How To Avoid Overtraining

By Andy Austin
Physiotherapist at Life Ready Physio Scarborough

New year’s resolutions are always made with the best intentions. We all see it as a time to shake off the excess of the Christmas period and begin the long journey back to acceptable fitness levels. However, our new found motivation can work against us. It becomes all too easy to slide down the road of overtraining and before we know it, our efforts have been scuppered by pain and injury. It’s rare to find someone whose resolution is to see the physiotherapist more, but it’s often the reality.

Overtraining is a concept that is specific to each individual. Everybody’s fitness levels are different, everybody’s starting point is different and therefore there is no “one size fits all” approach to prescribing exercise. What is essential, is to avoid pushing your body past the point of what it can reasonably tolerate. After a period of inactivity (which is generally what happens over the Christmas break) your body will begin to lose some of its conditioning gradually, this includes cardiovascular fitness as well as muscle strength. Upon restarting an exercise schedule it is imperative to begin more gradually than where you left off.

Let’s take running for example. If I normally run 5k about four times a week and have done this for a number of months without any problems, then my relative risk of injury is quite low. I have gradually adapted to this training regime over a long period without exceeding what my body is able to reasonably tolerate. However, if I then slack off for 3-4 weeks (or even longer) and fit in only one run each week, my body will undergo a certain amount of deconditioning. My cardiovascular fitness will have reduced along with the endurance in my muscles.

All of a sudden January hits and with it comes the guilt. Now I decide to get out and run 5k as often as I can and manage to fit in six sessions each week for three weeks before I’m stopped in my tracks by a nasty calf tear. We have now created an imbalance. My body is unable to even tolerate the amount of running that I was doing prior to the break but I’ve now gone one further and increased it before my body has adapted again. My calf had enough strength and endurance to last until this point but once the capacity of the muscle is exceeded, something has to give.

When we boil it down there are two basic ways to avoid this type of injury:

  • By reducing the amount of load going through the body, or
  • By increasing the body’s ability to tolerate that load

One of the best ways to avoid injury is to include some regular strength training in your routine. Whether you are a runner, cyclist, swimmer, rower or football player, if you improve the strength and endurance in the muscles that you are using in your sport, then you will greatly decrease the likelihood of exceeding the above mentioned capacity of your body.

We also need to be flexible when planning an increase in the intensity, duration or frequency of our exercise. We want to be able train enough to challenge and progress our fitness levels, but not so much that it leads to injury. Finding this sweet spot can be a difficult task. A general rule of thumb emerged a number of years ago called ‘’the 10% rule’’. Essentially, you should try to avoid increasing your training by any more than 10% from one week to the next. This applies across the board whether for you that means weight (when lifting), distance (when running) or gradient (when cycling). While the exact validity of this rule remains unproven, for anyone who is very new to a type of exercise it can be used as a general guide to help you avoid overtraining.

So if you are one of the many who has taken a well-earned rest and overindulged over Christmas, bear in mind that a gradually progressive exercise programme is the best way to avoid injury in the new year. Two or three months down the track your body will thank you for it.