aka physical activity — by increasing your heart rate and releasing adrenaline for energy.
The next GAS stage is resistance, where your body tries to adjust to its supranormal performance levels.
“Your body is adapting,” Liem explains. “There’s a neural-muscular adaptation where neural inputs and muscles can get bigger.”
If you’re, say, preparing for your first marathon, this is why you’re able to eventually run at a faster pace and for longer distances than when you first started training.
The final GAS stage is the exhaustion phase. If your body continually faces stress and doesn’t have the chance to adapt during the resistance phase, it simply taps out.
“This is equal to overtraining,” Liem says. “That’s why rest is key because you’re giving your body the ability to make a change during the resistance phase and you never hit exhaustion.”
In essence, rest days reset the GAS sequence, letting your body cycle between the first and second stages without ever hitting the third stage of total depletion.
Scale activities to your personal fitness level
Just because you want to run a marathon doesn’t mean you should suddenly start running 10 miles a day. And just because your extremely swole friend is deadlifting 200 pounds, that doesn’t mean you should rack up a barbell with the same weight.
Every person has an individual exercise threshold based on their overall level of physical activity, genetics and conditioning.
“Starting slow and gradually ramping up is the best way to prevent injuries and overtraining syndrome from happening,” Liem says. “Increase your exercise gradually and give yourself plenty of rest in between.”
While there’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much you should increase exercise week over week, he suggests notching up your volume or distance in 10-percent increments.
Say you run five miles in a week. Bump that up to five-and-a-half miles the next week. And if you’re benching 100 pounds, add 10 pounds to that your next cycle.
Doing this can prevent common exercise injuries like tendinitis, where you overtax tendons that aren’t used to performing a certain activity.
Eat enough to fuel your workouts
If you raced a car without filling up the tank, you’d eventually sputter to a stop, right? Well, the same goes for your body.
When you exercise, your body needs the proper fuel to keep you chugging along not only during your workouts but afterward as well. (Remember all that resistance-phase muscle growth?)
“You’re burning calories, and you need enough intake in your diet to meet the metabolic demands,” Liem says. “You need calories for your endocrine system, which regulates your hormones and helps with bone healing. When your bones don’t get the chance to heal, that’s when you start developing stress fractures.”
So if noshing post-workout can help you avoid broken bones, pass the protein shake.
Don’t treat stretching like an afterthought
What about other common exercise injuries like shin splints? Well, those can be easily prevented by simple stretching.
“When you’re running, you're overloading the soleus (calf) muscle group,” Liem says. “You’re repetitively flexing and extending the foot, but if you have tight calf muscles, it’s like pulling on a tight rubber band.”
Instead of starting your workout the second you walk into the gym (guilty), take the time to actually stretch and let your muscles warm up.
Liem suggests stretching each muscle group for 30 seconds at a time and repeating for a total of eight rounds. Even better, stretch after a short warm-up jog.
“Stretching a warm muscle is better than stretching a cold muscle just so you can get your blood flowing a bit,” he notes.
Listen to your body
If you’re experiencing extreme pain after your workouts or if you’re feeling anxious or depressed about it, take a step back and re-evaluate what you’re doing.
“If exercise or the effects of it are really interfering with your daily activities and your sleep, you’ve exercised too much,” Liem says.
Along with being in danger of falling into overtraining syndrome, where the only cure is extended rest, you could be setting yourself up for an unhealthy relationship to exercise or even addiction to exercise.
“The word ‘addiction’ typically means anything that you’re doing that’s at the detriment of your own health and safety,” Liem says. “Exercise addiction is when you’re getting to the point of getting stress fractures and you’re still going — where you’re actually causing more harm to your body than good.”
And if you have an injury or are experiencing the symptoms of overtraining syndrome but don’t want to stop for fear of losing all of your progress, just remember why you’re exercising in the first place.
“We exercise to maintain our health,” Liem says. “And just like you need exercise, you need to rest, too.”