As athletic performance is becoming more and more demanding, athletes are now facing the challenge of having to train harder for longer to be able to keep up or set the bar for peak athletic performances. This ‘hustle culture’ in sport is becoming increasingly more common whereby athletes feel the need to be constantly working to be able to keep achieving their athletic goals. However, recent evidence has shown that too much training can be detrimental to athletic performance. This finding has sparked the research into overtraining and the effects on an individual physiologically and psychologically, further examining how it can be avoided or treated. Overtraining has now been defined as the ‘sports injury epidemic’ and is becoming increasingly more prevalent globally. But, what exactly is overtraining and how could you identify it within yourself?
Overtraining: What is it and what are the symptoms?
Overtraining occurs when there is insufficient time between training and rest periods to allow for sufficient recovery, meaning your body is constantly being worn down further and further. However, overtraining can be subdivided into two classifications: overreaching and overtraining. It is vital to understand the difference between these two. Overreaching refers to an insufficient recovery time between sessions which leads to physiological side effects such as muscle soreness and fatigue, and has been shown to be the first phase of overtraining.
If overreaching continues, it may lead to overtraining which is categorised by structural inflammation and negative consequences related to the central nervous system, including depressed mood, central fatigue, and subsequent neurohormonal changes (Armstrong & Vanheest, 2002; Smith, 2000; Smith 2003 as cited in Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). A visual difference between these two can be shown below
Overtraining can be classified as overtraining syndrome when the negative consequences are prevalent for months rather than weeks treatment has begun. But, if not sufficiently treated, overtraining can become a career ending injury as the body may fail to recover even after extended periods of rest. This has been the case for numerous athletes including marathon runner Ryan Hall and triathlete Alexandra Coates.
The symptoms of overtraining can generally be classified into parasympathetic changes (more common in aerobic sport) and sympathetic changes (more common in anaerobic sport) (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). Parasympathetic symptoms of overtraining include, decreased motivation to take part in sport, constant fatigue, depressive symptoms or depression, and a decreased resting heart rate (known as sinus bradycardia). On the other hand, sympathetic symptoms of overtraining include inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, a higher than normal resting heart rate (known as sinus tachycardia), increased irritability and raised blood pressure. Other common symptoms may include, weight loss or weight gain, mental fogginess, stiff and sore muscles, mental fatigue, increased levels of anxiety and constant tiredness even after sufficient sleep. Therefore, it is clear that overtraining can lead to a myriad of both psychological and physiological symptoms which often have negative consequences for the health and wellbeing of the athlete. It is important to note that although some symptoms are more common in particular sports, they are not just limited to these sports. Any individual may experience a multitude of different overtraining symptoms with a high degree of individual difference.
Theories of overtraining:
As overtraining has become an increasingly popular research area, many individuals have proposed different hypothesis to try to understand why overtraining occurs. However, to date, none of these have been proven to be 100% accurate, but it provides a valuable insight into some of the mechanisms playing a role in overtraining within the body. One of the arguments behind the occurrence of overtraining revolves around the hormonal imbalance which transpires as a side effect, based on the fact overtraining is an imbalance between training and recovery. It is suggested that during a stage of overtraining there is a decrease in adrenal responsiveness which leads to a decrease in cortisol indices which is one of the reaons behind decreased sympathetic activity (Keizer, 1998).
However, an alternative hypothesis relates to a glycogen hypothesis which suggests an increase in training load means athletes are not able to intake enough carbohydrates, which may result in muscular fatigue and decreased performance ability; both of which occur during overtraining (Costill & Flynn, 1988).
A more obscure theory for overtraining is the daily training boredom theory which proposes that overtraining occurs as a result of repetitive training. Foster and Lehman (1997) suggested that the psychological boredom that occurs during monotonous training may be the aspect that causes the negative psychological effect which may play a role in decreased athletic performance which is commonly seen in overtraining syndrome. An interesting theory, but it fails to explain many of the physiological effects caused by overtraining. For more information on these theories see here
Overtraining syndrome and treatment:
Although there is no formal procedure to test and diagnose overtraining, it is possible to recognise the signs and symptoms within an individual to determine whether they are suffering from overtraining syndrome. Once recognised, it is important to work with healthcare professionals to establish the best course of treatment going forward. This often depends on the severity of overtraining the individual is suffering from, but treatment, in all cases, is necessary to help the athlete recover and be able to return to a full training capacity. The most common forms of treatment for overtraining are:
1. Rest= This is the most important form of treatment and is vital for recovery. Taking a rest from all physical activities or those activities placing unnecessary stress on your life is important step towards full health.
2. Nutrition= Overtraining often coexists with underfueling, both of which are detrimental to the athletic performance of the body. Depriving the body of calories either intentionally or not means that the body has insufficient energy to repair and recover, which is a major factor which can lead to overtraining. After being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, its essential to assess your diet and work with a nutritionist in order to restore the areas of deprivation that have occurred, which will ultimately help the body recover and get you back to full training levels sooner.
3. Reduction in training load= Should you be suffering from mild overtraining, significant reduction in training may be an alternative treatment form to help get your body back to full capacity. Reducing your training capacity to no more than 50% of the original load will place significantly less stress on the body, and combined with adequate nutrition and proper rest between sessions, will help your body recover.
4. Relaxation= It may be that overtraining is tied with many different life stressors which combined are causing the physiological and psychological consequences linked to overtraining. Sufficient relaxation is one way of helping your body to rest and recover to help overcome the effects of overtraining. Some techniques may include yoga, deep tissue massage, taking a warm bath or even just switching off the world and going for a nice relaxing walk. All these techniques and more will aid your body in its mission to recover and get you back to full training capacity sooner.
How to prevent overtraining:
The most prevalent advice for preventing overtraining is by regularly taking rest days. This should be at least one day per week, but the amount of rest you should take depends on your exercise type, intensity, duration, lifestyle and many other various factors. A rest day should include some kind of light physical activity such as a short walk or yoga to help the blood flow through the body and promote recovery, but should not include any strenuous or long duration activities. Additionally, the inclusion of active rest days in a week as well as a full rest day is a good idea for those days when you are feeling very tired or sore. Active rest days include a low intensity form of exercise which typically puts less impact stress on the body such as a long walk, an easy cycle ride or even some low intensity swimming. Benefits of active recovery include its ability to flush waste products (such as lactic acid) from the body, increase blood flow, reduce soreness and reduce fatigue.
What to do if you feel like your overtraining:
The most important point to get from this article is that too much exercise, in any form, can be detrimental to your sporting performance and your overall general health. It is vital to notice the signs and act accordingly in order to prevent any long lasting damage and to ensure you follow the correct treatment protocol to get you back to full training capacity as soon as possible. Once you recognise the signs of overtraining, its essential to seek professional medical help to come up with a treatment plan the integrates adequate rest and recovery.
Foster C, Lehman M. Overtraining syndrome. In: Running injuries. (ed.). Philadelphia; 1997:173-88.
Costill DL, Flynn MG, Kirwan JP, et al. Effects of repeated days of intensified training on muscle glycogen and swimming performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988;20(3):249-54.
Keizer HA. Neuroendocrine aspects of overtraining. In: RB Kreider ACF, ML O’Toole ML, editors. Overtraining in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1998:145-68.