For the competitive amongst us, there’s no challenge we see as too big. We’re determined to push our body to its limits to get better, stronger, and faster.
Is it possible, though, to push ourselves and our bodies too far? What are the consequences?
We’ve spoken to some experts to find out how you know when you’ve reached your limits, the risk of pushing yourself too far, and how you can prevent that.
Training too hard for a marathon
This is one of the most common ways we can overexert ourselves and exhaust our bodies. Putting too much into your marathon training can come with risks. One study showed that 61 per cent of competitive runners will overtrain at some point.
“We often see people overtraining ahead of marathons or ultramarathons because they know how big a challenge these runs can be. But, although you do need to train comprehensively and consistently, there is such a thing as training too much. We recommend no more than three runs per week.”
Training too much before a marathon can deplete your energy resources and your muscles, meaning you won’t be at your peak for the marathon. This is because you’re not giving your body adequate recovery time. “In order to prevent overtraining, it’s important to create a training plan that has plenty of rest time. It’s also really important to listen to your body; if you’re feeling fatigued or you’re seeing more injuries, that’s a sign to slow down.”
Ellie Busby, registered nutritionist and founder of Vojo, agrees: “If you feel pain at an intensity of 6/10 or more, you should stop immediately and give yourself a day or two of rest to allow your body to adapt and the inflammation to die down.”
Taking on too many marathons
We’ve all seen the headlines of runners taking on marathons on consecutive days or people taking part in ultramarathons that stretch across many days. While that might seem like the next step in your competitive running, it can be dangerous.
According to Busby, it is possible to run marathons on multiple consecutive days, but it’s not recommended. She says: “Recovery is extremely important between longer runs.
“After every run, your muscles accrue damage, which are tiny little tears in your muscle fibres. When they rebuild, they adapt a little bit more to your training. If you run long distances for too many days in a row, an inflammatory cytokine called IL-6 that aids recovery and muscle rebuilding stays high and does more damage than good. With enough rest and recovery, IL-6 levels reduce again, and your body adapts to your training programme.”
“We find that some marathon runners worry that time off will affect their running times, speed, or fitness, but the truth is that running too much is what will cause that. Taking at least seven days off after a marathon will have no adverse effects on your fitness, but it’ll allow your body to recover, which is important before you take on your next run.”
Working out too much
Even those of us who aren’t marathon or long-distance runners can suffer from overtraining. The National Recommendations for Physical Activity and Physical Activity Promotion advises German adults to do 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. These can be broken down into shorter sessions, for example, a 30-minute session of moderate-intensity exercise five times a week.
If you’re working out five days a week, it’s easy to over-exert yourself – especially if you’re focusing on weight-based exercises to complement your running cardio. However, if you’re working out this often, it’s recommended to stick to moderate exercises most of the time, such as brisk walks, hiking, or bike-riding, and limiting more vigorous activity, such as heavy weightlifting.
Busby continues: “When it comes to how often you should work out, beginners will always have to take more rest days than experienced athletes to allow their muscles to adapt. For new athletes, 3–4 times per week is a good starting point.”
What happens if we continually push our bodies too far?
The effects of pushing our bodies too far, whether in training, competitions, or regular workouts, can range from the simple to the serious. Many of us are aware that too much running, for example, can lead to connective tissue injuries such as plantar fasciitis. Wearing suitable clothing, including the right running shoes and socks, will also help to prevent injuries like this alongside training an appropriate amount.
Sometimes, this is a short-term injury that you can ease yourself, but consistent overtraining can lead to serious and even recurring instances that can take upwards of six months to recover from, according to Busby. She comments: “Sometimes, recovering from plantar fasciitis can mean taking at least six months off training, a couple of trips to a physiotherapist, and some regular leg strengthening exercises.”
Stress fractures can also be caused by too much running or training, which can take around 6–8 weeks to recover from. However, it’s recommended that you should avoid walking when recovering from a stress fracture, which makes these debilitating injuries.
Serious, longer-term effects can include iron deficiency due to high training affecting your body’s ability to absorb iron. Extreme fatigue and dehydration can be the result of any type of over-exertion, from weight training to cardio, and can have serious impacts on your body and mind.
In elite fitness, it’s fashionable to push your body to its upper limits, but it’s easy to push it too far. Although training and running close to the point of failure is a key way to improve your fitness and strength, crossing that line will have adverse effects, including recurring injuries, extreme fatigue, and even serious conditions like iron deficiency. By using these expert tips, you can test your limits without going too far.