When it comes to staying fit, you’re dialed into the lifestyle: you show up for your workout at five p.m., train like hell, and follow it up with a nutritious meal. But you know it takes more than consistent workouts and healthy eating to perform at your best. And if you find yourself in a rut—struggling through workouts you would normally rock, recovering at a snail’s pace, or no longer seeing results—the cause isn’t always in front of your face. If your fitness is suffering, perhaps one of these five health concerns is the root cause of your workout woes:
Hydration is critical to achieve optimal fitness, especially for active individuals. Dehydration can wreak havoc on your performance by decreasing your sweat rate and blood volume, as well as raising your core temperature and muscle-glycogen use. A recent study from the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory found that even mild dehydration (1.5 percent loss of body fluid volume) alters both energy and mood.

Is this you? Signs of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, sluggishness, stress, and of course, thirst. Another telltale sign is the color of your urine. Dark yellow indicates you need to drink up—the clearer, the better.

What to do: Don’t get thirsty. If you’re feeling even a bit parched, you’re up to two percent dehydrated, and may already start to experience the cognitive effects of dehydration. Break the day into four blocks of time (wake up to mid-morning, mid-morning to lunch, lunch time to mid-afternoon, and mid-afternoon to evening) and drink 16 ounces (two cups) of water during each block. Set an alarm or download the Daily Water app to remind yourself to sip regularly.

A five percent loss of total body weight in H20 decreases optimal work capacity by up to 30 percent.

With so many products marketed to the health-conscious consumer, it’s not always easy to determine which brands are legitimately healthful. Some store-bought snacks that contain buzz words such as “all natural”, “gluten-free”, or “low-carb” can be highly processed, often containing hydrogenated oils, and in some cases, as much sugar as a can of cola. Smoothies, especially the store-bought variety, are another common calorie-buster, some packing over 650 sneaky calories thanks to added sugars and syrups. These “healthy” foods can raise your insulin levels causing energy crashes and over time, weight gain. What’s more, they can put your digestive organs and skeletal muscles into a battle for blood flow, making getting through your workout feel like an exercise in futility.

Is this you? Stomach cramps or pains, nausea, bloating and other signs of digestive distress after noshing a protein bar, energy gel, juice bar concoction or other packaged health food could indicate you’re overdoing them, or that you’re sensitive to a particular ingredient.

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What to do: Read labels carefully. Look for ingredients such as whole grains, nuts, fruit, and natural sweeteners (such as organic honey or pure maple syrup). Avoid products containing partially hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial coloring and flavors. If it has at least five grams of fiber (this is a good sign that the bar has complex carbohydrates), less than eight grams of sugar (eight grams equals two teaspoons), and zero grams of trans fats, it’s probably a good choice. Better yet, plan ahead and prepare a snack—even the best bars can’t beat a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts in terms of nutrition.

Sometimes referred to as a ‘repeat’ or ‘multiple’ injury, a recurring injury occurs when you experience an injury of the same (or similar) type at the same site in the body. They are of particular concern because they tend to escalate in severity, and are detrimental to long term fitness (leading to months of missed workouts and permanent pain and injury later in life). “Ninety-nine percent of injuries I see are chronic, repetitive injuries that arise from the same scheduled, consistent workouts,” says top fitness expert and coach, Ben Greenfield.

Is this you? Recurring injuries arise even when you’ve modified your fitness regime or taken time off to allow an injury to heal, and then returned to your normal routine. If you try to achieve a previous level of performance too quickly after returning from an injury, the pain is more likely to come back with a vengeance.

What to do: It’s easy to get stuck in injury cycles when you don’t change up your fitness program to accommodate the problem, notes Greenfield. “It can be psychologically uncomfortable to step outside of the comfort zone of our routine, ” he says. “We have to break the cycle somehow and find other things that satisfy our movement craving.” Returning from a running injury? Greenfield suggests trying a few weeks of aqua jogging, mobility exercises, and yoga instead of pounding the pavement right away.

World War Z may not have been far from the truth: according to research, one third of us are walking zombies. A report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions showed that more than 40 million Americans crash for less than six hours a night. Although you may think you can train your body to function on just a few hours of shuteye, the reality is that sleep is necessary to keep your brain and body performing optimally and for the body to repair and rebuild muscle. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to decreased glucose metabolism (the primal source of energy in the body), as well as elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and decreased human growth hormone, which is required for tissue repair.

Is this you? Signs of sleep deprivation include waking up after a typical night’s sleep not feeling restored and refreshed, feeling tired or sluggish throughout the day, memory problems, or trouble concentrating.

What to do: “Sleeping eight hours a night will improve overall well-being,” says family physician Mike Hart. “It also decreases the chances of acquiring serious medical illnesses like breast cancer and heart disease.” Try to finish workouts before 6pm, he suggests. “Late night workouts stimulate the adrenals and wreck havoc on the body’s ability to sleep.”

Did you know? Just one week of abnormal sleeping habits can dramatically affect the activity of genes associated with stress response, immunity and inflammation.

Our bodies benefit from stress in small doses, but being in a constant state of flight or fight brings upon a laundry list of consequences, including lackluster workouts and poor results. For starters, chronic stress lowers anabolic hormones (such as testosterone and insulin) that stimulate protein synthesis and muscle growth, and increases catabolic hormones (such as cortisol and progesterone) that contribute to muscle degeneration. Translation? Stress can actually cause a decrease in muscle mass.

Is this you? Stress manifests in different forms and in a variety of cognitive, emotional, physical, or behavioural ways. Negative effects of chronic stress could be anxiety, nervous habits such as nail biting or pacing, fatigue, irritability, frequent illness, digestive issues, and even loss of sex drive.

What to do: Find an outlet. Journaling, taking walks in nature, creating realistic to-do lists, talking with a friend or therapist, yoga, and meditation can combat chronic stress. In fact, expert yogi and healer Julie Piatt, believes that “meditation is the single most powerful practice for balancing and aligning one’s life.” Julie suggests a simple yet powerful technique called “follow your breath.” Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position (for 5-30 minutes) with the spine aligned with the lower back, heart, and crown of the head. Follow this breathing cycle: close the eyes and inhale the breath slowly and deeply, at the top of the inhale, pause, exhale slowly and completely, and then at the bottom of the exhale pause again.

Written by Gillian Mandich, BHSc., MSc.