How to avoid overtraining (and optimise your health and performance)

Award-winning entrepreneur and founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited, Leanne Spencer, shares her top tips on how to identify and avoid overtraining.

Is your usual training routine and life load leaving you feeling fatigued or maybe even exhausted? Maybe you've suffered from a loss of libido, or you're sleeping poorly, waking up prematurely, or waking up through the night and struggling to get back to sleep. Maybe you've lost your appetite and don't have the desire to eat as you used to. Perhaps you have unexplained aches and pains, or muscle ache, particularly in the lower limbs. You might be suffering from headaches. Maybe you have lowered immunity and you're just not bouncing back from illnesses and common colds like you used to. If that's you, there's a very good chance that you're suffering from a condition called overtraining. Over-training is basically where you've put the body, specifically the nervous system, under an excess amount of strain and it's now manifesting itself in different ways throughout the body.


What is overtraining?

To help you understand what overtraining is, let's talk about the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two branches; the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic branch is what we have classically called the fight, flight, or freeze reactions. We're in that state when we're doing our workout for example (that's a positive form of stress, called eustress), but we're also in that state when we're late for a meeting, up against a deadline, or generally feeling stressed. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is the classic rest and digest mode. We're typically in that state when we're relaxing in the evening, chilling out, having a chat with a friend, or meditating for example. We were designed as human beings to be able to oscillate between those two states. It's healthy for us to be sympathetic dominant some of the time but returning to parasympathetic dominance to allow the body to relax and recover. It's whilst in parasympathetic dominance that we get the recovery we need for the nervous system to thrive. That's essentially how the nervous system works. So, when it comes to avoiding overtraining, it's as much about managing the nervous system as it is about managing the physiological and the physical stress that the body is put under.

Prevention rather than cure

I'm a very big fan of prevention, not cure. So, the whole ethos of this article is going to be around how we can prevent it from happening, as well as some tips for you to get out of over-training if that's where you're at. There are three areas you can focus on that will help you avoid falling into an overtraining pattern.

Tracking and monitoring

The first one is tracking. Having the ability to track certain metrics, specifically heart rate variability, body temperature, and resting heart rate, has been really important for me for mitigating the risks of overtraining and it will be for you too. Heart rate variability (HRV) is an excellent measure of the health of your nervous system. HRV is the inter-beat interval of heartbeats, or in other words the gap in time between each heartbeat. Somewhat paradoxically, a healthy heart has an irregular inter-beat interval (you’d expect it to be the other way around). An unhealthy or a strained heart and nervous system will have a more regular inter-beat interval. HRV is one of those numbers where the higher it is, the better and is a very good indicator of how rested your nervous system and your overall body is.

The other thing to monitor is body temperature. Quite often when you get into an overtraining zone you will see your body temperature creep up. The same thing happens when you're getting sick. This is important to keep an eye on as it can indicate that something is wrong before you start to notice actual symptoms. HRV and body temperature are like the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to over-training.

The last one to track is resting heart rate (RHR), which is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you're at rest. In terms of that number, the lower the better in most instances. The healthier you become, the lower your RHR will be (and the higher your HRV will be as these numbers are almost always inversely related).

How to track your HRV, RHR and body temperature

You can of course use a thermometer to track your body temperature, or a chest strap to track RHR and HRV, but the best bit of kit I’ve found is the Oura Ring (use code BODYSHOT to get your hands on one of these – literally! – and get 10% off). The Ring tracks your sleep data to a very high level, your activity data and then cross-correlates the two to give you a readiness (or recovery) score. It tracks resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and body temperature, and is a clever bit of kit. The other thing that I do is I keep an eye on certain blood biomarkers, for example, vitamins D3, B6 and B12, iron, cholesterol, lover performance, blood sugar levels (HbA1c) and thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Often discrepancies in these biomarkers can indicate I’m overtraining or getting sick. DNAfit have a service called Snapshot which looks at 9 biomarkers to provide you with real-time data. The service is super-simple; a box comes through the door with a testing kit for you to tap and results are returned within days.

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Intelligent training

To explain what I mean by this idea, let's look at the example of Serena Williams, one of the most decorated athletes of our time. She’ll have her regular training sessions (practice on the court, gym work, hitting with tennis partners and her coaching team and her recovery sessions), and her team will be monitoring what's going on with her body, and how she's performing. By looking at the data and contrasting it with subjective data such as how she is feeling at any time, Serena and her team will be flexing and adapting her schedule accordingly. We need to do the same thing. It doesn't matter what level of athlete you are, it's important to have the intelligence to flex your schedule as and when you need depending on how you feel and what the data tells you.

