So how do you know when it’s time for a break, and how long it should last? Ideally, your training plan should include a formal periodization schedule that calls for “light” periods and days of rest. But even then, particularly if life throws you for a loop, there may be times when you find that the plan simply isn’t panning out.
In those cases, it helps to be able to recognize your body’s warning signals. These are some of the most common indicators that suggest stepping back, along with strategies for when and how to ramp it up again.
What your body is trying to tell you: It may be maxed out. Generally, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. But when you’re clocking 80-hour weeks or planning your wedding, intense exercise can become one more stressor in your already-stressed-out life.
It can also further destabilize your body’s levels of amino acids and neurotransmitters. A lot of busy people find time to exercise by cutting back on sleep, but it’s during sleep that your body repairs and restores itself.
What to do: Focus on quality rather than quantity. Instead of training six days a week, switch to an every-other-day schedule, suggests Talbott. Rest more and nap when possible. “The rest and recuperation will reduce cortisol levels,” says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a psychonutritionist and veteran Ironman triathlete and ultramarathoner. “It’s better to have three good workouts during the week than to have five or six so-so workouts.”
How to come back: Once you’ve completed that merger or said your wedding vows, go ahead and add more training days to your schedule. Just make sure to continue to get your seven to eight hours of sleep.
What your body is trying to tell you: Whether it’s an everyday cold or something more serious, if you’re getting sick often, it’s a sign that your immune system is struggling and may need more attention than your workouts for a while.
Regular (moderate) exercise usually boosts immunity, but intense sessions, particularly those lasting two hours or more, can lower it — especially if you don’t rest adequately between sessions or you aren’t getting adequate nutrients.
What to do: Take stock of your illness. It’s OK to continue to exercise through a cold, away from others, as long as you lower the intensity and duration. Go at a slower pace and hold yourself to just 30 or 40 minutes, max.
Don’t overload congested or infection-weakened lungs, though. As a rule, if your symptoms are below the neck — or include a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea — stay in bed. Exercising with a fever will raise your body temperature even more, putting undue stress on your immune system and allowing the infection to flourish.
How to come back: The effects of flu or other illness may linger long after your fever subsides. During your first week back, train at no more than three-quarters of your normal intensity and duration, says Talbott. After a week, if you feel energetic during and after your workouts, resume your normal training load. During longer sessions, consume some carbohydrate in the form of a sports drink, energy bar, or energy gel.
What your body is trying to tell you: After six to nine months on any exercise program, everyone hits a plateau. In many cases, this indicates that the body needs a new challenge. In other cases, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too far, too fast, and not giving your body’s repair systems a chance to keep up.
Remember also that your maximum muscle size and metabolism are both partly genetically determined. Trying to overcome genetics by cranking up the intensity and duration of your workouts, Talbott warns, can backfire by suppressing immunity, which in turn suppresses your metabolism.
What to do: Evaluate your periodization schedule to see if you might be overtraining. Look at how much support you’re offering your body in return for the demands you’re placing on it. Consider adding more rest days or recovery workouts to your schedule.
Also consider switching to a different fitness pursuit. If you were running, try stairclimbing. If you were rowing, try the elliptical trainer. In the weight room, switch up your regular routine. “Mixing it up can often provide enough of a change,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. “It’s like slapping your metabolism in the face and waking it up. It keeps your body adapting.”
How to come back: As long as you’ve stayed reasonably active, you’ll probably find that you can return to your original fitness pursuits without much trouble. Changing it up and following a periodized program can help to improve your results. (For a periodized, six-month program, visit “Strong, Fast & Fit: Learning the Ropes (Part II, Month 1)”.)
What your body is trying to tell you: A negative mindset is often the first sign of overtraining syndrome, says Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo. With a symptom list that includes grumpiness, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia, and low immunity, overtraining syndrome results from going too hard and too often without adequate rest.
Keep overdoing it, and you can expect to see stress-hormone levels rise, testosterone (the hormone in charge of muscle building and repair) levels fall, and immunity plummet. You may feel tired as soon as you roll out of bed in the morning, or get more short-tempered as the day wears on.
What to do: If you have the bummed-out mindset — but without any physical symptoms — exercise at one-half your normal intensity and duration for one week. If your physical health is already suffering, you may need to stop exercising altogether for one week or more. If your physical symptoms have lasted for only three or four weeks, then a week off should do the trick. If you’ve been dragging around for months, take three weeks off, going for easy walks and doing yoga, tai chi, or light stretching when you feel like it.
Also, consume more brightly colored vegetables and fruits (at least eight to 10 servings a day), fatty cold-water fish like salmon (at least twice a week), and sufficient protein from your choice of animal or plant-based sources (at least twice a day). These foods will help lower cortisol levels, reduce muscle inflammation, and support immunity, says Talbott.
How to come back: Exercise every other day at half your normal training volume. Do this for two to three weeks, and then begin adding intensity and duration to your workouts.
Keep rest days a regular part of your schedule. For every three days of hard training, take off one or two days.
This originally appeared as “Getting the Message” in “The Recovery Zone” from the December 2020 issue of Experience Life.