While training certainly has more positive benefits than negatives, be aware that it can also send your immunity into a nosedive. The end of the year is a stressful time for many people (at least in the northern hemisphere) as the days get short, temperatures cool down and family and work stress pile up with year-end tying of loose ends and holiday planning. Stress is a cumulative thing and it doesn’t really matter where it comes from because your body’s response to stressors is the same. This makes it really easy for your training to switch from a stress-reducer to a stress-enhancer.

When your stress levels increase so do your body’s levels of a hormone called cortisol, which can lower your immune system response. Furthermore it can cause a cascade of events that cause water-retention (some people will get extremely bloated if they work out too hard under a lot of stress) and even prevent muscle building.

It used to be thought that overtraining only occurs in athletes who are putting in seriously high-volume training, but that’s not really the case. It happens quite easily in people who are new to training or who have been on a break for a while as well as regular athletes who jump suddenly in volume or intensity. There aren’t really any tests for knowing if you are affecting your immune system with overtraining stress, but here are common signs:

  • Lots of upper respiratory infections (“colds”) or trouble recovering from them
  • Elevated resting blood pressure and/or pulse
  • Sleep disruption
  • Swelling or bloating after exercise
  • Excessive joint and muscle aches and discomfort*
  • Overall decrease in your performance even with more training

This is just a small part of the list of things that can happen when your training is jacking up your cortisol and stress levels. The only way to overcome it is to have patience in your training goals and back off your frequency and/or intensity. More than any other time of year, the fundamentals of a healthy, balanced lifestyle are important. Eating a good, balanced whole food diet will lay the groundwork and give your body the building blocks it needs. Plenty of good quality sleep is important for recovery, always, but also lay off your training if you are sick. The idea that “sweating it out” or working through a cold or flu will help is simply wrong.

Have patience in your training and don’t be tempted to ramp up at the end of the year to meet that goal you haven’t quite achieved or to make up for holiday party excesses.

Overtraining is extremely easy to do this time of year and you’ll set yourself way back and get demotivated or even injured if you’re not careful. Listen to your body and make sure you remember that exercise is for health and if it’s making you less healthy, something is wrong!