Overtraining has been traditionally described as a diminished athletic performance that results from excessively increased training volume and/or intensity and competition. But the bigger picture is often elusive as the problem can be complex, necessitating a holistic view. 

Overtraining refers to an imbalance of, or maladaptation to, physical, biochemical and/or mental-emotional stress in an athlete’s life. 

While it can be deceptive and develop almost without warning, overtraining can affect health while impairing any aspect of human performance, including enjoyment of the sport.

While the basic concept of overtraining as an imbalance appears simple, its complexity and lack of a single-test diagnosis can also contribute to the lack of consensus among athletes, coaches, health practitioners, and scientists on its definition. 

This is despite extensive research on the topic of physical, biochemical and mental-emotional stress that is nearly a century old. 

The result is that this common and serious disorder can go untreated, especially in the early stages, and makes preventing it appears even more difficult.

What is Overtraining?

Overtraining (OT) occurs in all sports, from track and field to endurance, football and baseball, golf and tennis, and even in those who exercise regularly but don’t compete.

While increased workout volume (total time spent training) and exercise intensity (measured by heart rate) is often associated with OT, reduced recovery also plays a key role — even the best training schedule can impair the body when recovery is inadequate. 

A simple definition of successful exercise is an equation: 

Training = Workout + Recovery

Training turns to OT as duration and/or intensity increases, and/or recovery is inadequate.

Overtraining – The 8 Most Common Signs And Symptoms

  • Tiredness – feeling sluggish and unusually fatigued
  • Resting heart rate elevated (if you notice that it is 3-5 beats higher than usual)
  • Lack of interest in training (not feeling like going to training)
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Aches/pains persistent
  • The body taking longer to recover
  • Hard to concentrate and focus on work/studies
  • Common cold-like symptoms – body defences are low.

Common Causes Of Overtraining

1. Not taking a rest day

It’s amazing to think about how many runners don’t take a rest day. Remember it is not about constantly pushing your body to perform better, but the key to building fitness is allowing your body time to recuperate and absorb the extra training load.

Taking at least 1 day off per week will reduce the risk of you burning out. You can even continue the activity by doing rest day workouts, just be mindful of the intensity.

This is especially true when training for a marathon or other distance event where your training mileage is constantly increasing.

3. Racing too often

It’s only natural to get hooked on racing. 

Not only do you get a chance to prove or find out how your training is progressing, but there are huge social benefits as the race atmosphere is quite enjoyable.

Yet, trying to push your body to the limit week in and week out will eventually lead to burnout.

The races will not only take their toll physically, but you’re likely to feel mentally exhausted too.

4. Not getting sufficient sleep

The general rule of thumb is that each adult should be looking to get 8 hours of sleep per night. For some who are regularly training, the advice would be to get a little bit more. 

Therefore, try to ensure that you are getting sufficient sleep especially if you have included high-intensity sessions in your programme.

5. Not eating properly post session

One of the well-known theories from sports science research is that you should maximize your body’s recovery from a hard training session by paying attention to the 30-minute window post-workout.

If you stick to this and eat a small snack such as a banana, a peanut butter sandwich, or indeed drink a milkshake, you’ll effectively kick start the body’s recovery and help to replace depleted glycogen stores.

6. Not drinking enough water

Your performance during a training session will partly depend on how hydrated you were before starting. It’s recommended you drink 3L of water a day.

If you’re doing a hard session in the evening, you could consider consuming a small quantity of isotonic drink 1 hour before starting the session to ensure you are as hydrated as possible and not beginning sessions in a dehydrated state. 

Dehydration and distance running can lead to running with haemorrhoids.

7. Racing every repetition in training

This is akin to doing too many races that we spoke about earlier. 

Most runners are competitive by nature and like to push themselves in training, but it is not advisable to go as hard as you can in each repetition.

It’s always better to finish a training session feeling that you had some gas left in the tank.

Three Stages of Overtraining

Stage 1 Overtraining

The transition from functional to non-functional overreaching can be considered the first stage of OT. 

While its recognition is not always obvious, identifying it presents the opportunity to prevent further serious physical, biochemical and mental-emotional problems, including injuries, and performance decrements.

Stage 1 OT is associated with the increased production of stress hormones and a rise in sympathetic activity, with the onset of signs and symptoms:

  • Athletes may become more aware of elevated stress, feel more fatigue/less energy during the day, with more physical soreness.
  • Sleep quality or quantity may be affected, especially waking during the night unable to quickly return to sleep.

Monitoring the heart rate (HR) can be an important objective measure of OT. Increased sympathetic tone raises resting, submax and competitive HRs, reducing the aerobic threshold (also called FATmax, and MAF HR). 

As a result:

  • Sub Max training HR, as measured using the MAF Test or GPS MAF Test, can increase; or may be indicated by reduced speed or power at the same previous HR.
  • Resting HR can begin to elevate. 
  • Competitive HR can rise, reducing speed or power.
  • Heart rate variability may demonstrate autonomic imbalance.

Recovery from Stage 1 OT could be relatively fast and easy, with complete recovery and without detraining in one to three weeks if reductions of stress are obtained. Recommendations may include:

  • Temporarily lowering training volume by 50-70 per cent.
  • Temporarily eliminating high-intensity training. 
  • Rest should include obtaining a minimum of 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
  • Food habits include avoiding junk food and consuming adequate healthy fat and protein to meet caloric and other nutritional needs.

Stage 2 Overtraining

Also called sympathetic overtraining, this stage is a deterioration of non-adapted stress that began in Stage 1. 

It is associated with specific neurological, hormonal and mechanical imbalances causing a variety of more obvious signs and symptoms. 

