Ask the experts
I've been exercising a lot in anticipation of my upcoming high school reunion. How do I know if I'm overdoing it?
The most effective way to know if you're overdoing it is to listen to your body and pay attention for symptoms of overtraining. Symptoms of overtraining include loss of strength, speed, endurance, or other elements of performance, loss of appetite, inability to sleep well, chronic aches and pains or soreness, chronic colds or respiratory infections, overuse injuries like tendinitis, unusual fatigue, occasional increase in resting heart rate, irritability, or you just don't feel like exercising anymore (burnout). If you have any of these symptoms and you rule out medical conditions that might be responsible (speak with your doctor if you're not sure), then you probably need a break. Muscles recover during downtime, not when you train, so you need to leave days for rest, recovery, and growth if you want to maximize the effects of exercise. I recommend seven- to 14-day breaks depending on how overtrained you are.
I understand that some individuals get nervous about taking a break because they believe they will gain weight or lose strength and endurance during the downtime. It is true that a small amount of weight gain is possible, and so for people who are concerned, I always recommend a small decrease in daily calorie intake (100-300 calories) during a break from working out. As for endurance, only a small percentage of aerobic capacity is lost in three to four weeks (not more than 5% to 10%) and it is gained back very quickly (in less than a week in most cases). In fact, the loss is barely noticeable after just one or two workouts. As for strength, it takes more than 20 weeks to lose just 20% of maximal strength, and so there's virtually nothing to worry about during a seven- to 14-day break. And in almost all cases, individuals come back from a break feeling refreshed and stronger than before the break since the muscles were given time to rest, recover, and grow. In fact, I can't remember anyone in my experience who regretted a break when they were burned-out or over-trained. It's fair to say that the benefits of a break far outweigh the risks of continuing to exercise when you are overtrained.
Finally, I am all too familiar with the need to increase the intensity of a workout in preparation for an event. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me how to get into shape for a wedding or for beach season. And there's precedent for it; professional athletes do just this sort of thing all the time when they let themselves go during the off-season (justified by thinking that it's a well-deserved break), and then increase the intensity to get back into shape for preseason workouts. I'm not suggesting that this sort of behavior is necessarily bad, and I'm happy to help anyone ramp up their routine safely for an event, but I also like to emphasize that the training should not stop after the event. It doesn't need to be at the intensity that it was leading up to the event (nor should it be), but individuals interested in maintaining good health and moderate to high levels of fitness throughout the year ought to do what they can to consistently remain active throughout the year. With this strategy, the risk of overtraining for an event is low since "high school reunion," "wedding day," or "beach season" condition is never too far off.
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"The benefits and risks of exercise"