Are You Over-training or Under-recovering?

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Training 1080X675 1 | Are You Over-Training Or Under-Recovering?

“Chronic cardio” or “overtraining” is one of those buzz words we’ve been told is “not good for us,” but what does “chronic cardio” or “overtraining” really look like?

I mean, after all Ultra-Marathoners—people who run 100-mile races—may run upwards of 20-30 miles every week as part of a “light” or maintenance phase of their training, and that becomes “normal” for them. Whereas, the girl glued to her Stairmaster or treadmill for an hour every day may be told she is “overtraining”—but by comparison, it seems like nothing, right?

A tri-athlete or body builder prepping for a show may train three, even four, hours per day in order to get all their training in, and that’s considered “normal,” whereas just the mere thought of working out for three to four hours straight makes you exhausted.

A CrossFit athlete may spend six to eight hours per day in their gym—a job—that, for them, is “just another day at work,” whereas you are thankful that you can even find one to two hours a few days per week to lift some weights and get your Met-Con in.

One girl may hit up Orange Theory Fitness (OTF) workouts five to six days per week, and seemingly, be thriving—she has the body that you want and crushes her workouts in the “Orange Zone” every time without breaking a sweat—whereas you try to hit up your OTF workout that often, and still, your metabolism won’t budge.

What gives?!

And with all this talk about “chronic cardio” or “overtraining” anyhow—what is the real measure or definition of it anyhow?!


With all these definitions of overtraining, you’re right. It is a pretty sticky or “gray” definition.

An essential fact to consider that, in all of the above instances, there really is no such thing as “overtraining,” but instead there are five factors to consider that separate those who can thrive—even with more activity—and those who struggle with the extra work placed on their body:

  1. Under-recovering
  2. Your Body Type
  3. Champion Mindset
  4. Underlying Imbalances
  5. Stress

Let’s dissect each of these a little bit…




My first ever personal trainer used to tell me all the time, “There’s no such thing as overtraining. Instead, there IS such thing as under-recovering.”

In other words, if you are NOT supporting your body’s needs outside the gym, or your are NOT training within your personal “set point” or threshold for activity, then, consequently the effects of over-training happen:

  • Slowed metabolism
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Apathy
  • Lowered mood
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Failure to thrive
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Missing period
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Constantly thinking about food and exercise

…Just to name a few.

You are a smart cookie, and probably have heard about what you should be doing for recovery efforts. Things like:

  • Eating enough
  • Eating real food
  • Digesting your food properly (gut-health)
  • Not relying on caffeine or sugar to function
  • Sleeping 7-9 hours per night
  • Drinking half your bodyweight in ounces each day
  • Not training the same muscle groups two days in a row
  • Mobility and stretching
  • Varying the intensity of your training

Even recovery “hacks”—like ice baths, infrared saunas, massage and chiropractic care

If any of these links is missing, then your recovery (and consequently, ability to hit your next session hard), takes a hit.

One of the most common missing links I see in my own practice is this concept of eating enough.

Quite frankly, if you are a female and eating less than 1800-2200 calories as a baseline for health, you are not eating enough. The moderately active female body.

Eating enough also comprises the types of foods you are eating—are you eating only chicken and broccoli, and maybe some coconut oil on occasion (out of fear of what carbs, or more fats will do to you)? Are you avoiding fruit because sugar makes you fat? Are you avoiding “too much” fat because that word alone—fat—is scary? Are you simply not planning your meals or eating erratically (sometimes skipping lunch, sometimes eating pizza, sometimes cooking a meal with some protein and veggies)?

Eating “enough” is simple—but for many, it’s complicated. Check out this article here to explore this more.


In addition to your recovery efforts, every BODY has threshold or set point where they thrive in training—and if we go over that, or push past it—especially too often or too quickly—then the opposite of enhanced fitness happens.

I call this the “big monkey” vs. “little monkey” body type theory.

And, no, I am not talking about being “big boned” or thin, nimble and agile.

Instead I am talking about your own body’s work capacity to handle exercise (is it “big”—alot of capacity, or is it “smaller”—less capacity to handle more effort)?

