Many readers will find this information controversial, especially those who are avid runners, Crossfit athletes, or generally type-A personalities. But the scientific evidence is conclusive on one thing: excessive physical activity paired with chronically inadequate recovery is a serious risk to long-term health.
Let’s start with running. We all know people who run every single day. Perhaps we are one of them. But did you know that long distance runners are at an increased risk of developing heart disease, spinal degeneration, kidney dysfunction and even cancer? Levels of inflammatory proteins are elevated dramatically in those who regularly run long distances, leading to the aforementioned ailments. In addition, this inflammation also causes mitochondrial dysfunction, whole-body stiffness, arthritis, chronic shoulder pain, and lower back pain.
And then there’s Crossfit. The Crossfit recommendation is that you work out 5 days a week for the best results. But the damage that’s done to the immune system and central nervous system requires most people to take at least 2 days off between sessions. Exercise of this type depletes the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is needed for activating muscles and regulating the stress response. Overtrained Crossfit athletes who aren’t recovering properly will likely see a dip in performance after some time, which becomes compounded further by poor sleep resulting from heightened stress.
A Culture of Overtraining
Running and Crossfit are easy examples because they have a strong culture that can manifest itself as overtraining, but the truth is that any form of exercise becomes problematic if the body isn’t able to fully replenish glycogen stores and key enzymes. This can lead to fatigue, sluggishness, reduced strength, and mental fog. Ultimately, it undermines most people's goals for exercising in the first place.
White blood cells also don’t have a chance to replenish themselves in instances of overtraining, leading to a compromised immune system and greater likelihood of metabolic dysfunction and sickness.
And of course, the microtears in muscles that occur during overtraining need adequate time to repair, even after soreness subsides. The damage that occurs after a heavy weight lifting session requires at least 24 hours of rest to fully repair.
While it might seem counterintuitive, you can dramatically increase your sports performance and longevity by taking time off and employing active recovery techniques.
How to tell if you are Overtrained
Devices like the Oura ring and Whoop Strap are great at providing data on how prepared the body is for exercise stress. Resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV) are two ways these devices can tell if you should continue pushing yourself, or could benefit from a slow-paced Yoga flow.
Another way of telling if you’re overtraining is by monitoring your energy levels. If you feel like your sleep quality is falling, and you have less energy than normal when performing your workout, it might be time to take a step back and employ some more low-intensity exercise.
3 Ways to Speed Up Recovery
1. Cold Therapy
The cold shower is a daily go-to for me. Cold water immersion stimulates the sympathetic nervous system in a way that leads to a positive adaptation. Simply put, the cold increases heart rate and oxygen intake, which improves blood flow thus enhancing recovery.
For strength athletes, lifting in a fasted state has been shown to improve anabolic response to a post workout meal. In a 2009 study with weight lifters, muscle growth signaling was twice as high in the group who fasted before their strength training. Similar effects on recovery can be seen in endurance athletes.
When you’re done fasting, eating a variety of low-inflammatory foods can aid in the recovery process. As mentioned before, elevated levels of inflammatory proteins are a telltale sign of a body that is not fully prepared for the strain of exercise. By eating foods rich in antioxidants and proteolytic enzymes, you can limit the buildup of damaging free-radicals that lead to increased inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory foods include dark-colored fruits and vegetables, ginger, green leafy vegetables, and fatty fish such as salmon.
If you’re interested in fine-tuning your workout protocol to optimize physical recovery and promote longevity, contact us today for a free health and fitness consultation.
“Chapter 1: Defining Health, Fitness and Exercise.” Body by Science: a Research Based Program for Strength Training, Body Building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week, by Doug McGuff and John R. Little, McGraw-Hill, 2009, pp. 3–6.
“Wolverine: A Complete Toolbox for Recovering with Lightning Speed.” Boundless: Upgrade Your Brain, Optimize Your Body & Defy Aging, by Ben Greenfield, Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 2020, pp. 240–258.