As we look ahead to a longed-for summer, the temptation to ‘go hard’ in order to ‘get in shape’ is strong. But stressed out bodies are at greater risk of Overtraining Syndrome. Head Strong columnist Kimberley Wilson shares what signs to look out for that you might be overdoing it – and how to protect yourself.
British winters can be rough at the best of times and these, dear friends, are decidedly not the best of times. The typical long, dark nights and cold days we experienced this past winter were rendered even more brutal by the necessary but painful lockdown restrictions. It was a bleak, hard winter. There is reason to be optimistic though, as the days are brightening now that we’re well into spring and restrictions are lifting. So, it’s not surprising that our thoughts are starting to turn to summer.
And because of this, it’s not surprising that our attention might turn to our bodies. As soon as the roadmap out of lockdown was announced, there was a palpable sense of panic about ‘getting back in shape’ by the end of lockdown. Honestly? Is it not enough that we are all surviving a pandemic, with all the sacrifices and psychological pressures that it entails? And now we’re supposed to be working on our ‘gainz’ at the same time? That sounds a bit much if you ask me.
With the gyms having been closed for months and nowhere to commute, most people have seen a dramatic reduction in their usual levels of physical activity. While it may be alarming discover that you have lost strength, flexibility or endurance during lockdown, please try to see these changes in their context: as normal responses to extraordinary circumstances. As I remind my clients, our bodies tell the story of our whole lives and, for the sake of the nation, our lives for the last year have been pretty sedentary. Now that gyms and classes have reopened, by all means enjoy moving your body – but don’t feel compelled to pretend that the last year didn’t happen.
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THE BODY SPEAKS ONE LANGUAGE
It is never a good idea to launch into an intense exercise regime without proper planning and physical preparation. Going too hard, too fast is unsustainable and usually not very enjoyable. At the very least, you’re almost guaranteed to injure yourself. But there is another reason to caution against launching into an intense physical activity programme when you are going through a stressful time: overtraining syndrome, the negative effects of doing ‘too much, too soon, too intensely’. These side-effects are not confined to the body, many of the symptoms of overtraining are psychological.
The body is highly sensitive to stress because it’s our evolutionary alarm signal. Now, a degree of stress is inevitable, and some stress can even be beneficial. What makes the difference is how you cope and recover. I find it’s helpful to think about it as an equation:
_____________ = Health outcomes
Coping & Recovery
Overall health is influenced by the amount of stress relative to the ability to cope and the opportunities to recover. With good coping skills and adequate recovery, we can usually stay well. However, if stress exceeds our resilience factors, we soon feel overwhelmed and health begins to suffer. Whether it’s the isolation of lockdown, a heavy work schedule, a relationship breakdown, or a 10k run, your body experiences and processes the stress in the same way. Even going back to your usual levels of activity after a long break (hello, lockdown) can trigger overtraining syndrome. So what does it look like?
PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS OF OVERTRAINING
• Poorer physical performance
• Fatigue and lethargy
• Increased perceived effort
• Changes in appetite
However, the stress of overtraining doesn’t stop at the neck. Stress is a total experience, it affects all the organs in the body, including the brain.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SIGNS YOU ARE OVERTRAINING
• Feelings of depression
• Mood swings
• Poor motivation
• Poor concentration
• Emotional exhaustion
• Brain fog
If you think that sounds a lot like burnout, then you’d be right – because (say it with me now) the body processes physical and mental stress in the same way. So physical stress can create psychological symptoms and psychological stress can impair physical performance.
THE BALANCING ACT
Building resilience to stress and avoiding overtraining means balancing the equation. Depending on your situation, that might mean reducing your stressors, developing your coping skills, upping your rest, or all of the above.
Reduce the volume (for instance, the length or number of training sessions) or intensity (such as running speed or kg lifted) of your activity. Be aware that other factors such as financial or relationship problems could be adding to your stress burden and may also need to be addressed.
Ask for help. Talking to someone is one of the quickest ways of reducing our perceived stress. Engage in pleasurable activities and spend time with people who make you feel good.
Not getting enough rest is a message to your body that you are in a state of emergency. Prioritise sleep and schedule regular rest periods. Ensure you are eating enough to fuel your workouts and physical recovery. Listen to your body: you might be better off skipping that long run in favour of a few more hours of sleep.
It has been a tough year. Your mind and body have been through a lot. Now is not the time to pile on additional pressure and unreasonable expectations. As we move ahead, I hope that your physical activity is driven by an appreciation for the body that has gotten you through the most collectively stressful event in living memory and a desire to use that body to experience more freedom and joy.
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Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.