No agony, no improvement” has its limits — and that “feels so nice” post-workout discomfort isn’t always as advantageous as you might think. Often, the very things that you would expect to indicate impressive fitness progress are actually cautionary signs to slow down, explains Minnesota-based exercise physiologist Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.
It’s crucial to listen to your body and what it’s truly expressing. Don’t pay attention, and your exercise could end up working against you, essentially triggering muscle loss and fat gain. Moreover, pushing yourself too hard comes with a significant risk of injury—and all of your training won’t be very beneficial if you’re sidelined on race day.
So how do you surpass your comfort zone without jeopardizing your fitness? Keep your eyes open for these four cautionary signs.
Your Workouts Fill You with Dread
“Your fitness routine should be one of the most enjoyable things you do all day long. So if you’re not smiling, it’s crucial to consider why,” says sports medicine physician Jordan Metzl, M.D. After all, just not enjoying your workouts is one of the initial symptoms of overexertion, often appearing before any of the other cautionary signs on this list.
Sure, everyone has days when going to the gym is a challenge—but once you turn up the music and start sweating, you should perk up. “If you still feel awful halfway through your workout, leave,” says Nelson. Go home, take a look at your training log, and brainstorm some ways to switch things up. Maybe it’s time to try out a fresh workout routine or fitness class. Also, if your workout routine doesn’t include at least one to two complete rest days per week, add those in, he advises. However, you can decrease the number of complete rest days you require by breaking up your high-intensity or endurance workouts with some light, gentle workouts such as yoga or swimming.
You Feel Extremely Sore After Every Workout
“A lot of people think they need to be extremely sore the day after their workouts—but soreness isn’t a very reliable indicator of progress,” explains Nelson. That’s because you should only experience intense delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) about 24 to 48 hours after completing a workout that’s completely new.
After executing the identical exercise regime twice, thrice, or even quadruple times…the impact diminishes.
So if you’re weeks or months into a consistent workout routine and still find yourself hobbling around the house on a regular basis, something’s likely amiss with your workouts, notes Nelson. It’s also important to take note of when, precisely, you experience discomfort. Does it occur within that 24- to 48-hour timeframe? If it starts up in less than a day after your workout, or if it lingers for more than two days, you are encountering more than DOMS. You could have an overuse injury and need to give the muscle a rest. Resist the temptation to statically stretch — which could worsen any tiny tears in the muscle — and instead opt for foam rolling. Once the pain has completely subsided, gradually ease back into your exercise routine, decreasing your workout intensity or frequency this time around.
Your Joints Hurt
While overuse injuries can and do impact muscles, they most often affect joints and their surrounding areas. “If you ever experience pain in your joints, cease what you are doing immediately,” says Dr. Metzl. “You should never experience pain in your joints while exercising,” he remarks.
Take a few days off from your workouts — or at least any exercise movements that involve the problematic joint — and prioritize RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Once your joint is free of pain and you feel prepared to return to the gym, prioritize quality over quantity. Many exercisers get caught up in a “go hard or go home” mentality and end up sacrificing form and technique in favor of intensity, notes Nelson. However, if you execute each exercise with proper form (even if that means reducing weights or repetitions), you’ll obtain more from each exercise session while also preventing the injury from recurring.
Your Workout Performances (and Results) Are Insufficient
If you’re in week five of your workout routine and you can’t run as swiftly or lift as much as you could two weeks ago, it’s important to recognize that you’re not regressing because you aren’t working diligently enough. Instead, you’re regressing because you’re working excessively hard, says Nelson. Remember, exercise puts stress on your body, and unless you also provide sufficient time for recovery, your workouts simply serve to break you down. That’s why, if you notice your workout performance declining, you will likely also observe your muscle gain and fat loss reaching a plateau, or even reversing.
The simplest solution is to reduce your training volume by half or more, he suggests. So, for example, if you typically perform four sets of 10 repetitions of a given exercise, switch to two sets of 10 repetitions using the same weight. If you participate in a cycling class six times per week, cut that down to three. And if you usually run 5 miles four days per week, complete your runs at half pace, reduce them to 2.5 miles each, or eliminate two running days per week.
You don’t need to entirely abandon your exercise routines to regain your momentum in improving your fitness.
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