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ARE YOU OVERTRAINED, OR JUST LAZY?

TWO QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

There are many reasons one might feel drawn to not go to the gym, and the challenge lies in distinguishing between those which are good, and those which are bad. To do so effectively, it can be tremendously helpful to make an effort to draw a line between genuine overtraining – in which case it’s best to not train – and a simple lack of willpower or discipline, in which case the best option is to, well, go ahead and go. The following two questions, as simple as they are, can help you draw that line.

HOW DO YOU FEEL AFTER TRAINING?

As a rule, exercise is meant to make you feel better. While it’s understandable to be tired after, say, a grueling leg session, consistently being absolutely exhausted after training can be an indicator that you’re simply doing too much in the gym. As such, if you continuously find yourself wondering whether or not you’re overtraining, I suggest keeping a log of how you feel following each session. This need not be remotely complicated, and can consist simply of a short note at the end of each workout log relating to how you feel, and/or a numerical rating of your energy level. This way, you don’t have to rely exclusively on your memory (which is fallible, and becomes progressively more unreliable the further back you try to go), and can instead produce a semi-objective record of how your sessions are affecting you. Again, if you feel like shit after training more often than it makes you feel refreshed, this could be a sign you’re training too hard or eating and resting too little, or both.

HOW DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU WAKE UP?

This is probably one of the best questions to ask yourself when it  comes to the possibility of being overtrained, as it gets straight to an issue – sleep disturbance – which is consistent with overtraining, but inconsistent with a mere lack of the work ethic necessary to get to the gym.

After years of experiencing disturbed sleep myself, and having made a real effort to study insomnia and various circadian rhythm disorders, one of the main points I’ve found is that sleep disturbances are highly individual in nature. Thus, it’s my view that evaluating your sleep isn’t so much about comparing it to some objective standard as much as it is about asking yourself whether or not you are subjectively satisfied with your sleep. If you are, no problem! If you aren’t, the next step is to do your best to assess what it is that’s underlying your sleep issues.

When it comes to disturbed sleep caused by overtraining, I’ve found that common difficulties include getting to sleep, oversleeping, and not feeling rested after sleep. The latter two issues strike me as largely intuitive, as overtraining, by definition, consists of an increase in recovery demands beyond your ability to recover, and it makes sense that the body would generate some sort of compensatory response to this. Insomnia is less readily explained, but I suspect it relates to an increased stressed response, itself a result of overtraining. Given cortisol (the most significant of stress-related hormones) is implicated in the awakening process, it seems to me plausible stress can also be similarly implicated in causing insomnia following overtraining.

Regardless of the underlying mechanisms, it’s apparent overtraining can negatively affect one’s sleep in various ways, whereas a mere lack of work ethic wouldn’t naturally entail sleep issues. As such, if you find yourself consistently struggling with your sleep, consider the possibility you’re overtraining – specifically in the sense of chronically doing too much in the gym. Alternatively, it’s possible your training itself is not inherently problematic (in other words, your program would be completely fine if you were sleeping properly), but you’re de facto overtrained as a result of an underlying, unrelated, undiagnosed sleep disorder. I encourage proactivity here, so if you even suspect such a disorder might be at play, I think you’d be well-advised to speak to your physician, who will either be able to help you directly or refer you to a sleep specialist.

Again, there are multiple reasons one might not want to train, and it’s not always clear what the best explanation is, and thus whether or not  you should take the day off or simply force yourself to lift. Questions like the above are useful in clarifying that distinction, and in effectively assessing the situation, you can succeed in both avoiding the mistake of working too hard (by fighting through – and thus worsening – overtraining) and avoid the mistake of not working hard enough. In doing so, you’ll ultimately make the best, most consistent progress.

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