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7 Warning Signs of Under-Recovery (and what to do about it)

By Tom Nikkola, CSCS, CISSN, Pn1

Serious athletes, stay-at-home parents, busy executives and most other mortals succumb to the effects of under-recovery from time to time.

Under recovery is slightly different than overtraining. Most non-athletes would have a hard time achieving “textbook” overtraining syndrome, as they have a hard time achieving the high training volumes related to overtraining.

Under-recovery may be related to training volume, but often is a result of poor lifestyle and nutrition choices, which compete against the effects of an intense training program. Not surprisingly, the symptoms are very similar and stem from an excessive level of stress compared to the ability to recover from it.

See if you can relate to any of the signs below, and if so, make a point of addressing your recovery plan. After all, the value of a workout isn’t just what you do during your training. The real benefit comes from recovering afterwards, as your body gets stronger, faster, leaner and healthier.

1. Workouts Seem More Like Work Than Training

I’m terrible at listening to my body. I have a “push through it” mentality. Once in a while, it works. But it also works against me when it comes to workouts.

If we listen to our bodies, they usually let us know when something isn’t right. If the excitement is gone from your workouts, it could be a sign that you’re not recovering from them.

Don’t use that as an excuse to stop exercising. Instead, you may need to rethink your training program, change it, or address what’s going on between your training sessions.

In my experience, most people keep doing the same workouts week after week until they get injured or bored. Then they stop for a while, gain some fat, lose some muscle, and then start up again with the same program.

Periodization is the most important part of seeing continued improvements with workout programs. It’s also important for avoiding boredom.

Periodization involves looking at each year and putting together 6-12 week cycles of training. It’s a core principal in personal training program design.

Exercises, sets, reps, body part splits, rest periods and modifying the combination of strength and cardiovascular training should all be part of an annual plan.

If workouts feel more like work, connect with a fitness professional to work on a complete, long-term program. If you’re a Life Time member, be sure to check out the Workout Workshops for some new ideas as well.

2. You’re Weaker From Week to Week With the Same Movements

Do you want to know a secret that is almost guaranteed to get you better results from your training than 99% of people who exercise? Write down every workout.

I’m always amazed by how few people write down their workouts. The only way to get stronger is to push yourself beyond what its done in the past. The only way to remember the weight, sets and reps you did the previous workout is to write them down.

Each workout, you can look back at what you did the previous workout and know that you need to do better than before.

Most people will see continued improvements for 6-12 weeks and then they plateau or regress. If they regress sooner, it can be that they they’re not recovering between workouts. If the plateau occurs in the 6-12 week timeframe, it may be time to change up the training program.

If you don’t write down your workouts, you won’t know whether you’re hitting a plateau or not.

When you see that you’re progress has stalled, connect with a fitness professional (if you’re not already working with one) and discuss whether you’re under-recovering, or if it’s just time to change up your program.

3. You’re Sore All the Time

Are you sore, or do you hurt?

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is expected during the first couple weeks of a new training program, and even once in a while throughout a training cycle.

Muscle soreness for a day or two is uncomfortable, but probably isn’t a sign that you’re under-recovered. If you want to avoid the irritation, Rebound (curcumin phyotosome) was shown in a recent study to help alleviate DOMS.[i]* Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, also help maintain normal inflammation levels.*

Sufficient protein intake is also critical to provide the building blocks for your muscles to recover. Each meal should include a serving or two of protein throughout the day. You may also benefit from some supplemental protein powder or amino acids.

If you hurt, you may have something else going wrong. Joint pain is a sign that you may be training too often, using poor exercise technique, or simply using exercises you shouldn’t. Don’t ignore joint pain.

You don’t want to be forced to take time off due to an injury. Rebound may help with some of the soreness, but you should also connect with a fitness professional to modify your training program, and possibly a physical therapist or chiropractor to see if you have or on the path toward an injury.

4. Your Spouse or Friends Keep Asking What’s Wrong With You

Do you feel blue? Do you get the motivation to push through a great workout and spend the rest of the day in a state of melancholy?

You may be using up your reserves during your training, leaving little energy to get through the rest of the day.