This theory stems from John Welbourn, founder of Power Athlete, who cited a Russian science experiment that observed the differences in the “work capacity” larger monkeys vs. smaller monkeys, and was later used to answer this big question in fitness:

Why do some of the greatest athletes or fittest people in the world thrive off of one hour in the gym per day, while others spend six to eight hours; training like it is their job?

Answer: Some people are big monkeys—able to handle more training naturally, (and actually require more time spent training to see the results they want to see), while others are “little monkeys”—a little bit of training goes a LONG way and they actually see results faster on less effort.

In the experiment, it is said that scientists observed that the large monkeys were naturally active. They spent most of their waking hours moving around, eating, and playing. The smaller monkeys were naturally less active.

The researchers then forced both types of monkeys to swap lifestyles—just to see what would happen.

The big monkeys (the active ones) were put into cages and allowed only a small amount of time each day to eat and move around. The little monkeys (the less active ones) were given various activities and obstacles to get food each day to increase activity levels.

The results?

Both types of monkeys experienced a significant decline in health, temperament, and performance.

Like the monkeys, some people, or athletes, thrive upon more activity or more volume, and others, actually need less (with more being detrimental to their results and their health)—less volume and quality training is key for them.

Neither is better than the other (in fact, you see “results” with each as long as you are training according to your body type).


Another huge piece of the training question (i.e. “What does overtraining really mean?”) is to ask yourself: “Where is my mindset?”

This question is only one you can truly answer for yourself.

Do you have a smart “athlete” mindset? A mindset that, sure, trains hard, but ALSO knows when to back off, listen to his/her coach, take care of her body, and take rest days in order to make her stronger?

Do you have a joyful mindset? Is training truly an enriching experience? Do you walk away from a session happier, more at peace, and connected to your body?

Do you hate on your body throughout the session—talking down to it?

Do you find yourself thinking about your next meal, what calories you are burning or your next workout during your sessions?

Do you find yourself looking forward to when the session is over—you’ve checked it off your list, and sure, you feel good doing it—but sometimes exercise is more of a chore than a joy?

Do you feel like working out is part of your daily checklist—even multiple times per day? And if you don’t do it…well you have no idea what that looks like (you always do it)?

Do you pride yourself in never taking a rest day? Or make sure you train in order to justify eating—and eating enough—that day?

Do you feel like a kid again—totally doing things you love, no cares in the world?

Really, where is your mindset?

Only you—and you alone—really know.

Check in.


The current state of your health and body also plays a role in your ability to handle more or less training.

In other words: what predisposing factors or underlying body imbalances currently exist that may be holding you back from point number one (fully recovering)?

Digestive distress is a common “woe” I see in average Joe’s and athletes alike. If and when your gut health is off (leaky gut, bacterial overgrowth, IBS, low stomach acid), then the rest of your health (and recovery efforts) are thrown off.

And, in fact, overtraining actually makes things worse—naturally suppressing stomach acid, and making you more susceptible to constipation, bloating, wonky blood sugar, suppressed or ravenous appetite and/or irregular (bowels)—by the mere stress that training can put on your body.

Other factors to consider that may “set off” the symptoms and side effects of overtraining include poor thyroid function, hormonal and metabolic imbalances (low or high estrogen, testosterone, progesterone and/or cortisol), autoimmune conditions (often connected to poor gut health), and underlying stress (the mac-daddy of them all).

If you start upping the volume in your training with any of these underlying imbalances in place, then training more is not going to do a body good.


Yes. Stress. The mac-daddy of them all.

If your body is over-stressed then you will reap the consequences—poor ability to “keep up” with training a lot (or see results) included.

Like our “big monkey” and “little monkey” example above, every body has a unique threshold of just how much stress one can handle—AND what stress looks like for each person is uniquely different, depending on what else you have going on in your life.

Like a bank account, we each only have a select amount of “stress” dollars to spend before we run dry—and then we’re left spinning our wheels, in poor health, no results or falling short in our workout efforts (even though “we are doing everything right”).

