How to Know When You're Training Too Much

In my downtime lately I have been enjoying sitting back, smoothie in hand and reading articles from fitness magazine’s and online blogs. These article are a welcome change from the journal and scientific reading I do for work. However, I have noticed a common trend in many of the articles. They all revolve around improving motivation, fitting in exercise, getting to training and commitment. For so many of us motivated humans however, turning up isn’t the problem. For many young athletes the bigger problem lies in training too hard day in day out and not knowing when to rest. We are pushing our bodies to the limit in every session, we have coaches encouraging us and we know we need to train hard to do well. We then expect our over worked, sleep deprived bodies to function well at work, uni or school. For me, I love training (usually) and I am motivated to train when I know I’m working towards a goal, I enjoy pushing my body and being surrounded by my like-minded athletes. However, one of the most challenging aspects of being an athlete is learning that fine line between training well and overdoing it.

Lazy or Tired? How to get to know your body

I have been running a few surf clinics lately and one of the most common questions I am asked, often by coaches or parents, is…’How do I know if my kids are really tired and need to rest or are just being lazy?’. I can relate to this. This is a question I ask myself on a regular basis. The answer isn’t easy, everyone is different and it takes time and years of practice to figure out. I am now closer to understanding my body and recognizing the feeling of being completely exhausted from a few hard sessions in a row. But I still sometimes make the mistake of pushing myself too hard when I should be resting. For example, I have come to training so exhausted that I can hardly move my hands through the water. It’s hard for my coach to know exactly how I am feeling. I have had coaches encourage me to push through and go faster which of course any diligent athlete would obey. When this happens and I can’t go faster two things usually happen; firstly, my body starts to shut down and I end up getting sick a few days later, and secondly I start to believe that I am not good enough or fast enough. The real problem in this situation is that I am over doing it. If you are honest with yourself and your coach, your coach should understand when you need to back off a little. On the other hand, I have also turned up to sessions thinking that I am totally exhausted, but when I start moving I have felt great and had one of my best sessions ever! Unfortunately, knowing the difference between feeling lethargic and being completely depleted has no textbook answer. Below are some tips that will help guide you through figuring this out:

My tips on managing your training week:

  •  Plan out your training week and make sure it is achievable
  • Discuss your training sessions with your coach, especially if you have multiple coaches so each knows what you are doing in the other sport/discipline.
  • Monitor your HR:
  • - Within training: if your HR is unusually high for any given session or speed then you know your body is struggling
  • - Resting HR: knowing your resting HR can help you monitor when you are sick or run down. If you resting HR is higher than usual, this means your body is trying to recover or could be fighting off an illness and needs rest.
  • Gradually progress your training load. You may be used to doing 10 hard sessions per week but if you have been on holidays, sick or injured, you will need to gradually progress up to this.
  • Keep a training dairy, monitoring your training load, quality, duration and also how you feel.
  • If you miss a session, don’t try and make it up during the week if it will compromise your other sessions.
  • Enjoy training. It is normal to not feel great every session so learn to enjoy training for how it makes you feel rather than always focusing on your performance of achievement.
  • You are the person who knows your body the most, learn to listen to it!

Oh no! I missed a session

Figuring out your training plan and turning up to all of the sessions you intend to is often a challenge in itself. I have learnt that no two weeks are the same and I regularly have commitments come up mid-week like a presentation, dinner or extra work. If you find that life gets in the way and you have to miss a session, don’t dwell on it. If you slept through your alarm when you really wanted to get up, don’t dwell on it. For sure, you can do your best to execute a perfect week. But we are all human and life is never perfect. A missed session is gone. Whilst you may have wanted to be there, (trust me I have been in this situation many times) stressing about it and allowing yourself to feel guilty won’t help. Use the energy and motivation to focus on the next session, and use some of your extra energy to really nail that session and do your best!

Rest and recover

Many athletes understand that rest and recovery is important. Yet so many athletes train by the motto, ‘the more the better’ leading to over-training or that guilty feeling when they miss a session. Quality is often better than quantity. Rest is critical to performance both physiologically and psychologically. Rest is a time when your body repairs, strengthens and rebuilds itself and also replenishes its energy stores. Without enough rest, the body will continue to break down muscle and tissues and not facilitate the positive adaptations to exercise. So schedule in a rest day or plan for some lighter sessions and your body will thank you for it!

I am not trying to encourage you to relax, go easy and you will achieve your goals. Nothing beats hard work. I push myself so hard during training I have made myself physically sick. To be the best athlete you can be, you need to put in the hard work but also train smart. To continue to enjoy sport for a long time, it’s really important not to overdo it and end up over-training. Learning to listen to your body takes time, but is an invaluable skill and well worth it.

A note on Managing multiple sports

Throughout school, I loved sport. All the way through to year 12 I played water polo, hockey, athletics, swimming, cross country and of course surf lifesaving. Surf Lifesaving was always my favourite but I didn’t quit everything else until I truly knew what I wanted to do. At school, sport is fun, organised and your friends are with you, so make the most of it! Quite often if you want to be involved in many sports of or activities your coach will make encourage you commit solely to that single sport. This often means that you miss out on doing other things you love, can sometimes results in burn out and you resenting that sport alltogether. You have to love what you do.


Grace McCalmon