How to recover from overtraining and undereating? Keep reading to get the aswers!
Overtraining and undereating can get the “best” of us. Often times, what begins as an innocent “clean eating” or healthy endeavor can easily become our Achille’s heal. These two phenomenons—overtraining and under-eating— often occur accidentally.
You don’t mean to overtrain or work out in excess—but you love the achievement and satisfaction you get from completing a tough workout or pushing the limit.
Likewise, undereating may be unintentional—you don’t mean to neglect calories. It just happens.
You get busy or fail to meal prep…you fall into a routine or rut (like intermittent fasting or cutting out carbs)…you often feel bloated or constipated, or you lose your hunger cues altogether (note: overtraining can cause both gut problems and blunted hunger).
If this is you and you’re wondering how to recover from overtraining and undereating, look no further than these 13 essentials.
Hi, I am Dr. Lauryn and I am an overtraining-and-undereating recoveree. I lived to tell about it.
I spent a good almost 20 years of my life putting my body through the “ringer” with all sorts of fitness and dieting endeavors.
At age 10, after the most popular girl in school said a comment that made me feel ashamed of my weight, I decided to take matters into my own hands. However, what began as an innocent “clean eating” endeavor, quickly turned into a full blown overtraining and under-eating eating disorder (anorexia); followed by orthorexia in my later years (overtraining and undereating disguised as “healthy living”).
I was a trendsetter for this diet called the “fasting diet”, ever heard of it? Until the day I passed out in the shower…
Then it was onto South Beach, Atkins’, vegetarian, vegan…whatever was popular at the time. My dog Schitzu, Bentley, gained almost 10 pounds from all the spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread and mashed potatoes I “accidentally” threw on the floor.
I won the “gold” in the Stairmaster Olympics and after basketball or soccer practice, came home to run extra laps in the neighborhood to “do a little extra training.”
I began personal training at age 15 and while it was incredibly empowering for both my confidence and my relationship with food, I took it to an extreme. One workout per day became three. I read fitness magazines as if they were my Bible and developed new aspirations to compete on stage in bikini show contests as a fitness model.
In between my fitness and clean eating endeavors, I spent an accumulated 4 years of my life, living inside and out eating disorder treatment centers, where the primary ‘medicines’ prescribed were Poptarts, pizza and Prozac.
To “work off the damage done” inpatient, I resorted to dieting harder and working out more every time I got out of jail.
Everything came to a head at age 23, in graduate school…on death’s doorstep—79 pounds, stabbing chest pains, shortness of breath. For the first time, scared for my life. Everything flashed back to that 10 year old girl.
On my way to the gym at 4 am that morning I prayed, “God help me make a change today.”
To me, a “change” meant eating a tablespoon of almond butter more, or 30 minutes less on my StairMaster…He had different plans.
Suffice all to say, I didn’t make it to her workout….Instead 8 individuals surrounded her outside the YMCA—8 gym-goers who I now call my YMCA Angels—spoke up and told me they wanted to help.
Within 48 hours, I was at the hospital with a heart rate in the 30’s and the doctors talking about putting a pacemaker in… saying I may not make it…
But amidst the chaos, something inside me knew it was going to be ok…In that moment, I decided, no matter what, I was going to recover, and while there would be many hoops still to jump through, my recovery journey from overtraining and undereating officially began.
Fast forward to today and I am the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever been with my body, food and fitness. I still workout most days. I still eat ‘clean.’ But it does not control me. This is because I learned to identify the overtraining and under-eating patterns that were wrecking my health (and my mind) and to find peace with my body, food and fitness, using the 13 essentials to recover from overtraining and undereating I share in this article.
Before we get to the 13 essentials to recover from overtraining and undereating, it’s important to identify what type of overtraining and undereating is “getting to you.”
Overtraining looks different for everyone but it occurs in at least one (or all 4) of the following ways:
- Going too hard (intense)
- Going to long (duration)
- Going too often (frequency)
- Under-recovering (exercising, but not eating enough, sleeping enough, hydrating enough)
Similarly, under-eating occurs in several ways including:
- Calorie deficit (not eating enough to meet your energy needs)
- Macronutrient deficit (cutting out an entire food group: carbs, complete proteins, healthy fats.