First, I’d look at whether you’re getting enough protein and total calories. Too often, people train like maniacs and cut way back on their calorie intake in hopes of getting leaner faster. It’s counter-productive.

Don’t take that as an excuse to have a gluten-free bagel-eating contest. But, realize that you can’t constantly eat in a chronic calorie or protein deficit, and expect to recover between training sessions.

Most people benefit from fewer carbs in their diet, but if your training intensity is high, you may need to slightly increase your carb intake. Most people don’t fare well on a high-intensity training program and an extremely low carbohydrate diet.

A small amount of good carbs after training can make a big difference. I’ve also seen a lot of people succeed on a low-carb diet that includes a small window of time to eat higher levels of carbs once or twice per week. Personally, I eat a large amount of carbs Saturday afternoon and evening each week, and limit my carb intake the rest of the week. Of course, they’re gluten-free carbs, or I’d wake up the next day with more hip pain than a 95 year old man with arthritis.

Beyond calorie intake, be sure you’re using a high-quality multivitamin to optimize micronutrient intake, and managing stress in your personal and professional life.

5. You Toss and Turn at Night

A lack of quality sleep is very stressful. On the other hand, excessive stress makes it difficult to sleep at night, which means you can end up in a downward spiral.

If you normally sleep okay, and notice that your sleep is more disrupted, or that you’re having a hard time falling asleep, it may be related to your body being unable to combat the stress of exercise and life.

As mentioned above, a restricted diet can be a major stress on the body. You may be able to deal with it for a while, but long-term calorie restriction can become quite stressful on the body. Physique competitors and bodybuilders consistently experience sleep problems as they near the end of contest prep.

The same thing can happen from calorie-restriction, even if you have no interest in single-digit body fat levels. Don’t look at this as a license to overeat. If the poor sleep is really due to calorie restriction, try introducing periodic “refeeds” or higher calorie days to get a reprieve from the dieting.

Also, try improving your sleep environment. Keep the temperature in the 60s at night (66°F is ideal for me). Get rid of any extra light and try to keep your room as quiet as possible.

You can also consider some supplements that support sleep, such as Relora, magnesium, or a combination of 5-HTP and PharmaGABA. Diffusing essential oils may also be helpful.

Chances are, if your sleep improves, your recovery will as well. Just don’t look at supplements alone as the solution to better sleep long-term. You must address nutrient deficiencies, excessive stress and at times, excessive exercise.

6. Your Heart Rate is Higher or Lower than Normal

Stress causes an increase in resting heart rate, at least in the short-term. If you’re not recovering from exercise, other physical stress or even mental stress, you will notice a rise in your resting heart rate for a while.

If the stress isn’t dealt with, and the body gets worn down, you may experience a drop in resting heart rate as well.

It’s always a good idea to check your resting heart rate periodically. When you do, record it and compare it over time.

7. Your Heart Rate Variability is Less Variable

Heart rate variability is a fascinating way to measure whether you’re recovered and ready for your next training session or not.

We often think of our hearts beating in a steady rhythm, like a metronome. That’s actually not the case.

You may consistently measure your resting heart rate at 60 beats per minute, but each of those 60 beats are spaced inconsistently. Two beats may be 0.8 seconds apart, then the next beat may be 1.2 seconds later, then 1.0 seconds and so on.

The more fatigued or stressed your body is, the more consistent your beats are timed. At a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, someone who is severely under-recovered will have heart beats that are very close to 1.0 seconds apart.

A recovered person’s beats will be much more erratic.

The cool thing is that heart rate variability can be measured with a tool called Bioforce HRV. Our fitness professionals love this tool (which you can purchase at any Life Time location), as it helps to determine how they may need to modify their clients’ workouts on any given day.

If your heart rate variability suggests your still worn down from the previous day, back off on your training intensity. If you’re recovered, push yourself to new limits.


Your body is an amazing machine. If you pay attention to what it’s telling you, you can reduce the chance of injury and maximize the results you’re looking for. Thanks for reading. Please share this post if you learned something new.


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[i] Drobnic F, Riera J, Appendino G, Togni S, Franceschi F, et al. Reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness by a novel curcumin delivery system (Meriva®): a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sport Nut. 2013;11:31 doi:10.1186/1550-2782-11-31

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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