I heard that a lot when I first started training. And I hated it. It made me angry. The warning usually came from people who were not athletes themselves, so it annoyed me that people with little experience in this area felt compelled to school me on the “dangers.” I knew, logically, that the people who said things like this were simply expressing a genuine concern and that, even if that concern stemmed from a lack of knowledge about fitness, the sentiment itself was honest and not intended to be hurtful. Nonetheless, I was annoyed whenever some told me this; after all, this kind of warning presumes that I don’t know my own body, that I would let goals overtake whether or not I felt healthy, and that my trainer would allow me to work beyond my ability to recover successfully.
It is, of course, possible to over train. I saw a story on a news show once about a woman with a compulsive exercise disorder (also called anorexia athletica) who was pretty much addicted to exercise and was plagued by feelings of guilt and unhappiness if she didn’t fulfill her self-imposed exercise obligations obligations that were not normal, such as three hours of cardio each day (with no athletic purpose like marathon training, etc.). This kind of obsessive behavior clearly shows that, yes, it is possible to cross a line from healthy (but more than moderate) exercise to unhealthy addiction.
For most people, though, the idea of going beyond what is considered “moderate” is an automatic signal of a problem. We’re very leery of anyone who is not a professional athlete who trains beyond “average” expectations. This fear is compounded when the person in question is a woman; the strong association between women and eating disorders leads many people to presume that women who train harder than average must have a problem. We don’t make the same assumptions about men. Men who train hard might be called lots of other things because of their assumed focus on the size and shape of their bodies, but men are not accused of having a disorder as a result of their training focus. This is, unfortunately, a gendered issue.
I don’t mean to diminish the problem we have with eating and body image in this country. Eating disorders and exercise disorders are real things, and real women are suffering from them. But not all women who train hard have problems, and plenty of women in the world know how to balance hard work in the gym with truly healthy and satisfying relationships with food. Unfortunately, we still have women caught in a Catch-22 of sorts either we’re not skinny enough compared to the media role models with which we’re presented, or we’re anorexic when we work hard or eat healthy.
The signs of over training are pretty simple not sleeping well, constant fatigue, unusual soreness, loss of performance, lack of motivation. By staying in tune with my body and my mental state, I can pretty accurately tell when I am pushing too hard. If I suddenly dread going to the gym, something is wrong. If I attempt to do cardio that was, just recently, invigorating for me and suddenly find it taxing and mentally torturous, something is wrong. If I wake up too often in middle of the night, something’s not right.
I try hard, however, to never let my training get to that point. In fact, someone asked me, not too long ago, if I was worried about over training. And in terms of weight lifting, the answer is no. I know that the plan I am on allows for plenty of recovery time, and I never feel compelled to do things that will either injure me or damage my progress. In terms of cardio, I work hard to make sure I am doing work that I continue to enjoy and that continues to add to my motivation, not detract from it. I push myself harder than most people do, I know, but having an awareness of my emotional and mental health helps me keep my hard physical work in line with my mental needs. I’ve recently changed my cardio routine, for example, away from long cardio sessions at night. I used to enjoy long cardio sessions; right now, short and intense is better for me mentally. So I split my cardio between morning and post-training, and not only has it invigorated my cardio energy, but it has given me more needed time at home in the evening. This change has inadvertently pushed me to do more work in shorter amounts of time, and the new challenge to see what I can get done in 25-30 minutes instead of 60 has given me new motivation that I didn’t know I needed. And on days when I rest, like Sundays, or on days when I only do morning cardio, like Fridays and Saturdays, I don’t feel at all guilty about the time I’m not spending in the gym. The rest makes me happy to start all over again on Monday, and if I’m not happy to do cardio at an ungodly hour on a Monday morning, I shouldn’t be doing it.
And ultimately, that’s the point working the way I do makes me happy, not miserable. Taking time off to rest makes me happy, not miserable. Being aware of the source and nutritional content of every bit of food I eat makes me happy, too. And if I ever find myself thinking that these things no longer make me happy, I’ll change them. It’s never, in the long run, just about physical fitness. It’s about maintaining and developing a self-awareness that reaches into every area of my life, and that’s too precious to me to lose it by “over doing it.”