Training To Recover: Over Trained or Under Recovered?

On paper, it’s a simple formula: Have a great workout, eat good, get plenty of sleep, and get results! While that theory works, most of us have found that it’s not always quite that simple. The demands, stresses, and scheduling of life can impact our energy (affecting both our workout and recovery), our diet, and our sleep. We’ve all been there – we’ve had a great workout, but then got hit with a significant stressor (bad news, a relationship issue, or other stressors), then slept poorly that night and ended up feeling sore, tired, weak, and mentally dull the following morning as a result. In that case, the positive adaptive benefits of a great workout are diminished because the body is even further drained and can’t recover properly.

Overtraining is a common topic and we all know the symptoms of prolonged muscle or joint soreness: feeling run down, feeling “off” mentally, or having consistently poor workouts over an extended period of time. That begs the question: Are you over trained or under recovered? It kind of sounds like a “chicken or the egg” scenario, but in reality, a person could only workout twice a week and not recover well if they’re under tremendous stress, eating poorly, or aren’t getting enough sleep.


Let’s take a look at both sides of the coin, but focus on the training side of the equation. First, let’s do a quick review of the major factors that influence your personal capacity to recover. These are:

Sleep: Quality, uninterrupted, REM based sleep is critical.

Nutritional Content: Both macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats), and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements)––which are the metabolic spark plugs for our energy pathways. Missing one of these key element can halt a pathway critical to recovery.

Nutritional Timing: How well, and how exactly are you meeting the momentary nutritional demands of your body (muscle, nervous, and organ systems)? Meal timing is critical for recovery, so if you don’t capitalize on when your body is screaming for carbs or certain amino acids, it will turn on itself and break down your existing muscle tissue to get them.

Stress: Stress response, whether in spikes or for longer durations (residual stress), causes a cascade of hormonal and neurochemical effects that can obliterate the beneficial effects of a great workout and a proper diet. The hormone cortisol is a major culprit as it has an overriding effect on many other metabolic hormones such as insulin, thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen.

Hormonal Status: This is in part influenced by the stress response, but individual hormone levels must be optimized in order to maximize recovery and results. The major hormones in this category include insulin, thyroid, growth hormone, testosterone, and estrogen. Hormonal replacement therapy, if needed, will also substantially impact recovery given its effects on sleep and other metabolic pathways.


Our training stimuli, in other words our workouts, are designed to stress our bodies with the intention of causing them to adapt in a positive way. For instance, we might want more endurance, more muscle, more strength, or more strength-endurance combined. Of course, workout programs are designed to achieve other results as well such as burning calories, stimulating the metabolism, and lowering stress levels.

Working out stresses the body in a variety of ways, targeting the muscles and connective tissue (tendons and ligaments), the nervous system, as well as the cardiovascular system. Each of these systems respond differently to various types of training, and recover differently as well (some more quickly than others). What you do in your workout will greatly affect your capacity to recover.

The number of sets and reps, the amount of weight used, how fast you move the weight, the length of in-between rest periods, types of exercises, and overall exertion all play a major role in how much your body’s systems get taxed or broken down during a workout. Ideally, your workout stimulus should exactly match your ability to fully recover. Therefore, we should design our training programs based both on our desired results and our anticipated ability to recover.


One method that has been used by top veteran athletes in many sports is to “listen to your body”. That means to be aware of your energy level, joint soreness, and mental state before you start your workout. If you feel a bit tired or depleted, do fewer sets and reps and adjust the weight accordingly. These are not the days to push your body to its limits, yet the workout can still be productive. You should also recognize and anticipate that intense workouts will require more disciplined effort on the recovery side (eating more frequently, going to bed earlier, adding meditation etc.).

If you know you are heading into a tough patch at work or in life, keep working out to minimize stress and keep your body and muscles strong, but make sure to adjust your workout plan accordingly. That way your results can continue, rather than running the risk of becoming too run down to train at all. Make haste slowly. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Results over time depend on consistency, both on the training side, and recovery side. Train hard, but most of all, train smart!

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.