In August, a 35-year-old senior executive working for one of the Forbes 500
multinational companies (MNCs) felt tired all the time. The executive had been a very energetic person, but now he slept through important meetings and was not too productive at work.
When he came to me, the diagnosis was simple: He was suffering from the over-training syndrome. This is a collection of symptoms and behaviours that occur in individuals after repeated strenuous training sessions, with inadequate rest to allow for proper muscle recovery.
Resolution: get fit!
On 1 January 2009, the executive had made a new year resolution to start going to the gym regularly. He started with enthusiasm. He worked out on the treadmill, the cross trainer or the stationary bike every day for more than 45 minutes. He used the weight machines for more than 2 hours each day. He attended as many group classes as possible: power yoga, spinning, core stability—the works. He ate a well-balanced nutritious diet. He stopped eating junk food. The first two months showed a lot of improvement. He felt more energetic at work and was still able to enjoy late-night parties. His wife was impressed by the reducing waistline (from 36 inches to 32 inches).
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In March-April, though, he got a bit disappointed: He was fitter than in January, but now further fitness seemed to come slower. He still partied late and was punctual at early-morning gym sessions. Most days, he was sleeping for less than 5 hours.
By July-August, the executive’s fitness curve was swinging the other way: there was actually deterioration. He could no longer lift as much or do as many repetitions. He didn’t last long on the treadmill or the stationary bike. He felt tired all the time. He fell ill often. His wife became concerned. They went to the family doctor. A detailed examination found only a haemoglobin level slightly below normal. Only on their second meeting did the couple mention the executive’s new-year resolution. The doctor referred him to a sports medicine expert. And that’s where I came in.
New resolution: don’t work out too hard
Over-training is more common than you might think. It is the major cause of underperformance and injuries in exercising individuals—both recreational exercise enthusiasts such as this executive and professional sportspersons. Many follow the “more is better” approach, until volume and intensity of exercise are increased way too much. They fail to understand the importance of recovery and diet. My patient in this case, for instance, was sleeping too little. And adequate rest between training sessions is more important than the sessions themselves, but he had none of that.
Break stride: Over-training won’t get you fit, only out of commission.
Tailor your training to these rules
• Strength training: twice or three times a week, for 30-45 minutes, with at least 36 hours’ gap between two sessions.
• Cardiovascular exercise: five-six times a week, with one or two fast/high-intensity sessions a week (30 minutes); one long, slow session (60-90 minutes); the rest short and slow (30 minutes).
• Stretching: twice or thrice a week, for 10-15 minutes, after other exercise (before is not a good idea: read Stretching the limits of fitness ).
• Rest: one or two days a week (contrary to the old advice of training different parts of the body on different days, when you rest, you need to rest your whole body; when you exercise, have a routine involving the whole body).
Rather than over-train, add light exercise to your day
• Avoid escalators or lifts; instead, run or walk up the stairs.
• Park your car further from your office or the shopping mall, so that you and your family walk a bit more.
• Just move more: Aim for 10,000 steps a day.
Rajat Chauhan is a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at email@example.com