This year, you’re committed. Whether it’s to run your first half marathon, tone your tuckshop lady arms or shed those last five kilos, you’re going to achieve your goal by sticking to a rigid training schedule. But you might be surprised to learn that too much exercise can actually lead to a drop in performance.
Overtraining – where your exercise program exceeds your body’s ability to recover – can wear you down, leading to less-than-impressive results and increasing your risk of injury. The solution? Rest and recover. It may sound like you’re slacking off from your training schedule, but the effect is quite the opposite. Taking the time to recuperate means you’re much more likely to improve your strength and endurance.
The effects of overtraining
When you run, swim, cycle or lift weights, your body needs time to rest and create new muscle. If you exercise too hard, too often or for too long, your body doesn’t have enough time to recover in order to benefit from your hard work.
“The exercise itself provides the stimulus for the muscle or the body as a whole to adapt and grow stronger,” says Jamie Stanley from the School of Human Movement Studies at the University of Queensland. “But it’s during periods of recovery and rest when these changes in your body take place, which ultimately make you stronger.”
Overtraining leads to underperformance and chronic fatigue. It also makes you more vulnerable to illness and infection. Gym-goers who over-exercise may experience sleeplessness or poor quality sleep, headaches, muscle soreness, anxiety, mood imbalances, or recurrent colds and flu – the symptoms of overtraining vary from person to person.
Recover immediately after exercise
As the body performs strenuous exercise, we breathe faster in an attempt to transport more oxygen to our working muscles. When the body requires more oxygen than our bodies can adequately deliver, it uses glucose that has been broken down into a substance called lactate – or lactic acid – as an alternative energy source.
This allows the body to continue exercising, but can result in a burning sensation following a strenuous workout. It might seem counterintuitive that a substance that allows us to continue exercising has negative side effects, but the burn is the body’s way of forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate.
To help clear the lactate, follow any strenuous exercise with some light movement – after a couple of minutes of high intensity exercise in a spin class, spin your legs at a very low resistance to generate recovery. If you’re on the treadmill, reduce the speed to a gentle walk for a couple of minutes and during a weights class, jog lightly on the spot between sets.
Stay active on recovery days
Rest days are also important, but this doesn’t give you an excuse to slouch on your couch with your feet up. In fact, research shows low-intensity exercise delivers oxygen to the muscles that allows them to clear the lactic acid from the blood, which leads to improved performance. The trick is to stick to a gentle workout, called an active recovery, so you don’t cross your lactic acid threshold.
“Active recovery is performed at a lower capacity and lower resistance, below the level at which you start accumulating metabolites such as lactate,” says Stanley. “The idea is to increase blood flow to your working muscles, which can help in the transportation of nutrients and help with the clearing of lactic acid and other metabolites that have built up during exercise.”
Engaging in active recovery on days when you’re resting also helps accelerate muscle memory and deliver nutrients to the muscles. “If you normally run or cycle at high intensity, go for a 30-minute walk with no weights,” says Stanley. “This is not power walking – just a relaxed walk.”
At the other end of the spectrum, passive recovery is also touted as an antidote to lactic acid build-up and tired muscles, but Stanley says is best saved for times of illness and injury. “Passive recovery is doing nothing, putting your feet up and totally resting. Generally it’s for when you’ve got an injury. On your days off you still need to go and do some gentle exercise, like yoga or a relaxed walk.”
Regenerate with better sleep
Exercise is a mental as well as physical workout. While the gentle pace of active recovery has a positive effect on psychological recovery and relaxation, Stanley says getting adequate shut-eye – the ultimate form of passive rest – is very important for total recovery following a high-intensity workout.
“Sleep is the time when your body is at rest,” he says. “The body is restoring itself and regenerating. It’s during sleep that the hormones responsible for positive muscle adaptations peak and promote recovery.
“The brain is constantly working as you do high intensity exercise. It’s sending signals to the body: we need glycogen stores right now – release the hormonal energy systems. It’s important to rest the mind completely. Remember, if you’re walking, then you’re
Recent research reveals that insufficient sleep can have negative effects such as a slow glucose metabolism (the body’s main source of energy) and a decrease in the human growth hormone, which is needed for tissue repair. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, could reduce your body’s ability to respond to training. “Stress is bad for recovery,” says Stanley. “It can actually inhibit the progression that you will experience by doing exercise.”
One or two late nights is unlikely to affect your performance at the gym, but consistently getting inadequate sleep can result in negative changes to hormone levels related to muscle recovery. Adults are advised to hit the sack for between seven and nine hours a night. Sweet dreams!
Words by Angela Tufvesson.