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When we train, one of the things we want to happen is that we see improvements in our physical fitness. Whilst this isn’t the only reason most of us train (training can also reduce stress, and it can be a fun social activity), most of us do so to either perform better at sport, look better naked, or both. Being able to optimise your improvements from exercises is like baking a cake; sometimes you can overdo it, and your cake ends up ruined. Sometimes, you might underdo it, and your cake just doesn’t look ready. What we’re chasing is the Goldilocks principle; not too much, not too little, just the right amount.

Let’s examine this more closely. When we exercise, our bodies adapt to that exercise. This adaptation can either be specific – for example doing bicep curls makes my biceps bigger, whilst running 5km improves my aerobic fitness – or more general across the body; again, as an example both weight training and 5km runs can enable someone to lose fat, and also see improvements in insulin sensitivity. You might think that this is linear; that the more training you do, the fitter you get, but you’d be wrong. Too much training can increase your chances of injury, especially if it involves loads you’ve never been exposed to before. It can also lead to something called overtraining (sometimes called Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome), which is where the body hasn’t had sufficient time to recover from training over an extended period of time, and starts to shut down.

 I’ve been there myself, and it’s miserable.

The opposite is also true; whilst 40kg might be a sufficient enough weight to stimulate adaptation when you’re a beginner, if you only ever lift 40kg at some point you’ll stop seeing improvements as your body adapts to it. Like I said at the start, optimal training is about making sure you work hard and progress your training load at the correct rate – not too much, and not too little.

 

So how do we do this then? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and if I knew the answer I wouldn’t have suffered from overtraining myself. However, there are some principles we can use to guide ourselves in order to make better judgement calls. The first of these is to progress slowly. Adaptation to exercise is cumulative, and so whilst you might feel fresh on day 1, you’ll feel much less fresh on day 10. It’s better to slowly build up and be consistent, than training really hard one day and having to take three days off afterwards in order to recover. Big spikes in exercise volume or intensity have also been linked in a number of studies to an increase in injury risk, so keep this in mind. It’s also important to monitor how you feel. If an exercise has been feeling easy, then now might be a good time to increase the load; if the next day you’re excessively sore or fatigued, it means perhaps you took it too far. Similarly, if you notice that you’re feeling excessively tired or sore, and those feelings aren’t really disappearing, it could well be a sign that you’re pushing yourself too hard. It’s important to be honest with yourself, and most of the research now suggests that subjective measures (such as how you feel) are just as good at predicting fatigue as objective measures (such as those from fancy bits of equipment), so trust your instincts.

 

That’s not to say that you should never feel tired or sore. Something that athletes do is referred to as “functional over-reaching”; that is, they temporarily increase their overall training load in order to overload their bodies, but then they shift into a period of relative recovery in order to bring everything back to a recovered state.

 

There are also certain times of the training year where it’s important to take a step back and deload. If you’re competing in a sport, then for a period of time before a race, it’s likely a good idea to decrease your training, either in terms of intensity, frequency, or duration. This is referred to as a “taper”, and athletes use it all the time in order to maximise their competition performance. There will be other times when you’ll need to reduce your overall training load. This could be when you’re ill, for example, or when your stress levels have increased – perhaps due to exams or work deadlines. As exercise itself is a stressor that the body has to adapt to, when other forms of stress are increased, it’s a good idea to reduce exercise load, otherwise both your performance and adaptation might suffer.

 

Most training programmes reflect the need for a period of time when training load is decreased to enable recovery to occur. Historically, this has most commonly been in the form of 4-week training blocks, with 3 weeks of increasing intensity, and one deload week. However, this is just tradition; the human body likely doesn’t work on exact 28 day cycles, and there is a great deal of variation between individuals as to what is the best training set up. Monitoring your recovery on a regular basis, even if it’s just asking yourself how you feel, can better inform how hard you should train, and give you an idea of when to back off, and when to push it a bit harder. 

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