EXTRA! Exercise Excess KOs Millions

America's fittest are facing a growing menace: overtraining. Learn how to stop the madness and still maintain that performance edge.

Dec 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

REST FOR THE WEARY: Believe it or not, this man is training.

SAY YOU'VE SPENT the past year obsessively watching your caloric intake, working out on a daily basis, and pumping hundreds of tons of iron. You think you're in the shape of your life, but your legs feel like cinder blocks, your breathing is heavy and strained, and your wristwatch or bike computer is telling you that your performance is slowing way down. Sports docs call this state of lethargy "underperformance." We call it overtraining.

More than 450,000 people finished a marathon in 2002, up almost 50 percent during the last decade. In those same ten years, participation in U.S. triathlons rose from 65,000 to 180,000, with more than 10,600 participating in Ironman triathlons. There was an even bigger jump in health-club memberships: According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, 36.3 million Americans belonged to a gym in 2002, up a whopping 75 percent from 1990. Not surprisingly, among the millions of people training for a race, signing up for daily spinning classes, or just pounding out the miles in their running regimen, many are pushing themselves too hard for too long. "Close to half of the people who come to me are doing too much volume with too much intensity," says Loveland, Colorado-based Gale Bernhardt, an endurance coach and author of Training Plans for Multisport Athletes. "People think, Well, I can't get fast if I'm resting."

Classic symptoms of overtraining, which can appear in everyone from exercise addicts chasing after a daily endorphin rush to pro athletes trying to out-train their competition, include decreased performance, lethargy, boredom, nagging muscle soreness, and noticeable increases in one's resting heart rate. "All these conditions are signs of a more serious problem," says Tim Mickleborough, a professor of exercise physiology at Indiana University. "They put you at high risk for a diminished immune system." A June 2002 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine highlighted that the majority of overworked athletes have abnormally low counts of white blood cells, the body's natural guard against disease. Keep pushing it and you might even suffer a hormone imbalance that could adversely affect your fertility.

With these facts in mind, it's time to adopt a new mantra for the six weeks before the new year: Less is more. "Your gains in fitness actually take place during rest," says Chris Hawley, a former team physician for the University of Texas athletic teams. "Without time off, you won't get stronger or faster."

Consider the case of 34-year-old, two-time Ironman Hawaii champ Peter Reid. After his October 2000 victory in Hawaii, the British Columbia-based athlete immediately began a grinding schedule of training and racing, adding eight more hours a week of cycling to the 25 hours he was already running, swimming, and biking.

Soon enough, Reid was spent, and he ended up quitting nearly every race he entered that season, including the 2001 Ironman Hawaii and the 2002 Ironman Australia. He had blood in his stool, a reduced white-blood-cell count from physical stress, and a red-blood-cell count so low that doctors were testing him for terminal illnesses like cancer.

Reid decided to take a complete break from any form of exercise for seven weeks. "All I did was work around the house and ride my motorcycle," he says. That rest and the reduced training and racing schedule he adopted afterward paid off: Reid finished second in the 2002 Ironman Hawaii. Now he sometimes takes two days a week off from any training—two more than he took during his disastrous stint of overtraining—and he feels stronger than ever.

"When I was overtraining, I was always missing a gear on race day," says Reid. "When I'm not, I can reach that extra gear and finish strong." (See "Your Body's Annual Manual," next page, to figure out how much exercise your body can handle.)

OK, calm down—we're not suggesting total couch-potato behavior. We expect you to keep moving. Our fitness plan, which runs six weeks from Thanksgiving through New Year's, is a sane middle ground between exercise and recovery that will give your body a well-deserved rest. In addition, you can partake in plenty of seasonal cheer and, more important, prime yourself for an even stronger 2004—all by doing less than you think you need.

What's the rush, anyway?

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