Once you experience the benefits of regular exercise, you may be tempted to train longer, harder and more frequently. Although training too much may be preferable to not training at all, it can lead to plateaued performance and even regression.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 5 percent of Americans perform 30 minutes of moderate-level physical activity on a regular (five-days-per-week) basis.
So, if you are a regular exerciser I commend you on your training commitment. However, I also want to caution you about overtraining. Once you experience the benefits of regular exercise, you may be tempted to train longer, harder and more frequently. Although training too much may be preferable to not training at all, it can lead to plateaued performance and even regression.
Although overtraining is possible with all types of exercise, it is particularly prevalent in strength training. Most of us have heard that resistance exercise causes microtrauma to the trained muscles, and requires about two days for tissue remodeling and rebuilding.
While this is true for moderate-level workouts, hard strength training sessions require three full days of recovery for optimum muscle response. In fact, a recent research study revealed that two days after a hard workout, the trainees had not yet returned to their original level of strength.
However, after three or four days of rest, the exercisers’ strength level was significantly higher. Because it is best to work out at the peak of your muscle-building response pattern, hard training sessions should be performed only twice a week with 72 to 96 hours rest between workouts.
If you are experiencing a strength plateau, consider taking a longer recovery period between training sessions. Most likely, your muscles will respond favorably to less frequent workouts and your exercise weightloads will gradually increase.
Aerobic activity is not as disruptive to muscle tissue as strength training, but insufficient rest between exercise sessions can easily lead to overtraining.
Like muscular overtraining, one sign of too much endurance exercise is plateaued performance. When subsequent workouts seem harder to complete, I recommend that you reduce the intensity, duration or frequency of your training program.
Other signs of overtraining include tiredness throughout the day, restless sleep during the night, suppressed appetite, lack of focus and irritability.
A more measurable indicator of overtraining is your resting heart rate. Let’s assume that your normal resting heart rate upon awakening is 60 beats per minute. If, without a corresponding cause such as illness, your resting heart rate increases to 65 beats per minute, it may be the result of too much training with too little recovery. Consider cutting back your exercise program, at least until your resting heart rate returns to normal, when you may gradually increase your training.
Go hard, go easy
One way to enhance your exercise intensity without drastically decreasing your workout duration and frequency is to alternate hard days and easy days. Your harder training sessions should emphasize intensity (faster pace for less time) and your easier training sessions should emphasize workout duration (slower pace,more time). As I learned from my Penn State track coach, two hard running workouts a week may be preferred for improving performance and avoiding overtraining.
If you like to exercise every day to attain and maintain high levels of muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance, I recommend the following:
Mondays and Thursdays – hard strength training sessions.
Tuesdays and Fridays – easy endurance exercise sessions.
Wednesdays and Saturdays – hard endurance exercise sessions.
Sundays – alternate activity (hiking) at a moderate level.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is instructor of exercise science at Quincy (Mass.) College and author of 24 fitness books.