Quickie: Psychology of Overtraining…

I was recently asked about what could cause one to overtrain or overdue exercise or training from a psychological perspective.  Oh boy, that’s a big question! Trying to give a short answer to that seems impossible and almost doesn’t give the subject the adequate answer I believe it deserves.  But I will try my best to break this down as simplistically as I can in about a page.  

I want to be very clear though, I’m referring to “overtraining” as the  somewhat benign term that can be remedied through rest, time off, and some good solid self awareness.  This is not to be confused with a much more serious type of overtraining often referred to as OTS (overtraining syndrome) or RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport).  These conditions are much more serious and demand a much more thorough discussion, saved for a different post.  I also am not addressing more of the training or exercise addiction/compulsion that also can overlap with overtraining.  

As the years tick by from both personal relationships with athletes I know and with many clients I’ve worked with, I’ve witnessed the everpresent pattern that many struggle with:  overdoing it or overtraining.  This can end up in a host of undesirable symptoms from injury, to illness, to anxiety, to low motivation, to self sabotage, to lowered performance and even just a general dislike of sport or training.   So how does this happen from a mental or emotional lens? 

 I’ve broken it down to 3 key underlying factors that could lead one to overtrain. 

  1. Exercise (training) becomes the only way to “feel good” day to day.
  2. An Inability to “feel” one’s own body and what it’s communicating (soreness, tiredness, energy).
  3. A strong comparison to what others are doing, I call this Athletic FOMO.

Let’s take a quick look at each, in the spirit of being a bit concise.  Each of these topics demands a much more in depth deep dive in the future. 

  1.  Exercise DOES feel good to most of us. However, we need more than only exercise to help regulate and balance us if we are to avoid a more addictive pattern that can lead to overtraining.  A few questions can help us get clear if this may be an issue:  Do I need more and more exercise (volume or intensity) to get the same “feel good”.  Do I have other things in my life that bring me joy and balance me and that I can devote time to?  How much of my free time does my training/exercise take up?  These questions can just start to provide some self awareness in this area. 
  2. Here is the paradox for endurance athletes: we get very good at “enduring” our suffering or discomfort while training.  Most athletes describe the fascinating ups and downs moment by moment while we train.  We suffer, then we feel elated, on and on-that’s the nature of it.  However, this chronic “endure” biological pattern that we take part in can lead to one having difficulty noticing the more nuanced body sensations like fatigue, pain, soreness (that asks for rest), depression, low mood etc.  It’s been my experience that this is a HUGE contributor to overtraining.  Essentially we forget all other body sensations other than pushing hard. 
  3. Oh, Athletic FOMO.  Or in other words, comparison to others.  It is natural and healthy to compare ourselves to our fellows in doses-this is the spirit of healthy competition.  However, in the modern day due to the immediacy of training data and social platforms to share data-I see Athletic FOMO as a huge driver in overtraining.  Just recently, I’ve noticed such an increase on “bigger is better” or “bolder is better”.  It used to be that running a marathon was a giant accomplishment, but now it seems like one has to run or ride 100-200 miles to feel any sort of worth in these sports.  I see this as psychologically dangerous.   I say this as it promotes obsession, compulsion, and an unhealthful relationship to one’s body, mind, and emotions.  Yes, I may not get the popular award for that statement, but in my practice I see the less “Instragram” side of these efforts-I see the emotional toll it takes.  Indeed, yes-for SOME people these ultra or extreme sports are amazing to witness but this should never become a standard for self excellence.  Most of us do our sport to find joy…if the bar is always set higher it seems impossible to feel that nourishment.

It’s good to have self awareness with the hobby or sport that most of us invest so much time and energy into.   There is always a reason we do what we do.  Hopefully this sheds a bit of insight into why we sometimes find ourselves pushing a bit too hard.   Phew I did this in a bit over a page!

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