- Micronutrient deficit (eating a lot of brown, white or packaged foods—missing out on veggies and nutrient-dense Whole Foods)
- Variety deficit (eating the same things every day—provoking gut dysbiosis or imbalances)
- Overtraining (not eating enough to support your training)
We can be eating, but starving at a cellular level if we aren’t meeting our needs.
How to Recover from Overtraining and Undereating: 13 Essentials
#1. Stop. Drop. And Shake Things Up.
First things first, if you truly want to recover from overtraining and undereating, realize you are going to need to do things differently.
What you are doing is not working.
When I decided I wanted to recover from overtraining and undereating, this looked like (first) being honest with myself and (second) determining what ‘shaking things up’ could look like.
Every person will be different—because your specific overtraining and eating habits do look different—however, if there is one thing I learned from my experience, it was that nothing was going to change unless I did.
For me, while exercise and “eating healthy” were still things I still maintained in my life (ie. I didn’t completely stop exercise or resort to eating donuts and pizza), I also made some “clear breaks” or “shake ups” including:
- Not setting foot on a Stairmaster
- Joining a new gym—and working out in community
- Dialing back the intensity in my CrossFit workouts—not going “there” in any of them
- Incorporating a daily yoga practice
- Quitting my 3rd workout in the evening (and going on a walk with a friend or to the infrared sauna instead)
- Eating at least 2 servings of a starchier carb each day
For you, what are the habits that are not serving you and could use a shakeup?
#2. Start Small
I am an “all or nothing” mindset kinda girl. So when I contemplated and researched about recovering from overtraining, I knew it sounded good in theory, BUT I hated the idea of going more than ONE day without fitness! Nevertheless, it seemed like everything I read on the internet nonchalantly suggested to “just take 4 to 8 weeks off of training.”
Thank you, but no thank you, I thought.
Then I decided to “test it out”—just start small. One day, doing something different than my usual training routine. Accomplishing this for one day gave me confidence that I could do it the next day; then the next. And it didn’t just give me confidence, it also gave me freedom.
Little by little, the more I took the “next step” to buck the “system” of my exercise legality, the more the shackles and chains fell from my mind and my body to be more free—not bound to “having to go to the gym” and do the same grind every day.
#3. Challenge the Inner “Fitness Critic”
You know that voice inside your head that tells you to “work harder,” “you can’t eat unless you burn X-number of calories,” or “look at those love handles!”
When you hear that inner critic firing up, challenge it with a simple counterattack.
For me this looked like speaking the positive over the new habits I was adopting—even just one battle cry word, such as:
“I am stronger for not going to run the bleachers—I already worked out today.”
“More nutrients—not less—is better for my gut, hormones and metabolism.”
“I want to build my body up, not break it down.”
Combat the lies with truth. And where there is truth, there is light (more freedom included).
Another “tactic” that helped me fight the inner critic on the gym front was taking a shower after my workout for the day. That way, I had an extra roadblock to doing another tough workout (I was already clean). On the food front, I stopped buying my ‘filler foods’ that didn’t actually nourish my body, but filled my gut (like Crystal Light/diet soda). Create mini-barriers for your old habits that make you think twice.
This is one of the bests answers on how to recover from overtraining and undereating.
#4. Adopt the Athlete Mindset
A true athlete knows the power of recovery and rest—perhaps more than the gym junkie or weekend warrior.
Athletes train with one goal in mind—winning (succeeding and doing their best). And in order to do that, they know they cannot simply run themselves into the ground or do the same workouts every day.
While they train hard, they also recognize they need to vary up the training stimulus (somedays more intense than others), nourish their body and optimize their recovery.
In fact, recovery (not training itself) is arguable what separates some of the best athletes from each other—the athlete that recovers the best comes out on top.
- The “Michael Jordan” of CrossFit (Rich Froning) moves most days—but two days out of the week, gets outside of the gym or just ‘flows’ (rowing, ski, bike, etc.)
- Gymnast Simone Biles takes time for Epsom salt baths, sauna and deep tissue work
- Michael Phelps (swimmer) swam daily, but to support his efforts, he guarded sleep with his life and ate lots of calories (8 hours most nights with a mid-day nap as well, and 10,000 calories each day while training for Beijing)
Couple recovery with a ‘champion mindset’ (including a positive spin on your new training and recovery endeavors) and you’re on a whole ‘nutha level.
