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Knowing when and how to moderate your training plan is critical to your athletic success — as well as your health. Failing to reduce your training load when your body needs a breather can set you up for the following problems.

1. Compromised immunity. Pushing your body to its limits causes it to release stress hormones, including cortisol. As this hormone rises, immunity takes a nosedive — it can’t adequately repair your muscles, nor can it effectively fight off bacteria and viruses.

“Periodically lowering your training load reduces cortisol levels, allowing your body to recover better from your training,” says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a psychonutritionist and veteran Ironman triathlete and ultramarathoner. It also reduces your chances of sustaining an injury or getting an illness that could sideline your training for an extended period.

2. Reduced strength, power, and endurance. A tough strength-training or cardio workout inflicts small tears along the outer coating of your muscle tissue. During your downtime, your body treats the tiny tears much as it does an injury, and satellite cells rush in to patch them up. The repair process creates longer, thicker muscle fibers.

When you train too hard, too often, however, your repair system falls behind. Many of the torn muscle fibers remain tattered, and thus, your athletic results may begin to plateau.

3. Impaired heart rate. In some athletes — usually sprinters and power athletes — the heart refuses to speed up with exertion, and you feel as if you are exercising while half-asleep. Blood doesn’t circulate through your body as quickly as usual, preventing oxygen from reaching your working muscles and keeping wastes from getting cleared.

In others — usually endurance athletes — the heart rate is elevated, both first thing in the morning and during exercise. No matter whether the heart rate speeds up or slows down, the effect is the same: early fatigue during a workout.

As a precautionary and maintenance-oriented step, some athletes measure their heart rates in the morning to assess their bodies’ status. If your heart rate is at least 10 percent above or below normal, the rule goes, you should forgo training.

4. Reduced energy and motivation. If you’re overtraining, or if some other aspect of your life is exerting a significant toll and you haven’t adjusted your workouts accordingly, there’s a good chance you’ll see your outlook and enthusiasm suffer.

Part of this may be psychological (you feel pulled in too many directions, for example, and can’t get satisfaction from your workouts). But another part of it could be physiological — a biochemical reaction to nutritional and hormonal depletion.

Stepping back from training allows you to rebalance your body chemistry, reduce stress, and recharge your mental batteries. It’s your body–mind’s call for a break, says Talbott, and you’ll likely emerge feeling energized.

This was excerpted from “The Recovery Zone” which was published in Experience Life magazine.

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