Now more than ever, our health is our most important good. Getting injured is a major setback on your way to health and fitness and it's frustrating. In this article I will answer the question, “When do overuse or overtraining injuries occur?”
The best way to avoid injury is to listen to your body and allow for the right amount and quality of recovery. This will not happen by itself but requires active attention to a balanced approach.
It's the main idea and foundation of the 4 Legs Fitness concept. Just like a chair gets unstable if a leg is shorter or missing, we are unbalanced if we neglect one of the four areas of fitness: strength, endurance, nutrition, and recovery. All my programs incorporate this idea and my clients can choose their desired level of personal, interactive coaching.
In this article, I will explain exactly how to achieve a balanced approach to maximize health and fitness results, identify and avoid overtraining and injuries, and how to build habits that make it easy to follow a corresponding lifestyle sustainably.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes. I am not a trained physical therapist but I gained a lot of experience through successful work with clients, study, education, and experiments.
The Difference Between Overuse and Overtraining
Your body — your autonomic nervous system (ANS) to be precise — is constantly striving for biological equilibrium. This state is also referred to as homeostasis, where your internal condition should be as stable as possible.
The process to achieve this stable state is called allostasis. All sorts of external stimuli need to be compensated in some form to reach homeostasis. For example, whenever you are exposed to physical or mental stress, your ANS makes sure all resources are available to cope with it in the best possible way with the least harm. It is simply one of your survival mechanisms.
The figure below shows the interplay between homeostasis and allostasis.
The need for recovery through adequate rest after physical activity is a typical example of allostasis. If you engage in regular exercise but don't allow your body to recover sufficiently, your body will show it. It can lead to overtraining or overuse injuries.
Symptoms of Overtraining
Typical signs of overtraining include decreased performance, muscle soreness or pain, sleep problems, lack of appetite, loss of motivation, illness, or mood disturbances. In its strongest form these symptoms can lead to the overtraining syndrome (OTS) or burnout. Every athlete, regardless of fitness level and type of sport, can be affected by OTS.
In the worst case, constant overtraining leads to overuse injuries. More than half of all sports injuries seen in sports medicine practices are musculoskeletal injuries due to overuse. A typical example is medial tibial stress syndrome (or shin splints) that may even lead to a stress fracture. Don't let it get this far. Listen to your body and improve the quality of your recovery accordingly.
OTS is related to age. The older you get, the more time and focus your body needs for recovery. Young athletes may push really hard but at the same time don't need that much time to recover compared to a more seasoned athlete. Age and life circumstances like family and a stressful job need to be factored in too.
But recovery and rest can go both ways: Many people undertrain and don’t develop to their full potential. That is why it is so important to better understand your body through methods like collecting data or coaching. More on this later.
How To Recover From Overtraining
It's what we all don't want to hear: The best way to recover from overtraining is to take a break. If you notice any of the above symptoms I recommend to dial back a bit. You don't want to push it too far and risk injury. Alternatively, you could start more cross-training. If you typically engage in weight lifting sports, you may want to consider temporarily reducing that and adding in some cardiorespiratory endurance activities for balance.
Prevention is always better than having to repair any damage. In the worst case you'll have to see a doctor or get physical therapy like massages, physiotherapy, acupuncture, dry needling, or myofascial release techniques like foam rolling or working with massage balls.
In the following section I cover the measures to prevent overtraining and overuse injuries.
How To Avoid Injuries From Overtraining
The key to avoiding injuries from overtraining in any type of physical fitness — regardless if it's endurance or strength training — is balance. You need to find the optimal way to balance the amount and quality of external inputs to your body (e.g., training strain) so that your body has enough resources to process them.
Let's dive deeper.
Take a Balanced Approach
A balanced approach is necessary in various aspects. Before I go into these, there are two necessary preconditions that you need to meet:
- Know what you want to achieve. What's your goal?
- Measure and document what you do. You cannot improve what you don't measure.
Once you are clear about these two points, then you (or your coach) can create your fitness and training program accordingly. This program needs to balance the key areas of fitness — strength, endurance, nutrition, and recovery — in a way that allows you to achieve your goal. In addition, all activities need to be balanced between overtraining (to avoid injury) and undertraining (to achieve results in the most effective way possible).
Let's take resistance training to increase muscular strength as an example. After you train a certain muscle group you need to give that part of your body about two days of rest. Avoid too much soreness. In order to optimize the time between training the same muscle groups you can add some training variation. You can vary the type or intensity of exercise or you can use off-days for other types of activities like cardio or active recovery.
Another quite sophisticated technique is periodization, where training intensity is broken down into nested training phases called macro cycles (yearly plan), meso cycles (weekly/monthly plan), and micro cycles (daily/weekly plan).
Use WHOOP To Keep Strain and Recovery in Check
I recently discovered WHOOP (use my link and we both get one month of WHOOP for free) which is essentially a fitness wrist strap with various sensors coupled with a mobile app and a backend for sophisticated analytics. This wearable fitness tracker reports metrics and recommends the ideal balance between sleep, recovery, and strain. The strain score expresses the physical stress you expose your body on a daily basis.
