When Fitness Becomes Excessive

Scott Mayer


Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

I was suddenly struck with overwhelming fatigue.

My heart started to pound. My vision blurred. My breathing became labored. It felt like someone had strapped a thirty pound weight to my chest. I had to walk.

By the time I got back to the car, I felt like I was going to pass out. Needless to say this was not my usual 6 mile trail run.

As I made the short drive home, I started asking questions. “What the hell just happened? Why won’t my heart rate come down? Why is my mind racing?”

The last thing I remember was walking in the door and falling face first onto the couch.

I would later realize my sudden collapse had a very specific cause and could have easily been avoided.

Here’s how to identify if you’re training too much and what to do about it.

The warning signs

Just like the old adage says, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

While the nature of clinical overtraining is hotly debated, overcooking yourself in the gym (or on the trail) is definitely real. And when you push too hard, fatigue manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Maybe it’s a drop in motivation, sudden or otherwise. You just don’t have the drive you once had. Getting up early to run or heading to the gym after work just doesn’t psyche you up anymore.

Perhaps your performance starts to suffer, even if only a little. You don’t have to bonk hard like I did. Maybe your lifts aren’t as heavy. Maybe your yoga sessions aren’t as strong. Maybe you’re just going through the motions, or you continually cut your training sessions short.

You might also notice a general energy decline. You feel tired all the time. You’re less engaged with whatever activity you’re doing, fitness-related or not.

Whatever the case may be, it’s not something you can simply ignore. It won’t get better by itself.

So what do we do?

Take a break

I know you probably hate the idea of taking a break, but get over it. Sometimes a break is exactly what’s needed.

“Your body only has a certain amount of energy in its bank account,” says Alan Couzens, a cycling and triathlon coach based in Boulder, Colorado. “It will keep responding to training only for a certain period of time before that bank account goes into the red.”

A break is the perfect influx of cash into that account.

A break doesn’t mean take six months off. It doesn’t mean slack on your diet. We’re taking a break, not stopping all together. But it does mean stepping back from your grueling pace to let the body recover and reset. It means taking enough time off to allow all signs of fatigue and malaise to disappear.

“It’s essentially a recharge point for your body’s adaptive mechanisms, but not long enough to lose all of your current fitness.” says Couzens. “As for how long that break should be, it depends on how hard you’ve been working out, but one to two months is plenty for most non-professionals.”

There you have it.

Change things up

Maybe a break isn’t necessary. Maybe you’re just bored and need a change of scenery.

Switch up your exercise routine. Challenge you body in a way it’s not used to. Embrace new activities that work and move you in different ways.

“There are numerous benefits to mixing up your workout routine,” says Arnold Lee, MD. “It’s the key to stimulating different muscle groups and preventing boredom.”

Instead of running the same distance at your customary pace, add in some intervals. After you’ve warmed up, do a series of 30-second sprints followed by two minutes of slower walking or jogging to recover. Rinse and repeat six to eight times.

Instead of your regular weightlifting routine, incorporate energy boosters like drop sets, rest pauses and German Volume Training.

Instead of working out solo, jump into a group exercise class. Spin, Zumba, Yoga, Pilates, whatever. Not only will motivation and energy levels increase but you’ll be held more accountable.

It may take a little trial and error until you find what works, but stick with it until you do.

Limit outside stressors

All of us have lots going on outside of fitness. Work, families, social commitments, even amidst a worldwide pandemic we’re finding ourselves busier than ever.

Oftentimes it’s these outside stressors that have the largest impact on our physical well-being. For example, if you’re stressed at work, your sleep suffers. If your sleep suffers your recovery suffers. If your recovery suffers your workouts suffer.

Take steps to reduce these outside stressors. Maybe it’s time to finally have a chat with that certain colleague who isn’t pulling their weight. Maybe it’s time to tell your partner what’s been bugging you. Maybe you start saying no to social invitations instead of always saying yes.

Whatever the case may be, assert control. We may not always be in control of what happens to us, but we can control how we react to what happens to us.

“It’s not stress that kills us, but our reaction to it.” — Hans Selye.

When fitness becomes excessive, take steps to fix the problem. Don’t bury, don’t ignore it, don’t attack it with brute force. Take a break. Change things up. Reduce stress as much as you can.

We’re in it for the long haul. Don’t derail your fitness journey before it even starts.

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Runner, thinker, curious observer.

Chicago, IL

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