The Psychology of Overtraining
Brittany Drozd, MSW, LCSW
As summer comes to an end, we will inevitably return to our routines, be it an increased focus on exercise, school, or your career. Whether you spent the summer with umbrella drinks by the pool or training for obstacle races, it is important to consider overtraining as you return to focus on your fitness.
What is overtraining?
Overtraining is a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity. The athlete may cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness (Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 2009).
Overtraining is the result of training loads that are too demanding of the athlete's ability to adapt. It occurs when the body's adaptive mechanisms repetitively fail to cope with chronic training stress (Silva 1990). This often results in performance deterioration instead of performance improvement.
Are you overtraining?
Overtraining can look different for everyone. However, it is often characterized by the following negative affective states:
Anxiety depression fatigue
Anger lack of self-confidence decreased vigor
Beyond apparent moods, overtraining also presents as:
Physiological and psychomotor retardation chronic fatigue
Depressed appetite weight loss insomnia
Decreased libido muscle soreness depression/tension
In more severe cases, other metabolic, hormonal, muscular, hypothalamic, and cardiovascular changes often manifest in the over trained athlete.
The multi-stressor model incorporates non-physical factors including psychological, emotional and social aspects to best explain how other seemingly mundane stressors in our lives can negatively impact our training, and result in overtraining. These stressors will impact an athlete varyingly based on the athlete’s personality- do you acknowledge and monitor these stressors in your life?
So how is your job, your kids/family, your other obligations, and limited sleep negatively impacting your training? And which of these factors do you tend to ignore because of your personality?
WHY are you overtraining? [be honest with yourself here]
There are always motives behind everything that we do. We wouldn’t got to work if we didn’t get paid, or go to the gym if we didn’t see results. So what are your motives for doing CrossFit? More specifically, what are the outcomes you’re looking for from doing CrossFit?
It’s so important that you answer this question honestly for yourself: When you first started CrossFit, what were your goals? To look better naked? To run a 5k? To get harder, better, faster, stronger? How have you lost sight of those goals?
Reinforcement: So why are you overtraining at CrossFit? Positive reinforcements!! You know you look better, and other people are telling you how good you look! You feel better when you work out. All of your friends are at CrossFit. But these are not good reasons to over train.
Ego: Now that you’ve seen how much you can improve, how have your goals changed? CrossFitters are often victims of competitive egos. You reached your initial goals, so now you want to compete in the CrossFit Games?! It’s great to dream big, but is this a realistic goal for you? What are your life stressors that will make this goal more difficult for you than others- a fulltime job, being a parent, household responsibilities, and other hobbies? How should you’re training be modified to accommodate your lifestyle? Don’t let your ego lead you to overtraining.
Fear of Fat: If you take a rest day, or even 2 rest days in a row….You will not get fat! You will not undo all the work you have done for months in the gym! This is a common motivation for not taking the rest days you need. Instead, evaluate your nutrition choices to support your work in the gym. Give your body the rest it needs.
Negative Reinforcements- Why are you so disappointed about not getting a lift PR/time/Rx? What does it mean for you? How does it impact your desired outcomes to look better naked or improve your health? It doesn’t. Don’t let “missed” benchmarks lead you to overtraining. Maybe you need a rest week to hit that PR.
Addictions- Like drugs, physical exercise may be chemically addictive. This addiction is due to natural endorphins and dopamine generated and regulated by the exercise. Some people can be said to become addicted to or fixated on the psychological and physical effects of physical exercise and fitness. This may lead to over exercise, resulting in the "overtraining" syndrome. What other ways can you trigger a natural dopamine or serotonin release?
Competitiveness: The innate competitiveness of CrossFit makes us think we should always be at the gym getting better, because you know you’re competition is. But unless you’re a serious Games competitor, who is your competition really? Most of us should be competing against ourselves; setting goals based on your past PRs and times. If you find yourself competing against others, ask yourself “why?” Why is it important for me to beat them? What am I gaining? Why do I feel the need to lift beyond the recommended weight and go 5 days in a row to beat my “competition”? Who is really “winning” if I’m not training smartly?
Rx: When has one “prescription” ever been appropriate for everyone? The Rx description of the WODs should be used as a guideline. Always ask your coach what weight you should be using based on your 1 rep maxes. Don’t assume you have to do Rx and then get hurt.
Costs of overtraining:
Common results outcomes of overtraining include:
Sustained injuries extended recovery time physical therapy
Protein deficiency Rhapdomyolysis Increased cortisol
Emotional distress decreased performance in other areas- work, family life
- Identify your motivations for training. Know your fitness goals.
- If you find you’re overtraining: taper down your training load, increase recovery/rest time between workouts.
- Know your body! Listen to signals (aches, pains) that tell you “something’s not right here.” Stop immediately.
- Modifications to the athlete's workout should be made to help prevent future reoccurrences of overtraining.
- Cross train- switch it up!
- Sometimes, it's the pressure of performance that has created some of the symptoms. Are there ways of doing the activity for the sheer enjoyment of it, coming back to the reason that you got involved in the first place?
- Write in your journal about what gives you pleasure, how you want to live your life, how to pace yourself, and what you’ve learned from overtraining. Always ask yourself, is my training activity aligned with my life goals?
- Get educated! Read a book about exercise training and programming to understand the reasoning.
- Ask your coach whenever you’re unsure about weight and movements.