I also really like the sleep tracking function because the WHOOP strap is thin compared to other sleep trackers and provides a very comprehensive analysis and interpretation of the various sleep stages and overall daily sleep performance.
I have been using the WHOOP Strap now for about a month 24/7. And the insights and learnings provided to WHOOP members through their monthly subscription are incredible. The WHOOP Strap takes many metrics and variables of your overall health into account.
The image below shows one of the many charts that I get on the WHOOP app. This one compares my day strain (vertical axis) with my recovery (horizontal axis). If the days fall into the grey area then strain is optimally aligned with recovery on that day.
Especially for the recovery score, one essential metric seems to be heart rate variability (HRV). HRV expresses the variation in time between each heartbeat. This is controlled by our ANS and the higher this variation is, the better. In other words, HRV tells you how ready your heart is to quickly and appropriately react to external stimuli (i.e., recovery). Other aspects that determine WHOOP's recovery value include resting heart rate, respiratory rate, hours of sleep, and sleep quality.
There are even reported cases like that of golfer Scott Stallings, where WHOOP was able to detect COVID-19 infections.
WHOOP is an excellent tool not only for professional athletes but for everyone to measure your recovery level and then adapt your training program (strain) on a daily basis irrespective of the fitness level. Having this tool makes it easier to adapt your fitness regime. But with the help of a well-rounded program and ideally a coach (external accountability is extremely powerful) you can achieve the same results.
Make Recovery Active
Incorporating active recovery techniques has a tremendous effect on improving the quality of your recovery, shortening rest times, and reducing the risk of injury. This is a topic I have written a lot on this blog.
Here are some examples of active recovery techniques frequently used by pro athletes:
- Always have warm up and cool down routines
- Incorporate dynamic and static stretching
- Try dry needling
- Enjoy sauna sessions
- Get massages
- Include myofascial release techniques
- Try muscle flossing
- Do mobility work
- Use breathwork
- Experiment with cold exposure
The Role of Nutrition To Avoid Overtraining
As always, nutrition is essential to achieve results, not just in physical activity but in general well-being. That's why nutrition in one of the four legs of the integrated 4 Legs Fitness model. The right nutrition relative to your goal is already the first step in the right direction to avoid overtraining.
The right nutrition starts by determining the right caloric need and then the macro split into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. This is an essential part of every fitness program that I offer. If you want to know more, check out my book, “From Healthy to Athletic: How to Master the 4 Ingredients to Superior Fitness,” or just ask me.
If you are already in a state of overtraining, your body needs more energy to heal. To gain energy, slightly increase your caloric intake. Make sure you consume a lot of anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric, nuts, leafy greens, berries, avocados, green tea, and coffee. Eat quality protein from lean meats like fish or poultry. And consider supplementing omega-3 and magnesium.
Building and Leveraging the Right Habits
In another article I wrote about the power of habits. Habits help you to create systems that automate beneficial practices and take the thinking out of the equation. This helps you stick to certain things easily and sustainably without "wasting" willpower for it.
This idea can also be leveraged for sticking to a balanced training approach that incorporates optimal recovery. You can craft habits for practices like:
- Including breathwork and/or a cold shower in your morning routine
- Always having avocados or carrots at home an arm's length away
- Taking magnesium every day
- Always having a bottle of water with you
Habits are very individual. You need to like them. They need to make sense for you. Only then will you be able to consistently execute them.
In order to help my clients identify and adopt the right habits for them I created Weekly Improvement Moments (W.I.M.s). Every week a client gets some sort of input, which could be a task, a challenge, or a piece of info, that can gradually lead to the formation of a new habit. The W.I.M.s method is part of my Build Bullet-Proof Health programs.
Avoid Overuse or Overtraining Injuries With a Balanced Program
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been faced with a lot of uncertainty. It taught us that there are things we cannot control. But we can control our most important good: our health and wellness. I built 4legsfitness.com to help people achieve this. This is why I offer my programs.
In this article I discussed how to create a well-balanced foundation to stay healthy and to avoid injuries. In particular we took a close look into overtraining and how to balance the key areas of fitness: strength, endurance, nutrition, and recovery, with a special focus on the latter.
I know I keep repeating this, but it’s just so important:
Know your goal. Then balance all 4 Legs of Fitness accordingly.
You can do this yourself or you can utilize my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. Most other programs only focus on one or two of the legs. Build Bullet-Proof Health uses them all. The PREMIUM version offers the following benefits:
- A comprehensive approach to health and fitness, in which based on your goal I optimally balance all four areas into one program.
- Personal interaction with a real coach via regular check-ins and instant messaging.
- Access to the Weekly Improvement Moments (W.I.M.s), which are practical activities to identify and adopt habits for sustainable change.
For health and fitness updates and discounts, subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of this page.