Ask Stew: Help, I Think I'm Overtraining

An airman stretches.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Taylor Nixon, 60th Medical Operations Squadron physical medicine technician, stretches outside the physical therapy center at David Grant USAF Medical Center on Travis Air Force Base, California, Jan. 29, 2020. (Nicholas Pilch/U.S. Air Force photo)

Are you overtraining or under-recovering? We fall into this dilemma when we do too much and do not take the necessary time to de-stress. Sleep and nutrition are the most successful tools we have to help us recover from physical, mental, professional or emotional stresses. Everything else that we spend time and money on to help our recovery is just varnish, even though those things can help to a degree.

Here is an email question from an aging athlete who is feeling the pain of not being able to recover from training in the same way he did 20 years ago.

Hey Stew, I know you are an OG like me (I'm 45 this year). I used to be a high school and college athlete, have been lifting for 30 years, served in the Army for 8 years, and still like to race in triathlons and obstacle course races (OCRs). I'm constantly nursing injuries and feeling burned out. Of course, I have a job and family commitments, too. What do you do to help yourself stay active? Thanks, Wayne.

Wayne, I feel you. You're experiencing the life of the aging athlete. I have been there and have nine years on you since I also fell apart in my mid-40s.

I did a few things to help with training and recovery. I pulled back on training to a degree and more actively pursued recovery. Given that you are active every day with training or physical activities in the yard and garden, consider a few life-changing adjustments to help you not only feel better but perform better

1. Easy Days

Take a physical day off or at least give yourself a mobility day. At 45, I realized I needed a change and developed the following combination of biking (or other non-impact cardio) and stretching:

In the middle of the week (Wednesday), do this:

Repeat five times.

  • Bike or other non-impact cardio: 5 minutes
  • Stretch or foam roll: 5 minutes

Since you like triathlons, you can follow this spin and yoga class combination with a swim, but go easy and add the following:

  • Swim at an easy pace: 15 minutes
  • Tread water: 10 minutes (5 minutes hands only/5 minutes legs only)
  • Dynamic stretches in chest-deep water (leg swings, side to side, front and back): 5-10 minutes

Treading water will loosen up the shoulders and hips, and the dynamic stretches will loosen them even more.

This easy day has been life-changing and does not require a huge exertion of energy, but you feel like you did something good for yourself. In fact, I typically notice there is no pain or tightness in any of my muscles and joints after completing this "easy day."

I do this mobility day on Wednesday and take Sunday off to do an easy walk and stretch with occasional yard work when needed. If you have a garden that requires daily or weekly effort, do it on an easier day of training so you do not overdo your workout, especially as the weather gets hotter.

2. Eat and Sleep Better

While adding the mobility day to my life helped tremendously, I made real progress by sleeping well and eating even better. Food and sleep are the 1-2 punch needed to recover from hard training and stressful working or living.

Even if you did not train as frequently as you do, missing out on good food and sleep can cause the same "overtraining/overstressed" symptoms you are experiencing. See the related articles to help with better sleep habits and nutrition to aid in recovery.

I recently did a podcast with Army Lt. Col. Nick Barringer, who has his Ph.D. in nutrition. We did two full shows on nutrition for longevity and optimal physical performance. The answers are basically the same. You have to master recovery (sleep and nutrition) to experience longevity and performance gains.

I did another podcast with Dr. Kirk Parsley on the importance of good restorative sleep.

In conclusion, take an easy day and rest day in your week. This will be life-changing. If you really feel run down, try the mobility-day mix of exercises for a week. You will feel much better, especially if you start to add in more flexibility and mobility training as daily cooldowns after training or yard work.

But the biggest solution to your issues will be eating well and sleeping well. Many people spend thousands of dollars on other types of recovery, including spas, massages, contrast (hot/cold) baths and other tools. These do help with recovery, but nutrition and sleep will cover 90%-95% of your actual recovery. The missing 5%-10% is where most people put all of their focus and then wonder why they do not feel their best.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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