#5. Reality Check: Keep a 1 to 3 Day Food Log
Are you eating enough?
I don’t typically recommend tracking calories or macros, but find for a few days, it was helpful for me to understand how much I actually was taking in. Generally speaking, most active women (training approximately 1 to 2 hours most days) need anywhere between 1800 to 2200 calories and males, 2400 to 2800 calories for maintenance and support for their fitness endeavors.
In my overtraining days, I was regularly training almost double that amount and eating on the lower end (if that).
Food is medicine. This you know.
However, in that same breath, it’s “so hard” to change—especially if you have deep food beliefs rooted in the back of your mind (like “you need to fast until noon” or “do fasted cardio” or “no more than 30 grams of net carbs daily” or “no eating after 8 p.m.”).
Whatever the food beliefs and dogmas you live by, if you’re reading this, you probably are smart enough to also recognize, something is NOT working for you.
I am not big on diet protocols. Instead, in my recovery from under-eating I lived by one word: Nourish.
If this is hard for you to do—think about nourishing yourself, consider this fact: When we eat, we not only feed ourselves, we also feed our gut bugs (the critters responsible for your immune system, your hormone balance, your mental health, your metabolism and beyond).
So how can you nourish your gut bugs?
Gut bugs LOVE balance! Like a plant that needs water, sunshine and rich soil, our gut bugs “feel best” with a balance of proteins, healthy fats and fiber (read: carbs)—and enough (calories) of these things. In fact, more nutrients, not less, are essential for a speedier metabolism, improved toning and strengthening, mental clarity and digestion—to push food through your system.
(This is why a recent intermittent fasting study actually showed that ‘weight loss’ or metabolic ‘gains’ from IF are actually attributed to a loss in lean muscle—not actually a faster metabolism or true weight loss).
In my recovery, I also had a “big” come-to-Jesus-moment in making peace with carbs. Prior, I prided myself in eating as few carbs as possible—and I am talking real food carbs (like sweet potatoes, fruit, winter squashes, root vegetables). As a result, my gut suffered; my ‘gains’ suffered; my hormones suffered.
For you, it may not be carbs—it may be calories, proteins, fats. Whatever it is, if balance is lacking in your diet, or eating enough, instead of calculating calories or macros, what would it be like to simply ask yourself: “Am I nourishing my gut bugs?”
If you are undereating, start small with nourishing your body again. For me, it was helpful to focus on adding a little bit more of the foods I was already eating on my plate—such as 2 tablespoons of nut butter with my banana for breakfast instead of 1, or a whole sweet potato instead of half with dinner.
This is where working with a nutritionist could be helpful.
#7. Heal Your Gut
Overtraining wrecks your gut.
I struggled with constipation, bloating, IBS, gas and stomach pains for years. The thing is I never correlated my gut health with my training habits…until I changed my workout and eating habits up. Voila! Constipation gone. Bloating gone. IBS gone. It’s a paradox I see in my patients now ALL. THE. TIME. They are “doing all the things”—running several miles daily, crushing CrossFit, spinning or getting into the Orange Zone (calorie burning zone) at Orange Theory…and “eating clean”— keto or low carb, intermittent fasting, lean organic proteins and veggies…but for some reason, their gut is “working against them.” Is it SIBO or candida? Dysbiosis? Food intolerances? Thyroid issues? Or…is it overtraining and under-eating?
More often than not, it’s the latter.
Research calls this: “Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome”—a cool code phrase for “gut problems from too much exercise.”
Overtraining has the ability to create acute disturbances in the health of the GI tract due to multiple physiological changes association with poor blood flow to the gut, small intestinal tissue and cell injury, leaky gut, impaired nutrient absorption, and gut bacteria disruption. Overtraining to the gut is sort of like what happens if you poke a wasp nest—what happens? The wasps freak out! The, once peaceful, wasp nest becomes a swarm of inflammatory chaos! Altered homeostasis (balance). Countless studies prove this.
One study found more than 70% of long distance runners experience cramping or diarrhea from reduced blood flow to their muscles to severe jostling of the intestines.
The good news? Your gut can recover and heal as you recover and heal.
Add in some “gut support” to the mix, and you can warp speed the process—reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.