For instance, say Cathy has 20 stress dollars in her account:

She spent 10 of them on her eating disorder that she struggled with for 5 years—10 dollars zapped from her account because of the toll that under-eating took on her body with her low calorie intake. Even though she is in a “better place” today with her recovery, mentally, her body is still “recovering” and thus, 10-stress dollars down. Couple this with the 5 (sometimes 6) stress dollars she uses on juggling a busy work schedule, 3 stress dollars she uses towards her constant need to “people please” and now, 5-6 stress dollars with the 5 to 6 days/per week of HIIT style workouts she does, plus at least 1 to 2 stress dollars on normal every day life stress, and BOOM, she is OVER her limit.

Or take Sarah. Sarah, too, has 20 stress dollars to spend. So she tries to use them wisely. She loves training, so spends about 5-6 of her stress dollars as well towards her workouts 5 to 6 days per week. Then she spends another 5 at her 9 to 5 day job. Another 5 towards her side-business she is trying to start. And 1 or 2 on the normal daily life stresses (like traffic, dealing with unknown events, etc.), and she is just under that 20-stress dollar limit.

Sarah is able to handle the extra stress of training 5 to 6 days per week, despite her busy life outside as well, because (for now) she is under her stress limit. Couple this with some extra de-stressing efforts she takes to add bonus dollars to her stress account (like eating enough, taking a complete day of rest off from the gym, proper nutrient and supplement support, a gut health protocol—and BOOM, she’s actually earned 4 more “stress bucks” to add to her account).

Stress will constantly change throughout our lives, and if left unaddressed, will continue to remain a “lost” or “spent” stress buck in our bank account.

(Think back to even years earlier when stresses like: Your eating disorder, psychological traumas or unaddressed mental blocks, a steady diet of processed foods, poor gut health, not sleeping enough, running off caffeine, etc., took their toll on your body).

How to restore your body to be able to “get the most” out of your training?




On this note, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for finding the “just right balance” for your training.

For some, less is more, and for others, some can handle more.

The biggest indicator of if you are overtraining or not is to simply address the facts—no crazy lab work even needed on this one—

Are you thriving?

Once again, some common indicators that may hint otherwise include:

  • Plateaus in your fitness or strength
  • Slowed metabolism
  • Hypermetabolism (can’t “keep up” with the demands of your body)
  • Stubborn body fat
  • Constantly thinking about food or exercise
  • Actively restricting calories or food groups
  • Dreading your workouts
  • Feeling compelled by your workouts
  • Counting calories in your workouts
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety—especially if or when you don’t get your workout in
  • Thinking about the end of your workout—even when you’ve just started
  • Not knowing what to do if you don’t workout
  • Missing social events or sleep often times for a workout
  • Using caffeine or energy drinks to keep going
  • Achy joints
  • Injuries
  • Never feeling “sore” or challenged by your workouts (spinning your wheels)
  • Viewing your workouts like a check-list
  • Never varying your workout types or intensity

Any of these sound familiar?

What to do about it?

Here are 7 steps to get you started today towards the “right” balance for you:

