Exercise is hard work, but it also contains its own antidote: The harder you work, the easier things should feel, and the more often you lift, the less often you’ll get sore. That means if you feel tired and sore all the time after working out, something is going wrong. Let’s figure it out what that it — and what to do about it — together.
You keep skipping workouts
Consistency is the most important thing to get right when it comes to fitness. It’s better to follow an okayish routine four days a week, every week, than to do day 1 of a really great program and never get around to day 2.
This is especially key when it comes to managing soreness. Thanks to a phenomenon called the repeated bout effect, you’re actually protected from soreness the second time you do the same (or a similar) workout. The first time will hurt, but the second time will be a lot better. The catch is that if you wait a week before doing day 2, a lot of that protection will have worn off, and you’ll find yourself in a cycle of taking time off because you’re sore, and then being sore again because you took too much time off.
You keep trying to PR on your training days
It’s fun to set a personal record — your heaviest bench press, your fastest mile. But these PRs are your reward for putting in hard work; they’re not the work itself.
When you first start training, you may be able to PR every week, just because you’re new and quickly getting up to speed. But once you get past the beginner stage, the way you get stronger and fitter is to train at an intensity that doesn’t wear you out, which means saving those PR attempts for special occasions.
You don’t have a structured training program
So now you know that you need to be consistent, but you also shouldn’t be pushing yourself to the limit every day you hit the gym. So what should you do? Follow a program.
A program is more than a routine that tells you to hit chest on Monday and back and bis on Tuesday. It’s a full set of instructions for what to do, when to do it, and how intense it should feel. Any good program will keep the total amount of work you do, and thus the fatigue you feel, at a manageable level.
You’re not eating enough
Food is fuel, and healthy athletes end up eating a ton. But if you’re trying to lose weight at the same time you’re exercising, or if you’re avoiding high-calorie foods because you have this idea that they aren’t “healthy,” you could be sabotaging your progress in the gym.
A modest calorie deficit is absolutely compatible with pushing hard in the gym, provided you’re not already super lean or underweight. But you can’t drop down to 1,200 calories and expect to have the energy for CrossFit every day.
Your low-carb diet doesn’t agree with you
Beyond the issues that come with not eating enough food, there can also be problems if you’re not eating enough carbs. The carbs we eat become blood glucose, which we use while we exercise; they can also become muscle glycogen, another important fuel.
It is possible to adapt to using more fat and less glucose during exercise, and some athletes take this approach. But it doesn’t work for everybody, and depending on what kind of exercise you’re trying to do, you’d probably perform better with some carbs in your diet than without.
If you prefer the low-carb lifestyle, you don’t have to give it up entirely; just make sure to have a carb-y snack before workouts, and don’t be surprised if your energy skyrockets.
You don’t take your strength training seriously
If your main form of exercise is something like running, you probably know you should be strength training too. But runners often make the mistake of training with light weight for high repetitions, because that sounds like it should be more specific to running than lifting heavy weights.
Unfortunately, high-rep workouts can be fatiguing. You end up spending more time doing them, and you usually have to do enough reps to completely exhaust your muscles to be sure you’re stimulating them enough to get stronger. If your high-rep strength sessions leave you sore or tired, try switching to barbell work or other heavy training.
You keep deloading
If you take a break from lifting, or if you lift lighter weights for a little while, your body will be less fatigued and you may be able to lift more, or set a new PR. Sounds great, right?
The problem is that this phenomenon — called a deload — gives you the illusion of short-term progress while hurting your long-term progress. If you’re having a stressful week at work and you’ve been going hard in the gym, then sure, take a deload if you think that will help. But if you’re taking deloads every couple of weeks (and they’re not part of your program), you’re going backwards. Work hard consistently, and you’ll build up your capacity to keep working hard.
You’re not sleeping enough
Exercise is hard on your body, but food and sleep help you build back up. If you’re not sleeping enough, you’ll be tired all the time, both because you’re sleep-deprived and because you’re not doing enough to let your body physically repair itself.
You’re tired, but not from the gym
Stress can make us feel “blah.” If you had a hard day at work, your pet is sick, and your relationship with your significant other isn’t going great, you might not feel up to exercise. That’s fine — take care of your mental health however you need to.
But it’s worth remembering that exercise often helps us deal with stress, even if we may not feel like doing it. If your feelings of stress are getting mixed up with your guilt over missing the gym, it can be helpful to separate those things (and anyway, you never need to feel guilty about missing a workout). Get up and go for a walk, or do the easiest possible yoga video, and see if you feel a bit better.