Why Killing Yourself In The Gym Might Be Killing Your Progress (and Wrecking Your Hormones)
The alarm clock starts singing, you reach to turn it off, and the soreness from yesterday’s workout hits you like a truck. You start to get out of bed and can’t believe how exhausted you feel. You only got five hours of sleep and you’re already feeling a little stressed about heading into work later, but you grab your bag and head to the gym anyway. Can’t be a wuss, gotta get that workout in. No pain, no gain and all that…
Ever feel like that when you wake up? Do you feel like that most days?
If your answer is yes, it’s likely that you are training more intensely than what your body can recover from. Any kind of intense training is a major stress on the body. Not properly recovering from that stress can lead to chronic fatigue, mental fog, mood swings, loss of motivation, and decreased performance in the gym – all symptoms of overtraining syndrome (OTS).¹
OTS is prevalent across many training modalities, from marathon running to professional sports to CrossFit. Any CrossFitter knows the feeling of crashing down onto the floor in a pool of their own sweat, barely able to suck in a full breath after hearing the final buzz of the timer. But is feeling like you almost died after your workout, day in and day out, making you a better athlete? Is the intense training giving you the aesthetic results you want? I’m guessing your answer is no, it’s not, and that’s due to the effect overtraining has on your nervous system and hormone regulation.
Intense training, like CrossFit, generates a response from our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. Ideally, this stress response is “calmed down” with an opposite response from our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. In the case of OTS, intense workouts, plus the added stress from coaches/competition/family/work, minus adequate physical and mental recovery, equals an imbalance of these response systems.⁴
Though the complete physiology behind OTS is yet to be fully understood, current studies have made a link between OTS and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction (also referred to as adrenal fatigue).²,⁵ To oversimplify, the HPA axis is the control center of our stress response. The hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals work together to create a feedback loop-style response to a perceived stress.
Chronic stress can break down this communication loop and cause your adrenals to not secrete the correct levels of hormones in your body, leading to improper inflammation response and a poor psychological state.⁴ In caveman days, this would be comparable to your body not being able to turn off the feeling that you’re getting chased by a saber-toothed tiger even after you survived.
Symptoms of HPA axis dysregulation include sugar cravings, excessive caffeine consumption, decreased sex drive, and more.² HPA axis dysregulation has also been said to have similar signs and symptoms as clinical depression.⁴
Studies have shown that individuals who have overtrained and have HPA axis dysregulation also have decreased work volume and capacity.³ When your body isn’t able to recover in between workouts, not only do you have increased inflammation from hormone imbalance, but you will also see decreased performance and plateaus in the gym.
“No gainz and no abs?!”
That’s right, you working your ass off can actually hinder your progress if you aren’t also prioritizing recovery (i.e. getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet).
After training for and competing in a few amateur competitions over the past year, feeling pretty beat up, and not seeing any great improvements in my own physique, I was forced to take a look at my own training and make some changes. Even though I love coaching and competing in CrossFit, I decided to take it down a notch and see if I experienced any improvements in how my body felt and looked. I went from 6 days/week of CrossFit WODs down to 2-3 WODs per week and 3 days of bodybuilding workouts.
Decrease Intensity, Increase Results
I am now 7 weeks post-CrossFit deload and I gotta say, I feel fantastic. All those little daily aches and pains that I would shrug aside to Rx the WOD are gone. I feel more energized throughout the day, I sleep great, and, in general, feel more relaxed and in a better mental state. On the few days that I still did a CrossFit workout, I hit PRs, crushed workout times, and never felt better in the gym (which I was definitely not expecting). As for my aesthetic changes, I stayed at almost the exact same macro prescription for the first six weeks and don’t think I’ve ever been leaner while eating 2,000 calories/day. I am at 15.4% body fat as of July 13, which is a whole percentage lower than when we started!
Yeah, I’d say it’s been a pretty great experiment.
It is important to note that I wasn’t even THAT overtrained when I started decreasing my intensity back in May. I was CrossFitting almost every day, but I also had my nutrition dialed in with a coach and I didn’t have many other stressors in my life. So for me, coming out of that slight overtraining was probably easier than someone who is overtraining in the gym, not fueling with proper nutrition, and has additional stressors from their job or other life circumstances.
Think You Might Be Overtraining And Under-Recovering?
Try out this exercise from Jason Phillips:
- Write down all of your stressors and give them a score of 1-10 on how much stress they cause you.
- Now, write down everything you do for recovery and score those 1-10 on how much you feel they help you recover/recharge for your next workout.
- Tally up your total scores from stressors and from recovery.