  1. Halt!!!
    Whatever it is you’re doing currently, put a HALT on it—even if just for a short time experiment. If something is not working or broken…then it’s time to fix it. You have the power to do just that. Just say “no” to overtraining or your current hamster wheel for 7 to 30 days. As hard as it may be, in order to start fresh, we need to a clean slate. What to do during the next 7 to 30 days? The opposite of stress on the body. “Halting!” does not necessarily mean you have to stop moving at all (in fact, I’d advise against that). What it does mean is halting the stress and instead, getting back in touch with your innate human wiring—how you were designed to move.
  1. Get back in touch with your ancestors.
    Like a plant needs water and sunshine to thrive, and the human body requires food and water and sleep to function, we ALSO require movement. And not just any movement, but the innately wired type of movement that both you and I were created to thrive upon. No “ifs, ands, or buts” about it, if and when we look to our ancestors—from the beginning of time—and how humans were designed to move (before treadmills and the CrossFit Open and Orange Theory sweat sessions), here’s what we see: Humans were designed to lift heavy things (moving logs, building houses, carrying stones), occasionally sprint (HIIT) from bears or for food, and, otherwise, thrived upon lots of low-intensity, daily activity like walking, foraging and homemaking. Fast forward to today, you and I still have the same innate wiring in us—not designed to sit at computers for long hours, glue ourselves to treadmills while watching Friends re-runs, not “HIIT” it every day or run for miles day in and day out, nor lift heavy weights every day. We thrive upon variety. We thrive upon function (i.e. functional fitness). And bonus: we thrive upon being connected to nature—as much as possible. What does this look like in real life? Variety. For general fitness and health, it could look like: Lifting heavy things 2-3 days per week, optional HIIT style training 1-2 days per week, an endurance-based or bodyweight training/more aerobic day, and walking, flexibility, yoga and meditation mixed in there. Customization on can happen according to your goals (For instance, perhaps you really do like lifting and want to work on increasing strength; or perhaps you do want to train for a triathlon or increase your aerobic capacity…That’s ok. Training however with variety built in there is essential for increasing your fitness—not running yourself into the ground). The biggest thing that will throw a wrench into your recovery and desire to get out of an overtraining state? HIIT style and chronic cardio. Hence, this is where all the talk about chronic cardio comes from. HIIT and cardio are not innately bad, and your ancestors did have bouts of these types of movement—we just were not designed to do them every day and thrive upon them (without specific recovery modes built into place). And if anything, walking and yoga seriously will get you far—like really far. (#mixitup!).
  1. Explore.
    What moves you? Really? What do you love to do—for fitness—that makes you come alive? Team sports? Lifting? Yoga? Dance? Pilates? Spin? Group classes? A mix of it all? Make a list of your favorite ways to move your body—even if you’re not currently doing it (or not doing it as often as you like). It can be anything!
  1. Adopt a “Smart Athlete Mindset”
    We talked about this a little earlier, but in all seriousness, your mindset is half the battle (and safeguard) from overtraining. When your mind is in a “thriving” healthy place, it will fight to help protect you from over-reaching or overtraining—past your body’s “thriving place.” Consider the athlete who genuinely wants to get better at her sport. If she is not—despite all her hard work and training—what does she do? She re-evaluates her training. She takes a step back and says, “Hm, something is not working here,” and…she fixes it. She does what she needs to to enhance her performance—not take away from it. She works with her coach, she evaluates her nutrition, she pulls back—a rest day or two if she needs it.
  1. Set Intention.
    A way cooler version of “goal setting”—set an intention for your fitness. Instead of just spinning your wheels, take a moment to define your top 1-3 fitness goals at this season in your life. No I am not talking about body composition goals either (like “I want to lose 5 lbs.”). I am talking about inside-out strength and performance-based goals, like: “I want to add 10 lbs. to my backsquat,” “I want to do three unassisted pull-ups,” “I want to jump up on to a 20-24 inch box,” etc. You decide your top 1-3, then set a deadline and a game plan for making that goal a reality.
  1. Reach Out.
    You don’t have to go it alone. Overcoming a compulsion to overtrain, improving your fitness (on your own) or healing from the side effects of overtraining can feel overwhelming if or when you’ve been spinning your wheels in the gym or fitness ruts for a long time. The good news? Reach out. Connect to a trainer or Thrive for help in customizing a workout “training blueprint” and program that can help you get where you want to be (ultimately, helping you learn how to listen to your body).
  1. See Yourself Where You Want to Be.
    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is this: Envisioning where you want to be. Whatever you can imagine or fathom is within your capability to achieve. Do you really want to improve in your fitness or health? Who is thriving healthy you—the girl you want to be (in your relationship with fitness, your body, food—all of it)? Get a clear picture of that girl. Chances are, she is not obsessively thinking about food, fitness or her body—all the time. She is at peace in her own skin—not freaking out if she misses her workout that day for her 6 a.m. flight instead. She is glowing and radiating, healthy and fit—because she’s taking care of herself, not running herself into the ground. Get a clear picture of the girl you want to be and the relationship you want to have with fitness. Then…embody her. So as we think, therefore we become. Even if you don’t feel like you are her yet…Be her today, act like you are her today. And take care of yourself.
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