Over-Training

In the sports world there is a fairly well understood phenomena known as “over-training”. In broad terms, over training occurs when an athlete trains harder than their body is capable of adapting. It’s generally characterized by a decrease in performance, changes in mood, physiological changes like weight gain and chronic soreness. The remedy for this condition is to back off on the training and slow down. Simply put, the body needs a chance to recuperate.

This is something that is so common and well understood in the sports world that almost any good athletic coach knows what it is, how to spot it, and how to treat it. You see it all the time when you go to the gym. People pounding away on exercise machines, full of vigor and enthusiasm and guess what happens?

Day one – Work out like crazy.
Day two – Ooh sore, keep working out like crazy.
Day three – Still sore, push through the pain.
Day four – No energy, flail through it all based on raw drive.
Day five – Wondering why you ever thought this was a good idea.
Day six – God I hate exercise.
Day seven – You pull a hamstring and limp off to the doctor.

That’s how over-training works. This story is so common that I would be very surprised if anyone reading this has not personally gone through exactly those steps at least once. I know – I have done it myself many times. What’s the first thing that you would tell someone who had just gone through this hypothetical 7 days from hell? Slow down! Pace yourself!

That’s right, it’s so simple to see the pattern that just about anybody could spot it. Who is the one person who can’t see what’s happening? Yes, you got it: the poor guy doing all the work (just too busy, busy, busy). At this point, unless our hero is some sort of expert in physical fitness, he’s probably well advised to seek the experienced help of a trainer or coach.

So that’s fun. Can we over-train elsewhere? Playing the violin? Studying for an exam? Writing code?

I had a friend once who got his first job as a software developer at a small Seattle startup. That was back in the heady days before the boom. He was so excited he could barely contain his enthusiasm. He was going to be working with some of the best developers he had ever met on exciting projects that were going to transform the way we work with computers. It was huge, audacious, and magnificent! He dove in and gave it everything he had. He was so eager that he got up at 5 AM to catch the first bus downtown. He read programming books on the way to work. He coded non-stop until 10 at night and then studied more programming books on the bus home. Six hours of sleep, rinse and repeat. Often on weekends.

For over six months straight.

And then I was my friend was laid off. Poor bastard. So, because I just happen to know this guy pretty well, let’s see if we can ask a few questions (and fortunately he can’t read because he went blind reading programming books on the bus). First, were there any signs of over-training to be found? Why yes there were! As it happened, he started to suffer some anxiety – constantly worrying that he wasn’t achieving enough, not smart enough – the pace was starting to grind him down. His performance started to suffer: his hands might be on the keyboard all day long, but there were increasingly long stretches spent just staring at the screen (not to mention drooling on the keyboard). Weight gain? Check! Twenty pounds, easy. He even developed a mild case of carpel tunnel syndrome. Soreness? Check!

Pretty much a classic case of over-training. And the prescription? Slow down! People told me him to slow down and guess what? It really didn’t help. He couldn’t understand what “slow down” meant. You might as well have said it in Martian. I could see the lips moving, but the words made no sense. How do you explain “slow down” to someone who can’t ever go fast enough? Can’t be done. I had deadlines. The team was depending on me!

The irony of what ended up happening was epic.

The pace that we keep, no matter what the endeavor, really seems quite important. Do it right and you can sustain your pace like a marathon runner. What is most intriguing is that just like in the case of athletics, there are tell-tale signs of over-training in knowledge work. We can and should keep an eye out for those signs. It’s also apparent that, despite a relatively simple prescription (slow down) it can be a tough nut to crack.

So, if I could go back and coach this friend of mine, what would I tell him? What would I say as someone who has seen this pattern before? What would I say as someone who has experienced it himself? I probably wouldn’t say anything. I’d probably just give him a hug.

…And tell him to avoid redheads named Heather
…And don’t play that stupid drinking game with his brother
…And for Pete’s sake, BUY APPLE stock!

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