Part of the idea of intelligent training is getting access to data about your body that can help you understand how much recovery you might need from a genetic standpoint. I’ve tested my genetic profile using DNAfit, and that has informed a lot of my thinking about my training program, particularly for a recent event I took part in, the Arctic Circle Race (nicknamed the world’s toughest ski race). I have genes that mean I am slightly more predisposed towards power-based activities than endurance (54% power v 46% endurance). This means I can cross train quite effectively, but I have a slight leaning towards power-based activities. So, I train according to that ratio of 54:46, which gives me a lot more bang for my buck in terms of maximising training time and efficiency of training. I also know from my genes that I have a high VO2 max potential, a medium risk of injury and medium recovery speed. Medium recovery speed means I need to give myself about 36 to 48 hours between sessions. Prior to DNA testing I tried to train every day, but never felt that good. I now know that I get the best results from my training when I have that sort of gap in between sessions. Taking away the guesswork about what type of training I respond best to, and what kind of recovery I need, has been invaluable for helping me avoid over-training. Tailoring a diet around my DNA has also meant I can support my body and my nervous system with the right foods, which perfectly complements the blood testing I do. My DNAfit profile is my blueprint for optimal health and the testing provides real-time data so I can make the necessary tweaks and modifications to ensure a great performance and minimise the risk of overtraining.

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The final thing I want to mention is recovery, and this is probably the most under-appreciated aspect of training. Recovery is as important as the training you do. The main element of recovery is sleep. In Professor Matthew Walker's brilliant book Why We Sleep, he reveals that 99.99% of us need between seven and eight hours of sleep (and more if you’re an athlete). If you round up or down to the nearest percentage the number of people who can genuinely thrive on 6 hours or less on a consistent basis it would be 0% (there are some people who do have the gene but the point is it is very few of us). Sleep, and getting good quality sleep as well as being in bed for a long time, is absolutely vital for recovery.

Another great way to recover is using cold and heat (both in small doses create what is called a hormetic response, which means something in small doses can have a beneficial effect on health but could kill in large doses). We have an outdoor infrared sauna and I spend 30 minutes most days in there, but ice baths or cold showers (shivery cold for at least 2 minutes) also are great for recovery. Having a regular massage is recommended for smoothing out tired or knotted muscle fibres and relaxing the nervous system. I am also a huge fan of meditation; I do 10 minutes meditation a day, and that really helps to alter my physiology in a positive way, moving me from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. I’ll also plan lots of active rest; this isn’t necessarily cancelling workouts or doing nothing, active rest for me is a lot of walking and staying on my feet some of the time or moving the body in a gentle, restorative way. They're all different types of recovery but to emphasise, this is a critical art of training and essential if you don’t want to overdo it.

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In summary

Overtraining is a state that is absolutely avoidable. Tune into your body, get really good at not just using data, but also sitting and being still and using your intuition and senses to work out what's going on for your body and blend the two. Use the data to figure out what's going on with the nervous system. Spend a few minutes considering how you feel; if the thought of a workout fills you with dread or leaves you with a heavy feeling, you're probably overdoing it. Be adaptable, flex your schedule. Sometimes less is more, so still do the workout, but do less, and you may even get more of a physiological adaption because you've got a better balance of training and recovery. And think about the minimal effective dose as well, particularly when you're tired or sick. What is the smallest thing you can do that positively affects your overall fitness, but is not big enough to kind of make you fearful, or start to push you into overtraining?

About Leanne Spencer

Leanne is an award-winning entrepreneur and the founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. She delivered a TEDx talk on 'Why fitness is more important than weight', is the author of bestselling books 'Remove the Guesswork' and 'Rise and Shine', and hosts a podcast called ’Remove the Guesswork‘. Leanne is the founder of Bodyshot Performance, an award-winning health and wellbeing consultancy that creates total solutions to optimise your health, fitness and wellbeing. Bodyshot work with busy professionals on a 1-1 basis, and also work with SMEs who want to create a culture of energy, vitality and performance and position wellbeing as a competitive advantage. Leanne’s expertise is around personalised health, fitness and wellbeing using the latest science and technology.

About Bodyshot Performance Limited

Bodyshot Performance create total solutions to optimise your health, fitness and wellbeing. We work with chronically stressed or burned out professionals to get you back in control of your health and able to do the things you want to do in life. Bodyshot aIso work with businesses of 25 - 500 people who want to create a culture of energy, vitality and performance through the business and position wellbeing as a competitive advantage.

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