This article is not for the people who need motivation to exercise. No, I’m talking to the fitness fanatic who thinks nothing of working out every day, or 6 days, or even 5 very intense days per week. Yes, I am including myself in this conversation. I’m mostly talking to my CrossFit friends.
Without a doubt, it is a certain personality type drawn to CrossFit. Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a middle-of-the pack exerciser who attends daily CrossFit WODs at your local box, it’s fair to say that you are committed to working out. Yes, you are ahead of 90% of the population in that characteristic alone. Doctors and exercise professionals are always pushing people to be more active. The benefits of regular exercise are well known and well documented. So, good for you that you’ve found a fitness routine you are able to commit to consistently.
But can there be too much of a good thing? There is a fine line between training hard enough and frequently enough to create an adaptive response and training too much and too often without adequate recovery periods that actually negate positive training effects.
This leads into a related subject: exercise addiction and compulsion. I can talk firsthand about this. I’ve been lifting weights and working out since I was 10 years old. For many years, it was the only thing that made me feel good. I still have a hard time feeling good without exercising. Exercise addiction has not been studied long enough to be a legitimate mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But I believe we’ll see it in the future. Gambling and internet addiction have recently been added to the DSM because experts have shown changes in the brain similar to that with drug addiction. It’s just a matter of time before exercise compulsion is seen in a similar light. As it stands now, exercise addiction is seen as a component of anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphic disorder.
I bring all this up in the context of CrossFit, which I partake in and am a fan of. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between “doing CrossFit” and your overall training program. Most CrossFit enthusiasts are type-A personalities and creatures of habit, who thrive on routine. Again, these are characteristics that, when taken against the majority of the sedentary population, are hugely positive attributes.
But I’m here to say that the majority of CrossFit people I know over-train. Yep, you don’t rest enough for the goals you say you want. The other day, I asked a friend when was her last day off. Her answer? “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” I hear this a lot.
CrossFit workouts are generally very high-intensity anaerobic workouts, which stress the body’s nervous system and adrenal glands. In small to moderate doses (2-3 times per week, tops, in most cases) these workouts are a great way to stimulate fat loss. But if you are training this way upwards of 6 times a week, you are setting your body up for overtraining which leads to diminished performance.
Symptoms of overtraining include persistent fatigue and muscle soreness, elevated resting heart rate, increased injuries and illness, irritability and depression. Wow. I’ve certainly experienced many of those symptoms!
Exercise gains occur at rest and during recuperation. When we lift heavy weights or push our systems to the limit, we actually break down muscle tissue, and stress the adrenal glands, which releases the hormone cortisol in our bloodstream. Cortisol is the stress hormone, which has a catabolic effect on our bodies. Adequate rest and recovery is needed to flush our bodies of cortisol, in order to stimulate tissue growth and repair. If you are doing 5-6 CrossFit type workouts per week, I daresay you are not giving yourself adequate recovery periods to maximize your gains and, in fact, you may even be counteracting all your hard work!
Sleep and nutrition are obviously critical to adequate recovery. It is recommended 8 ½ – 9 hours of sleep for high-intensity athletes (of which I consider daily CrossFitters). For most of us, that’s a lot of sleep! Who can get that much sleep these days? Fair enough, you have a busy life – I’ll allow a minimum 7 hours sleep per night. But if you’re one of those people doing 5-6 CrossFit workouts per week while only getting 5 ½-6 hours of sleep per night? Uh-uh. It’s just a matter of time before you exhibit signs of overtraining and fatigue.
Aging athletes and exercisers require more rest simply because it takes the body longer to regenerate between workouts. I’m finding this out as I near 42 years old. I simply can’t turn it around as quickly as I used to.
But where is that fine line? How can we know when we are training too much or not resting enough? It’s a good question. And finding the right balance between stressing the body enough to create an adaptive response and resting enough for adequate recovery can vary from person to person for a variety of reasons. Studies have shown athletes benefit from up to 2 weeks of rest and recovery before seeing a decline in performance and strength. Think about that – 2 weeks! Many people fear getting fat or losing strength after just a couple days off but the research doesn’t support that fear. In fact, it finds the opposite to be true.
A rest day does not need to be spent away from the gym. A rest day is a great day to do a light yoga class, mobility work, stretching, foam rolling, hiking or some other low-level activity. Take a day or two days a week to focus on an area that needs attention – lifting technique (low volume), mobility improvement (most people could benefit), core work, or low intensity gymnastics work. If you are hitting the “red zone” with your cardiopulmonary and nervous system more than 4 times a week, it’s probably too much. I’m basing my opinion on years of experience with my own body and training others. (By “red zone”, I mean reaching above 85% max HR during the workout. Yes, that’s most CrossFit WODs.)
CrossFit recommends 3 days on for every one day off. I think that’s a good baseline, but there are so many factors – a person’s current fitness level, goals, job, etc. There are many acceptable variations. What is a CrossFit workout, anyway? By definition, it varies widely, as does the effect on the body. I’ve found the best results by limiting high-intensity WOD’s to 2 per week and using the other 3-4 days for strength training and Olympic lifting technique. Training is both an art and a science. Finding that balance between intensity and recovery is the art. Go by feel. Listen to your body. Be aware when your brain may be trying to override the body’s signals telling you “more is better”. Feeling fatigued? Then take that extra rest day. Your body and performance will thank you.