Suppose you have a friend who has been exercising consistently for a long time. She never misses a workout and every time she works out, she works at high intensity, pushing herself against that red line day after day. After a few months, she complains about feeling unmotivated, tired, and irritable, and expresses concern about her progress on the plateau, trouble sleeping, and persistent pain that rarely subsides.
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Given these symptoms, you would likely identify your problem as overtraining, and indeed, this could be the culprit. Overtraining occurs when the volume and frequency of your activities exceed your recovery capacity, either due to programming progressing too quickly or due to an increase in exercise volume that lasts for extended periods of time without adequate recovery and recovery. Overtraining causes oxidative stress, which is a natural part of exercise as your body metabolizes oxygen to produce energy and promote cell repair. This process also creates free radicals, which are normal to some extent. When overtraining, however, the number of free radicals produced overwhelms the repair processes and can damage cells, DNA, and mitochondria, causing inflammation, muscle fatigue, and pain that negatively impact performance.
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But before you diagnose your buddy as overwhelmed, another factor may be at work: insufficient fuel. Underfill occurs when you eat fewer calories than you need to maintain a particular activity at a given intensity over a period of time. This is not the same as restricting calories in order to lose weight, since under-fueling is not done on purpose. It’s usually a misunderstanding of your actual nutritional needs as it relates to your exercise log. As with overtraining, your symptoms will slowly worsen as your exercise increases and your diet stays the same, or if you follow a nutritional plan that is not appropriate for your activity. For example, an endurance athlete who suddenly switches to a low-carbohydrate diet without considering the amount of fuel she needs is likely to perform poorly until her nutritional needs are met.
So how do you determine what ailments you are experiencing – overtraining or insufficient fuel as symptoms are so similar? It’s difficult, but the things that stand out when you run out of fuel are a noticeable loss of muscle mass, common illnesses, and loss of your menstrual cycle.
The good news is that both conditions are preventable. If you think you are exercising too much, limit your exercise a little and take a few days off. Adopt a periodic plan that alternates between light, moderate, and heavy volume and weight training plans, and get plenty of sleep and recovery time. If you suspect you are running out of fuel, keep a journal of your foods for several weeks and make sure that you are at least meeting your basic metabolic needs according to the formula below. This has been found to be the most accurate and for women is as follows:
10 x your weight (kg) + 6.25 x your height (cm) – 5 x your age (years) – 161 = REE (energy consumption at rest)
Once you’ve determined your REE, multiply this number by the appropriate Activity Factor below to find the number of calories you need per day:
- Light – 1.56
- Moderate – 1.64
- Hard – 1.82
Make sure you hit this goal daily to keep your workout on track and to fuel your progress