There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush and “‘runner’s high” after a soul-crushing, PR-chasing workout. Setting new goals and pushing our body’s to limits we didn’t know existed is part of the human experience. But what happens when an everyday Type A / perfectionist / Enneagram 3 or 8 personality type meets exercise? The achiever’s mentality drives them toward high-intensity interval training, like Orange Theory & CrossFit, and the mindset that if burning 300 calories is good, then 500 calories must be better.
From the outside, everything might look fine. I know it did for me. For the better part of 2013 – 2017, I was this person. I never missed a Workout of the Day (WOD), even if that meant waking up before the sun to get it done. If my workout didn’t leave me drenched in sweat, about ready to pass out, and unable to walk – then it was “too easy” and I vowed to push harder tomorrow. I watched my body change drastically. Sure, I put on muscle, but I gained a pillow-y fat layer on top that left my clothing size increasing and my energy levels decreasing. I was constantly hungry and constantly dieting. I was deep in the throws of overtraining…and in complete denial.
The human metabolism is extremely adaptive – it’s what saves our lives, and makes us crazy at the same time. Contrary to popular belief, overtraining isn’t just too much exercise intensity. Overtraining is how well we are managing the delicate balance of stressors. Synonymous with under-recovery, overtraining means our life stressors (exercise included!) deplete more energy than our nutrition & lifestyle put back into our body on a daily basis. Do that one day and you’ll bounce back, but do this every day for weeks, months, and years on end and you’ll find yourself in a perpetual valley of cortisol resistance.
So what did I do? I took a leap of faith and stopped worrying about how many calories my workout burned or if I got my heart rate into the “red” zone for “splat points.” I started turning my attention to what my body was truly asking for – more rest days, frequent leisurely walks, more high-quality calories, and a stronger core. Here’s what happened…
Bye Bye Body Fat
I know from the outside, you may be thinking, “yeah ok…has this girl EVER struggled with her weight?! What body fat could she possibly need to get rid of?” While I appreciate the thought – let me introduce you to a concept we Fitness Professionals dub “skinny fat.” Before you take offense to the term, “skinny fat” simply refers to an individual that from the exterior, in normal street clothes, looks relatively fit & healthy. In reality, it is very possible to look thin, but carry a higher than ideal amount of body fat (>25%).
I was the definition of “skinny fat.” With all the insane MetCon workouts I was pushing myself through and all the barbells I was slinging over my head, you would think I was the epitome of fitness. Behind the seemingly fit frame, my body was packing on extra protective fat around my midsection and “love handles” – all a perfectly natural reaction to my chronic overtraining. Years of strict Paleo, Whole30 Challenge, gluten/dairy/soy/egg free diets…nothing shed the body fat until I finally stopped the literal insanity of my high-intensity workouts, 5-7 days/week. I topped out somewhere around 180 lbs / 25.5% body fat and now sit comfortably around 165 lbs / 18% body fat with much less effort (and hours) in the gym. That’s a difference of 16 lbs of pure body fat!
Eat. All. The. Food.
The classic weight loss mantra of “eat less, move more” appeals to our very definitive mindsets, and while this simple math equation may apply to some individuals seeking transformation, it is the exact opposite recommendation that I give to any one dealing with the hormonal aftermath of overtraining.
As terrifying as it was, the only way to break the cycle of overtraining and heal my hormones was to increase my food intake. *GASP*
Not just any food, but a purposeful introduction of more of the right foods, and less of the wrong foods. I starting by buying myself a decent food scale and weighed / tracked everything I ate for two weeks. I was shocked to see a true serving of peanut butter. I had also been under estimating what I thought was 4 oz of chicken and 2 cups of broccoli. This eye opening experience allowed me remove the arbitrary 1600 calorie restriction I had set on myself (but really…where did that number even come from?!) and over time, I found that my body runs lean and mean when I hit a minimum of 2500 calories / day.
No that’s not a typo. And no, my body is not your body. But more calories is absolutely necessary to healing from overtraining (and anything that means more snacks, sign me up).
Energizer Bunny Without the Crash
I like the idea of an afternoon snooze as much as the next guy – but what if you didn’t need one? I’m talking about legitimately feeling just as energized at 3 pm as you did after your first cup of coffee at 9 am. There was a time where I, too, felt like this sounded like an impossible feat of humanity. I’m not exaggerating when I say there was a time where I napped every single day for a minimum of 20 minutes. I would make a narcoleptic proud at my capacity to sleep anytime, anywhere when my mid-afternoon crash set in.
I chalked it up to waking up everyday at 4 am to workout at outrageous intensities and ridiculous volumes. Only to race home, shower, pump some caffeine through my body, and work through non-stop through the morning. I deserved the afternoon nap, right? Wrong.
Cortisol levels are highest in the morning (that’s what wakes you up in the first place!). So couple this natural response with more high-intensity training, plus caffeine and you have the recipe for disaster when it comes to optimal hormonal function. My adrenals were tanking. But I never made the connection until I made the switch to more low-intensity, traditional strength training. Suddenly I had zero urge to snooze in the afternoon and was even sleeping through the night. This non-scale victory was a surefire sign my body was loving the new routine.
No amount of nighttime melatonin, herbal teas, or hot baths were going to fix my sleep & energy issues until I revamped my workout routine.
Back Pain Be Gone!
All the way back to my college volleyball days, I could never remember a time where I wasn’t fighting back pain, shoulder pain, or both. I managed it well enough through equal amounts complaining and pushing through the daily discomfort to perform simple tasks like sit, drive, put on pants, or stand for any long period of time. Once your body starts to feel three times its age everyday, it becomes the new “normal.”
Not one, but three debilitating lower back injuries over the course of two years finally woke me up. This trainer hired a trainer and we went to work. After some simple evaluations that I could do on myself – squatting hurt, bending hurt, lunging hurt. Together, we came up with a program ironically containing all the things I hated – and therefore never programmed for myself. Well…this should be fun. I was up for the challenge and diligently showed up everyday for three months doing nothing but slow, monotonous repetitions of glute bridges, deadbugs, body saws, and hip thrusts.I had to relearn how to deadlift, squat, push, pull, and everything in between. Three years later and I’m proud to report I’ve had maybe one minor back incident. I walk, run, sit, stand, and bend with ease and I now cherish something as simple as rolling over in bed without pain. It’s the little things in life.
Another hallmark sign of overtraining manifests as nagging or recurrent injuries, and even chronic illness or infection. It’s impossible for our body to fight for us everyday if it’s not given the right resources.
Did I have to learn all of this the hard way? Yes – but I did it for you! Now follow my lead and let me help you climb out of your cortisol slump.
One thought on “I Stopped Exercising and Started Recovering | Here’s What Happened”
Finally we’re receiving your blog again! I may have to change it to our new email address because the one in Ponca blocks a lot of stuff. Really enjoyed this one too, as I do all of them I’ve gotten. Can we you change our email address from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com? Thanks! Your favorite mother-in-law!!