Physical features may include:

  • Resting, submax and maximal HRs are usually higher, leading to further deterioration of the aerobic threshold as indicated by the MAF Test (diminished speed and/or power at the same submax HR). 
  • Elevated competitive HR can diminish performance as well. 
  • Muscle imbalance (weakness and tightness of two or more muscles) can impair posture and gait, risking mechanical injuries to joints, bones and soft tissues, and promoting chronic physical soreness, fatigue and pain. 

Biochemical indications may include:

  • Immune dysfunction (increased colds, flu and other infections).
  • Gut dysfunction (increased bloating, excess gas and intestinal discomfort, especially during training and competition).
  • Reductions in FATmax leading to increasing or excess stored body fat, were evaluated using the waist-to-height ratio (WtHR). 

Mental-emotional indications may include:

  • Restlessness and over-excitability, especially with reduced sleep. 
  • Increased potential for depression, and anxiety.
  • Increased general fatigue and daytime sleepiness.

A particular feature of Stage 2 OT is abnormally high cortisol, which can specifically lead to:

  • Low testosterone in men and women (with subsequent muscle dysfunction and bone loss). 
  • Low thyroid hormone (thyroxin/T3), which may mimic hypothyroidism. 
  • Other hormone imbalancreduceper centring proper regulation of hydration and body temperature, and electrolytes, especially the excess loss of sodium.
  • Increased insulin can further impair metabolism and increase body fat stores, especially in the abdomen and around the heart.
  • Neurological performance may become impaired, including reduced sensory skills (keen awareness and fine hand-to-eye coordination) and reaction times required in many sports. 

Recovery from Stage 2 OT may require one to three or more months, depending on the discipline of the athlete, although some require five to six months to improve FATmax and develop the aerobic system, a key part of recovery. 

In particular:

  • All high-intensity training should be temporarily stopped, along with competition.
  • Reduce training volume by 50-70 per cent. 
  • An emphasis on more rest is vital, especially obtaining 7-9 or more hours of nightly uninterrupted sleep. 
  • Avoid junk food (processed foods including sugar).
  • Consume adequate calories, including healthy fat and protein, to meet all nutritional needs.

Stage 3 Overtraining

A serious chronic excess stress condition, this end-stage of OT is associated with the exhaustion of neurological and hormonal mechanisms, typically with more severe physical, biochemical or mental-emotional consequences.

Training and competitive performance continue worsening, with many athletes competing poorly or not at all. 

Stage 3 was called a state of exhaustion, in part due to the condition of the adrenal glands, and is the inability of the HPA axis to compensate for the ongoing chronic excess stress. 

Adrenal exhaustion includes its failure to produce adequate cortisol and other vital hormones. 

Reduced sympathetic tone and overall autonomic function severely impair metabolic and cardiovascular function (reflected in an abnormally low resting HR). 

The lack of physical and mental energy reduces the desire to compete and sometimes train. Depression, significant physical injury, poor immunity and gut dysfunction are commonly associated with very poor health and fitness. 

There is an increased risk of hyponatremia — a serious, life-threatening condition of low blood sodium (which can begin in Stage 2) associated with reduced aldosterone — with the potential for water toxicity.

Recovery from Stage 3 OT and return to previous optimal levels of performance is a very difficult task and could take months to years. 

Athletes are seriously unwell, and require the help of healthcare practitioners to individualize appropriate treatments and monitoring. 

  • All moderate- to high-intensity and long workouts should be stopped, along with competition. 
  • Rest is vital, including as much uninterrupted nightly sleep as possible. 
  • Avoid junk food.
  • Consume adequate healthy fat and protein in meeting all nutritional needs.

Strategies To Help Avoid Or Overcome Overtraining

1. Hot bath

You can use this to help relax the muscles and generally help the body rest with the soothing nature of the hot water. Putting some Epson salts into the bathtub is a tried and tested method.

2. Yoga

A light activity that can be fitted in either early in the morning or in the evening. It not only helps to stretch those tight muscles, but by engaging in the breathing techniques you will learn to relax the body and overcome feelings of stress and unease. Yoga and running are surprisingly complementary.

3. Light stretching

This can really aid the recovery and repair of your muscles. Aim to focus on the major muscle groups first – hips, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors and lower back. You may also find that some targeted stretching of the glutes will leave you feeling more supple and loose.

4. Walk in nature

Going for a stroll and a gentle walk in nature can really help you reconnect with the natural environment. The relaxing and calming experience of listening to the sounds of nature like the chirping of the birds or the flowing of a small stream can lower levels of stress.

5. Swim

This is a great exercise, and many runners try to include this into their weekly schedule as an active recovery day or a form of cross-training. The water will help take pressure off your legs and you will get an upper-body boost at the same time.

6. Light bike ride

Hopping on the bike and going for a short spin will allow you still to work aerobically, but with the added advantage of taking pressure off your ankle and knee joints.

7. Reduce the intensity or volume of training

By reducing the intensity of your training runs and spending some time enjoying the simple nature of just running, you´ll give your body the chance to recuperate. 

Also, a decrease in volume can help significantly.


Recognizing the overtraining syndrome in its earliest stage can help maximize human performance while remaining healthy. 

This process begins with a simple ongoing assessment process that evaluates physical, biochemical and mental-emotional signs and symptoms. 

The MAF Test may be an important tool for recognizing OT as a first objective sign, sometimes before the onset of symptoms. 

Restoring athletic performance to previous levels is most easily accomplished in Stage 1 OT, with Stage 2 requiring additional time and effort. Stage 3 OT is a more serious and difficult condition to address. 

Overall, prevention is the best remedy, allowing individuals to reach their athletic potential and maintain this state longer.


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