How Much Is Too Much?

I felt that oh-too-familiar tug of pain as my legs shot my body back on the rower for my last set of the day. After pulling countless muscles in my career, I was only too aware of the sinking feeling in my gut when I felt my muscle give out under too much pressure. And just like that, I was confined to modified workouts for the next week. 

 How did I end up here again?


 Why don’t I listen to my body?

 I was only one set away from finishing.

 How was I supposed to know one more rep was too much?

 To achieve what no one has ever achieved before, you have to push yourself further than anyone has pushed herself, right? Or do you?

 As athletes, we thrive in the dichotomy of pushing ourselves to our utter limit, while knowing there is indeed a limit that shouldn’t be crossed. We post a “no pain, no gain” sticky note on our mirrors, but all the while the little voice in the back of our head wonders, “But is it too much?”How do we find the line between becoming the best we can be, and pushing past the imaginary line of “too much” and ending up with a setback, instead? 

 I believe we can figure out how to stop overtraining and get our bodies functioning at optimum productivity. Here are four ways we can determine if what we’re doing is too much.

 1. You know your body.

Everyone’s body is different. You don’t know your teammate’s body and you don’t know your competitor’s body, but you have lived in your same structure of tissues and ligaments since the day you were born. Doctors are knowledgeable and helpful, but at the end of the day, only you know what you are feeling. 

 Become more attuned to your body. If you’ve never paid much attention to warning signs, figure out the difference between soreness and borderline injury. Learn from your mistakes, and don’t push your body past the tipping point in the same way over and over again.


2. Defend yourself, but don’t be offended

There are two types of people reading this article: those whose perfectionism and grotesque pain tolerance lead them to countless injuries, and those who take the shortcuts, look for the quickest way to success, and give up all too easily when the going gets tough. 

If you are the former, defend yourself. You know your body, and don’t let someone convince you nothing is wrong when something truly does not jive or make sense. If you’re the latter, just suck it up. Stop making excuses, stop disrespecting your teammates by stopping at the slightest muscle twinge, and stop deceiving yourself.  

On the other hand, you can’t be offended if your coach or teammate tries to push you past your “too much.” Your coach’s job is to make you the best athlete they can, just like your teammate’s job is to empower you to make the best team possible. If someone’s challenging you and doesn’t understand your injury, have grace for them. Don’t expect people to understand what they haven’t experienced.

 3. Prehab, not Rehab.

Most of us live out of reaction, rather than action. Strive to strengthen little overlooked muscles that prevent injury, foam roll before and after a workout, and use proper technique in the weight room. Don’t skimp on the details, or the details will add up to haunt you. You can’t say your training is “too much” when you haven’t done your diligence to prepare your body to perform at that threshold.

 4. Stop Overtraining 

When Mark Spitz won seven Olympic gold medals in 1972, the sport of swimming followed his example, and all swimmers began training two practices a day, rather than one. Then Michael Phelps matched the seven gold medals in 2008 when he started training three practices a day. Ever since 1972, the swimming world has believed that more is better. But if I learned anything in my career, it’s that more is only better…until it’s not. 

There comes a point when your psycho perfectionism really isn’t doing any good. When you’re more tired and less able to train, your extended efforts have a reverse effect. There is going to come a day when the pendulum will have to swing back the other direction, where we start training smarter, instead of harder. Nothing can replace the mental toughness of endurance workouts, but can we grow as athletes and coaches to be mentally tough enough to challenge the status quo and train in innovative ways?


After all that advice, here’s the bottom line. Most of us don’t have a self-awareness issue; we have an ownership issue. You probably clicked on this article hoping that someone you’ve never met, someone who has no idea what your personality, pain tolerance, or body makeup looks like, would tell you where the line is that you shouldn’t cross. You just want to be told what to do, because taking responsibility for our own lives and actions isn’t something our culture encourages us to do nowadays.

But if you’ve made it to the two percent, chances are you already know. You know the difference between a good muscle tension in the weight room and a possible strain. You know when you wake up in the morning and your body just feels off. And you also know when you’re making excuses in your mind in order to justify your own laziness. You know.

 Chances are, if you look in the mirror and take a good honest inventory of your mind, you know exactly how much is too much, and no one else can make that decision for you. You just have to own it. 

If you’re someone who pushes herself to chronic injury over and over again, you need to own the fact that your lust for intensity is derailing your body. If you’re someone who is trying to use this article as an excuse to justify that your coach is challenging you too much when you simply need to get over your own lack of motivation, you need to own it. 

 From one side of the spectrum to the other, and everything in between, we know. All we have to do is decide that we are going to be the best we can possibly be on any given day, and in the end, that is enough. Who you are is not too much and it is not too little; it is just right. If you are satisfied with the person you’re becoming each day at the end of each workout, then you are doing exactly the right amount.


Tera Bradham

Tera Bradham is an author and motivational speaker. She swam for the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University before living in South America for a year. Returning to Texas, she taught Spanish and was the head swim coach at Meridian World School. She now dabbles in triathlons and enjoys exploring the mountains of her new home, Bozeman, Montana. Her heart's deepest desire is to empower others to fight for the destiny they were made to live.