Melanie Jenkins (not her real name) couldn't shake the knee pain that had been bugging her for months. The 27-year-old graduate student--an avid marathon runner, cyclist and fitness instructor--never had knee problems before. Not only was she battling this recurring injury, she was also having trouble sleeping and had become uncharacteristically moody.
But Jenkins feared that letting off her demanding training schedule would dull her competitive edge. "A part of me was afraid to stop," she says. "I was afraid to take days off. I worried excessively about losing my fitness and gaining weight. Resting seemed like a waste of time. It was something I knew I should do, but never could seem to get around to." As she sacrificed her rest days for more training, her body and mind suffered.
"When the exhaustion hit, I knew something was wrong," she says. Jenkins was overtraining.
Few of us begin exercising with the intention of overdoing it. For most, training is a means to an end, a chance to finish that marathon we've always dreamed of, to finally tackle a triathlon, or to fit into the dress that's been hanging in the back of our closet for months. We begin training modestly, adhering to training schedules and allowing ourselves appropriate rest and recovery time.
But as we reach our goals our motivations change. We want to run farther and faster; we want to beat last year's time. So we cut back our rest days, add a few more workouts and before we know it, we're caught in a dangerous cycle of overtraining.
"It happened very gradually for me," says Jenkins. Training to improve her marathon time, she increased her sessions until she was running six days a week. Instead of limiting herself to one long run a week, as experts recommend, she ran two. She also continued swimming and cycling regularly, along with teaching fitness classes. "I kept adding to my schedule, but never cut anything back."
Exercising excessively with little or no regard for the physical and mental toll it's taking is overtraining, says Paige Dunn, sports psychology consultant and founder of Xcel Sport Psychology Group. She stresses that your body needs rest days so it can heal and come back stronger. It's during recovery that muscles repair themselves and adapt to the rigors of training. Without sufficient time off, not only will your fitness and performance decline, you'll also set yourself up for higher risk of injury, insomnia, irritability and other ills.
Overtraining can negatively impact your personal life as well. A workout-packed schedule leaves little time for family and friends. "Balance is key to training and maintaining healthy relationships," Dunn says. "It's easy for this to get out of whack when someone gets so focused on training goals."
Tracy Daniels (not her real name), a gym enthusiast, can't bear the stress of missing a workout. Daniels not only relies on exercise to keep her slim, the 30-year-old teacher also uses it as stress release, and she admits missing a workout makes her feel guilty. "I feel awful when I miss a workout," she says, "even if I'm sick, I feel like I'm being lazy and that missing one workout is going to turn me into a fat, lazy slob. I know it's ridiculous, but it's how I feel."
Daniels isn't alone. For many women, the guilt they feel for missing a workout is overwhelming. Like worry, anxiety and negative talk, sports psychologist and author Jim Taylor, Ph.D., says guilt is a sign that a woman has become too invested in her training. This kind of attitude often causes women to feel embarrassed and bad about themselves, which leads them to make poor choices like failing to get adequate rest.
Women can become too preoccupied with their fitness because their self-esteem becomes inextricably tied to their efforts or athletic achievements. "[They] go from wanting to be active and fit to needing to be active and fit. It's a degree of addiction. They're looking for something in their exercise beyond fitness--a sense of self-worth and value. Unfortunately, it's only a temporary fix because you don't really get your self-worth from an activity," he says.
Many women also get into exercise, particularly running and triathlon, to fill a void in their lives, Taylor says, whether it's an unsatisfying job, poor relationship or just loneliness. A woman may finish her first 10k, yet still feel as if she's missing something. But instead of considering that running may not be the answer, she decides she just hasn't gone far enough. She tries a half marathon. Still unsatisfied, she runs a marathon, a triathlon, an ironman, an ultra run and on.
"It's a slippery slope," Taylor says. "They're in search of something they won't ever find at a finish line."
Jenkins knows what that's like. "I always wanted to run faster, to do better because I felt like it proved how fit I was. If I didn't do better each time, I felt like it was because I wasn't working hard enough." When she realized the opposite was true--that her times were slipping from working too hard--she backed off training.
Breaking the Cycle
"Training and exercise should be fun," says Dunn. "When we stop having fun, it's time to put things in perspective."
The first step in determining if you're overtraining is deciding whether your training is healthy or not. Taylor explains, "I define training as unhealthy if it hurts physically, if it hurts your relationships or the overall quality of your life."
Taylor encourages people to seek professional help if they're having trouble finding balance or if they find training is negatively impacting their lives. Unfortunately, some people don't realize they're doing too much until it's too late, when they suffer a severe injury or their personal relationships begin to unravel, he says.
"Your life is not going to fall apart if you miss training days, but your family life may fall apart if you neglect obligations," agrees Dunn.
It's important to re-evaluate and prioritize, she advises. "Know why running marathons or racing triathlons is important to you, specifically. Understand what role it plays in your life, and then be very clear about your goals," says Dunn.
"Find a way to create the balance that works for you and ultimately makes you happy."
Are You Overdoing It?
Look for these symptoms to see if you're taking training too far.
- Frequent injuries
- Trouble sleeping
- Anxiety, irritability, moodiness
- Loss of appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Elevated resting pulse rate and body temperature
- Persistent muscle soreness
- Increased or reduced blood pressure
- Excessive sweating
If you experience these symptoms, first visit your doctor to rule out something more serious.
Stephanie R. Kinnon lives, writes and runs in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Chatelaine, Northwest Runner, Active.com, The Washington Running Report and IMPACT Magazine.