Exercise is a Stressor—And You May Be Overtraining

Every beat of your heart is influenced by your nervous system. The nervous system’s sympathetic branch, vigilant in every moment, is responsible for maximizing our safety. The sympathetic initiates physiological responses and adaptations to stressors and threats from our environment. Meanwhile, our default branch, the parasympathetic, is striving to quiet the sympathetic and direct as many resources as possible towards optimizing repair, digestion, detoxification, and hormonal balance.

Today, the sympathetic nervous system is frequently overwhelmed with threats coming from all directions—occupational stressors, environmental toxins, unhealthy foods, stimulants, time-zone changes, EMF, faulty breathing patterns, and even our own thoughts and high-intensity exercise. An intense training program without a “stress-mitigation program” that tackles the other pieces of the puzzle is a sure-fire way to overtrain and create stress in the body.

In terms of dose response, the simply stress needs to exceed your current “comfort zone”—it does not need to bury your comfort zone six-feet into the ground.

Improvements in fitness or any form of durability are the result of the body adapting to external stressors. When you break down your muscles by exposing them to more stress than they’re used to, they grow back bigger and stronger. This is called the Principle of Overload. The take-home message is simple: the body must be exposed to stressors that exceed its current capacity in order for the stimulus to be strong enough to elicit a change and improved ability to deal with that stress in the future. In terms of dose-response, the simply stress needs to exceed your current “comfort zone”—it does not need to bury your comfort zone six-feet into the ground. The best results come from a slight “over-reach” that allows the body to interpret the stress and recover from it, not release a massive dose of stress hormones and glycogen like the world is ending every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

As I’ve said for 10+ years, “workouts are the gas station, not the race track.”

Knowing If You’re Overtrained

Common overtraining symptoms include declining performance, hormonal imbalances, and depression. However, these are downstream effects indicative of an individual that’s been overtrained for months or years. The two far more common symptoms of overtraining are:

  1. Decreased desire to train.

    The body is very smart. The first sign of over-training is the mind requesting a day off. Does this sound familiar? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if, after a 10-minute warm-up, you still wish you weren’t there, it’s probably a day you shouldn’t be. Take it easy, and make sure this workout does not beat you down.

  2. Slower than normal results / fat loss.

    What makes the body store body fat? Fear or anticipation of an emergency or fuel shortage. In other words, stress hormones case fat storage. When exercise sessions are too hard, ramp up too fast, or we go from the couch to being a gym-rat for the first two weeks of every New Year, the body floods itself with stress hormones. The greater the disparity between the demands of your lifestyle in the previous 12-weeks, what I call your “lifestyle-A1C,” and today’s workout, the higher the likelihood it’ll be more of a stress than a therapy.

What You Can Do

  1. Cut all your “hard” workouts.

    The words “AMRAP” and “For Time” are temporarily stricken from your vocabulary. This is something I have done for nearly every coaching client I’ve had this year—and suddenly they’re getting the results they’ve been chasing for years. The beauty is, you can still work out—just keep your efforts to 60-70% of “max” and try to fuel everything with nose breathing. This helps you stay in a more fat-burning, relaxed state.

  2. Increase your 12-Week A1C score.

    Immediately begin walking 10,000 steps per day and incorporate a daily mobility practice or flow. This will improve circulation and detox your entire body while reducing inflammation and mobilizing stuck joints.

  3. Sleep.

    As my friend Bobby Maximus says, “there is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.” Click here to for my favorite ways to improve your sleep hygiene and maximize the restorative benefits of your bedtime hours.

  4. Nutrition.

    Cut all alcohol, sugar, late-night eating, and junk food from your diet. When you feel stuck, it’s not the time to take a “balanced” approach to these things. You need 100% of the food you eat to be nutritious and vital to your recovering mind and body.


Joe DiStefano

Joe has been a wellness and performance coach for over 15 years. His teachings focus on engraining profound mindset shifts, giving individuals the courage and the tools to align their actions with their objectives throughout daily life.