As a self-proclaimed Type A perfectionist personality, I can relate to the need for speed. Slow walkers, deadline procrastinators, and anyone that doesn’t arrive 10 minutes early for everything are in danger of feeling my impatience rear it’s ugly head. It’s no surprise that I spent most of my youth & young adult life life in competitive sports, which lead to spending hours in the gym training myself to jump higher, move faster, and lift more than anyone else. After my collegiate volleyball career came to an end, I took my competitive nature to the individual realm of distance running. Let’s be honest – I had no idea what I was doing, but anyone can run, right? It’s in our human instinct. First it was completing more and more miles, then it was completing the miles faster and faster. I crushed two half marathons in the same month. But soon the boredom of competing against myself wore off, and that’s when I found CrossFit. Or maybe CrossFit found me, I’m not entirely sure.
CrossFit gyms are a magnet for us Type A / Ennegram 8 / Over Achievers. I threw my body head first into the daily to a soul-crushing workout as I chased the top of the leader board. The weights got heavier. The PR bell rang weekly. When the workout of the day (aka ‘WOD’) crushed my fellow
competitors classmates, I would dig a little deeper into the pain cave, push a little harder, and leave with multiple battle wounds like a badge of honor. I felt unbreakable.
Until I wasn’t.
Chronic fatigue, back injuries, endless soreness, mid-afternoon narcolepsy, bottomless sugar cravings, and zero menstrual cycle – I was a wreck. As I added pounds to my clean & jerk, I was also adding pounds to the ‘spare tire’ around my belly.
But how can this be? Killing myself in the gym 5-6 times per week, eating strict ‘paleo’, and a formal education in exercise adaptations…what are we missing?
THE INTENSITY MINDSET
Do you approach fitness from the idea that the single most important variable driving your success and results is how hard you train?
Have you caught yourself thinking if you’re not seeing the results you want, it must be because you’re not training hard enough? Or if you’re training hard and seeing some results, then training harder will lead to even better or faster results?
Then you may be stuck in the ‘intensity mindset.’
With the rise in popularity of high-intensity training methods, more and more people step into the gym thinking that in order to get a “good workout” they need to get their ass kicked and burn thousands of calories. They joke about laying on the floor for twenty minutes after their workout, exhausted and unable to move, or crawling down the stairs after “leg day.”This misguided ‘intensity mindset’ has been around in fitness for quite some time. It is the one that tells you ‘no pain, no gain.’
Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with the intensity mindset: it doesn’t work.
In fact, it often ends up causing more harm than good in the long run. Over-training is not reserved for professional or extreme athletes. Everyday gym-goers who are actively pursuing their own health & fitness goals often fall into the over-training trap. It’s the single biggest reason so many people put in the work and yet ultimately fail to reach their health and fitness goals.
THE IMPACT OF OVER-TRAINING ON HORMONE BALANCE
Over the last 30 years, the fast-paced standard American lifestyle has challenged the fitness industry to morph into a super-charged, high-intensity, sweat-pouring hour; forcing us to abandon our scientifically proven methods for a more entertaining approach the attracts the masses looking for a time-effective way to burn the maximum amount of calories possible.
But the amount of calories burned is completely unrelated to the quality or value of the workout. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Given that our metabolism can only produce a finite amount of energy in a day, no matter how much food you eat or rest you get, what do you think happens when you pile on three, four, or even five high intensity training sessions a week? What about when you couple all that training with the stress of daily life?
You end up spending so much energy on training and dealing with the stress of daily life, that there’s just not enough left over to go towards recovery and rebuilding the body. As a result, our entire metabolism struggles to keep up, and is forced to make shifts in order to keep us alive.
Thyroid hormones. When you’re over-training, your body intentionally tries to slow your metabolism as a means to conserve energy. Thyroid hormones, particularly free T3 (free Triiodothyronine) levels dip and can cause additional symptoms such as extreme fatigue, body anxiety, dry skin, thinning hair, constipation, numbness, and chills.
Cortisol and adrenal hormones. Stress is stress. Our body considers excessive exercise frequency & intensity as another stressor and reacts similarly by skyrocketing cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol stunts the recovery process by impacting our blood sugars and sleep, causing fatigue, sugar / salt cravings, caffeine dependency, and even anxiety. Our muscles cannot recover and we go into the next workout still depleted from the last workout.
Ovulation and progesterone levels. Has your menstrual cycle been wonky lately? Early menses, short menses, elongated, heavy, or light menses? All of the hormonal systems are connected and when the body is over-exerted, your cycle will be impacted. If you are suffering from over-training syndrome, your cycle may be longer than usual, or you may experience more cramping, or you may miss a cycle completely.
THE IDEAL TRAINING PROGRAM
Many people who come to me for one-on-one coaching are dealing with multiple hormonal imbalances. In many situations, these imbalances are a result of excessive exercise frequency or intensity. They’ve adopted the ‘all or nothing’ approach to their nutrition and fitness, which has left their hormones wrecked and in much need of repair and rejuvenation.
So how do we shift our exercise routine to a more favorable approach? How can we prevent over-training?
Heart Rate. The most important aspect to address first is intensity. Exercise intensity is communicated to us through heart rate. The concepts of heart rate training date back to exercise physiology textbooks from the 1980’s. Heart rate is as unique as a fingerprint. It is completely personalized and is responsive to individual stressors such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, and more – which is what makes it such a powerful metric. The higher your heart rate, the more recovery is required, and the higher your risk of over-training. 80% of your exercise should be spent below your anaerobic threshold. There are a few different methods for estimating your anaerobic threshold (AT), but a starting point is 180 – age. Staying at intensities below your AT promotes more fat calories to burned, and requires less recovery time & resources.
Prioritize Strength Training. The other important aspect of appropriate program design lies in mastering strength training. No, not “cardio circuit classes with dumbbells in your hands.” Strength training should be completed 2-3 times per week with the goal of lifting heavy with perfect form, resting fully between sets, and focusing on strength gains. The goal of strength training is not to burn calories during exercise, but to build muscle which promotes a higher metabolic rate even when you’re not working out! Increasing muscle mass is one of the best things you can do for your overall metabolic health. Strength training can be separated into (1) lower body day, (1) upper body day, and (1) total body day. Or (3) total body days working in upper / lower body couplets for time efficiency and maximum muscle stimulation.
While everyone’s needs are unique, consider the following weekly exercise routine as a guide.
Recognize areas where you are accumulating too much time in your higher heart rate zones, and and potentially not enough time focusing on strength training (without the intention of maximizing calorie burn). Don’t make your exercise yet another stressor on top of your already high-intensity lifestyle!
If you struggle with over-training, you may find it difficult to adjust your mindset & training to work in lower heart rate zones. You may benefit from the structure & accountability of a coach with a personalized program approach! Whether you have access to a gym, or are working with at-home equipment, virtual training programs are available now! Schedule a complimentary consult today to learn to work smarter, not harder.