In an ideal situation, your recovery will equal that of your stressors. Or, in Jason’s words, “every sympathetic output needs to be matched with a parasympathetic input.” If you don’t have that balance, you need to reevaluate in order to keep kicking ass in the gym and seeing results.
Ready To Make Some Changes?
Here are a few strategies to combat overtraining and improve recovery.
In The Gym:
Take a look at your weekly, monthly, and yearly programming. Do you have cycles of intense training, followed by deloading, followed by rest? Your workout regimen should be segmented throughout the year so that you’re not going balls to the wall all 365 days. Make a long-term plan for your goals that includes these different phases of training.
In The Kitchen:
Your nutrition should be periodized to compliment your training. Are you ramping up training for a CrossFit competition? You should probably be ramping up your calories, too. Are you cutting for a shredded summer bod? Then you need to decrease the intensity of your workouts when you decrease your calorie intake. I highly recommend working with a nutrition coach to take the guesswork out of your nutrition and get you to your goals faster.
Recovering from your workouts includes taking care of your body and your mind. Make time to meditate and practice mindfulness or other stress-relieving activities like reading a book outside or journaling. Implement a nighttime routine to help you wind down every evening and get at least seven hours of sleep each night (more if you can). Don’t forget to stay hydrated and drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day, plus 15 oz on days you workout. Implementing these strategies will aid your parasympathetic nervous system in helping your recover faster, better.
Supplements aren’t absolutely necessary for success, but they can help you get that extra 5% in order to see better results. Well, in the case of HPA Axis Dysfunction and possible overtraining… They may do a little more than 5%. I recommend using a Cyclic Dextrin Carbohydrate shake either post workout (if you’re CrossFitter) or intra workout (if you’re more on the Bodybuilding spectrum), if you’re someone who is possibly overtraining or experiencing any of the above symptoms.
The reason for this, is because when we train, as mentioned earlier, our body shifts into that sympathetic nervous system overdrive. Part of this is cortisol and adrenaline rising, as it helps us perform. But when we’re done working out, we need that hormonal stress response to be blunted or shut down, so that we can return to parasympathetic mode and actually rest, recover and digest. How do we do that? Well, one quick and easy was is to shuttle carbs and protein/EAA’s into your body immediately post (or during) your workout. This has been a massive help in my own journey and many clients as well!
Wrapping this all up:
The big key takeaway with this article, is that overtraining is easier to run into than people actually realize. And a better word for it would actually be under-recovery, because true clinical overtraining is pretty hard to reach… but under-recovering? That’s REAL easy to reach and both Cody and myself have both worked with A LOT of people who are at this point.
It’s important to understand, so that you can shift out of it and actually see the results you deserve for all the hard work you put in.
Questions? See below for further reading or reach out to me personally at [email protected] or @carolineofenstein on Instagram.
Sources and further reading:
- Jeffrey B. Kreher, Jennifer B. Schwartz Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide
Sports Health. 2012 Mar; 4(2): 128–138. doi: 10.1177/1941738111434406
- Brooks KA, Carter JG (2013) Overtraining, Exercise, and Adrenal Insufficiency. J Nov Physiother
3:125. doi:J Nov Physiother 2012, 3:125
- Baschetti R (2000) Chronic fatigue syndrome: a form of Addison’s disease. J Intern Med 247: 737-739.
- Anish, Eric J. MD Exercise and Its Effects on the Central Nervous System
Current Sports Medicine Reports: February 2005 – Volume 4 – Issue 1 – p 18–23
- Kresser, C. (2018). Adrenal Fatigue or HPA Axis Dysregulation? | Kresser Institute. [online] Kresser Institute. Available at: https://kresserinstitute.com/adrenal-fatigue-hpa-axis- dysregulation/
- Greenfield, B. (2018). How To Fix HPA Axis Dysfunction. [online] Ben Greenfield Fitness – Diet, Fat Loss and Performance Advice. Available at: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/ brain-articles/how-to-fix-hpa-axis-dysfunction/
This is a guest blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is a Certified Nutrition Coach, CrossFit Trainer, and a Boom-Boom Performance Mentor Client. Part of her mentorship with us at BBP, has been going through her own physical transformation with myself (Cody). She was training HARD in CrossFit almost every day of the week, yet wanted to get lean and ready for a photo-shoot. What we did to get her ready – as you can see in the picture to the left, which is not even her full photoshoot form yet, was exactly what she laid out in the article above. We improved her recovery, therefore improving her nervous and hormonal profile. This led to more muscle, less fat, and a much healthier body. Caroline is now intrenched in the science of this, taking her OWN clients through these exact same transformations every month.