One study in 23 men, who regularly trained at a high intensity (cycling), observed what happened when they took high-potency probiotics over the course of 14 weeks. After the trial, leaky gut markers and TNF-αlpha (an inflammatory marker induced from exercise) was significantly lower in the supplemented group.
Although every body is different, some gut support recommendations I find are generally effective for those recovering from overtraining include:
- Gut rebuilding support: Quality bifida/lactobacilli probiotics (like this one or this one) and soluble fiber
- Digestive support: Digestive enzymes, HCL capsules, and Digestive bitters
- Leaky gut restoration: Short chain fatty acids, colostrum, collagen peptides, liposomal curcumin
#8. Try New Things
A “pact” I made with myself in my recovery was to try something new for fitness on a regular basis. This helped me get out of my fitness ruts, fixed mindsets and bring fun back to training!
Hip hop dance classes, spin class, boxing, Lagree (pilates like fitness), bootcamps, dropping in to a new CrossFit box or yoga studio for one class, etc.
The options are limitless. Obviously, I did not do all of these at once or in one week, but each week, I tried to do at least one new thing for my workout.
In addition to trying new workouts, I also did the same thing for my recovery endeavors—trying new “bio-hacks” and recovery tactics and building these into my routine. Infrared sauna, dry needling, WimHof breathing, mobility work (like RomWOD), earthing, sun-gazing. The options are limitless here too and are something I help my clients build into their routine.
#9. Put More Walking, Yoga & Creativity into Your Life
Movement is medicine—especially gentle and lifestyle movement you can do daily. As I dialed back my fitness routine, I discovered I had a TON of pent-up energy (mental and physical).
I channeled it into daily walks and/or yoga sessions and creativity! I actually had more time back to do things outside the gym—like enjoy nature and fresh air…work on the internal stuff in my brain (yoga was super healing for processing, flowing and de-stressing)…and contribute to the world (write, podcast, YouTube, work on my business, and I even started acting classes).
We go to the gym to enhance our lives outside the gym and enjoy life—not make fitness or the gym our life. Channel your fitness energy into other outlets and ironically, watch more peace (and less stress) unfold.
#10. Start a (Fun) Program
During my overtraining days, my workouts became pretty routine and stale—going through the motions. I did the same things most days—the same cardio, the same sets and reps for my squats, the same lifts, etc. To take the thought out of it, I started a strength training program to do at the gym and then attended classes several days a week at my CrossFit Box or favorite bootcamp to connect with community and get off my StairMaster or excessive HIIT workouts hamster wheel.
#11. Set (Non Body Composition) Goals
Ironically, despite working out 4 to 8 hours most days, I actually had ZERO goals for my fitness and training.
Personally, my overtraining syndrome was more about accomplishment, achievement and “earning my food” then an actual fitness endeavor—like enhancing my squat, getting faster or building muscle. Although I said I wanted to “gain healthy weight” and “put on lean muscle,” my actions were far from it.
In my recovery, as I felt better (less mentally drained, and physically stronger—from not beating my body down every day), I was actually able to “think bigger” and contemplate “what is possible?” in my health, wellness and life outside the gym.
Instead of setting bodyweight or size goals, I set wellness goals in other domains, like:
- Sleeping for at least 6.5 to 7 hours each night (instead of 5)
- Drinking 100 oz of water daily
- Trying a new veggie and a new recipe each week
- Starting acting classes—something fun outside fitness
- Working on landing a Ted Talk
Your goals can be in any domain with one condition—they enhance your life (without feeling overwhelming or like a checklist or an ultimatum).
#12. Delete or Unfollow Triggering Accounts
You know that Fitspo or Keto or vegan influencer you compare yourself to or look to for all diet, nutrition and exercise related advice? Unfollow them (or the multiple accounts) for a week. Perhaps even delete the social media apps off your phone. Oh, and instead of turning to Dr. Google for every single body-related question, consider working with a functional medicine practitioner or other practitioner or trainer who can customize a plan for you. And channel your questions towards them.
Watch more freedom unfold in your training and nutrition habits.
#13. Don’t Go it Alone
There is strength in numbers!
My CrossFit community, my functional medicine practitioners, my friends and family, my coaches (business, fitness, life)—without these supports, I would not be where I am today, which is why I LOVE working with clients, just like you, who are looking to write a new story for their health, body and life.
Contact me today if you’d like support in your journey too 🙂