What you’ll learn here
Wondering if you’re experiencing signs of overtraining? It might look something like this …
Usually, you’re crazy about your workouts. You don’t mind 2-hour sessions. You hip thrust 100 kg like it’s nothing, give your all on the air bike, and feel more fit day by day. But lately, even 5 kg lateral raises have been feeling awfully heavy.
Worse still, you just can’t find the workout motivation to train as intensely or as often as usual.
10 minutes feel like an hour. And that’s despite you having already doubled your caffeine intake!
Sounds familiar? Then there’s a possibility you may be suffering from ‘overtraining syndrome,’ a condition common in athletes and avid recreational exercisers that occurs when they workout too much and fail to make time for adequate recovery.
That said, just because your body is internally screaming, “No!” before every workout, doesn’t mean that you’re overtraining.
To determine if you’ve indeed been working out too furiously, to the point where chronic-use injury could occur, continue reading. Here, I cover what overtraining is, its signs and symptoms, how you can recover from it, and perhaps most importantly – how to avoid it.
Is overtraining even real? Is overtraining a myth?
But (and here’s a massive but) the truth is, overtraining is actually an extremely rare occurrence. The vast majority who exercise (no matter it in the gym or not) do not train hard enough or frequently enough to worry about it.
Hold on, hold on. That doesn’t mean you can click ‘X’ and make your way out of this article.
Just because the ‘vast majority’ don’t need to worry about overtraining, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t as well. The fact that you’ve been feeling a little off about your workouts recently is pretty telling that there’s something potentially wrong with you (or your body).
If you’ve been training hard for a long period and your mood, performance, or body has begun to suffer for more than a few isolated incidents, stay. Continue reading.
Also, continue reading if you’re just interested in the phenomenon as a whole. Ah, you know what? Everybody should continue reading. Overtraining is an interesting topic!
While a rare phenomenon, the overtraining syndrome is real. It’s not a myth.
What is overtraining?
As you might have guessed, overtraining is when you start to see a decrease in exercise performance because you’re working out too much and too intensely, while not getting in enough recovery (6).
That said, though, it’s often too easy to mistake something called ‘overreaching’ for overtraining.
Did you spot the keyword? Yes: temporarily.
Planned overreaching (aka functional overreaching) helps push the body to better adapt to training load and intensity without pushing it too far.
That means when you give your body enough rest, overreaching can actually result in enhanced performance later. It’s a good thing. Admittedly though, it can be difficult to grasp the differences between overtraining and overreaching.
What’s the difference between overreaching and overtraining?
To help you out, here’s a brief breakdown of the two:
- Overreaching: Involves optimal physiological and performance adaptations
- Additional information: Requires a short break or deload after a period of overreaching
- Recovery period: Days to weeks
- Overtraining: Involves adverse physiological effects and decreased performance
- Additional information: Commonly thought to exist on the same continuum as overreaching. In other words, overtraining results from an individual not taking a break/deload after overreaching.
- Recovery period: Weeks to months
Of course, as mentioned, because overtraining is commonly thought to exist on the same continuum as overreaching (which is a good thing!), it can be rather challenging to determine if you are indeed overtraining.
And that’s also why overtraining syndrome is a ‘diagnosis of exclusion.’
That means you can’t just show up to the doctor one day and tell them that you’re suffering from overtraining syndrome just because you can’t find the motivation to get that midday workout in anymore. Instead, you’d also need to present a slew of other conditions (11).
And this brings me to the next section: the signs of overtraining.
- Overtraining occurs when the volume and intensity of training exceeds an individuals’ recovery capacity.
- Even though they exist on the same continuum, overtraining differs from overreaching.
- Overreaching helps the body better adapt to training load and intensity. Overtraining, on the other hand, is simply pushing the body too far.
Signs of overtraining
It’s important to note that overtraining is not simply a physical phenomenon. You can’t say that you’re suffering from it because you’ve felt weak for several workout sessions. Instead, overtraining brings about a few mental effects as well.
Let’s take a closer look at the various signs of overtraining (12).
Physical signs of overtraining
- You’ve hit a plateau or you’re getting weaker: If it feels like you’ve been putting in a 101% (and more) effort into your training sessions, but you’ve stopped seeing (or never started seeing) any improvements in your performance, it could be a sign of overtraining. Some signs to look out for include:
- You can’t lift as heavy as usual (e.g. can’t hit your regular numbers on your glutes workout)
- You’re 5 minutes into your typical 20-minute run, and you’re unusually exhausted
- You need to rest longer than usual before carrying on with another set
- You can’t achieve progressive overload (i.e. do more pull-ups every 2 weeks)
- You’re falling ill more frequently: Because you’re not giving your body the chance to recover, overtraining typically leads to a compromised immune system. And that makes it more likely that you’ll get sick if someone so much as sneezes in your proximity. So, if you feel like you’ve been strangely susceptible to colds, coughs, headaches, or infections, you may be suffering from overtraining.
- You’re a lot more sore than usual: Can’t remember the last time you crawled out of bed without groaning and moaning? A little bit of workout soreness is normal. Exercise causes tiny tears in your muscle fibers, after all. But you need to give your body sufficient recovery time for it to rebuild these tears. If you don’t (aka overtraining), aches, dull pain, and injury are much more likely.
- You lose your period: Overtraining can cause extreme weight loss and hormone changes, which can, in turn, halt your menstrual cycle. This is definitely one of the clearest overtraining symptoms for people who menstruate.
- You’re losing more weight than normal: Are you losing more weight than you’re supposed to? In other words, are you dropping weight faster than what is physiologically possible with how many calories you’re eating (i.e. your calorie deficit)? You may be overtraining.
Mental signs of overtraining
- You have trouble sleeping: Because overtraining leaves you sore, tired, and depleted, you’d think that you’ll be able to collapse into bed and sleep like a baby for the night. Well, no. As it turns out, extreme muscle soreness, coupled with hormone changes, can lead to wonky sleep. In other words, you may find it difficult to get quality sleep.
- Your mood is all over the place: Feeling super overwhelmed, sad, depressed, anxious, or moody? And it’s not even time for your period yet? Whelp. That could be a sign of overtraining. That’s because overtraining can throw off the balance of many hormones in the body, which can result in mood issues. You can learn to better recognize these signs by cultivating greater self-awareness.
- You’ve lost your appetite: Surprisingly – frequent, intense workouts don’t make you ravenous. Quite the opposite – overtraining might just make it more difficult for you to get your daily meals in to meet your nutrition needs. As such, you are short on the macronutrients and micronutrients you need. Researchers believe that this may be due to shifts in certain hormones that regulate your appetite, including cortisol and ghrelin.
- You’ve lost your enthusiasm for your training routine or sport: One of the clearest mental signs of overtraining is the feeling of apathy toward your workouts (i.e. you feel ‘meh’ about them when you used to be in love with them). That’s why overtraining syndrome has also been called ‘staleness’ and ‘burnout,’ accurate terms based on the way you’d feel when you reach the point.
The signs of overtraining include both mental and physical ones:
- A decrease in fitness capabilities
- Compromised immune system
- Increased muscle soreness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of enthusiasm for training
How to recover from overtraining
If you nodded furiously to many (if not all) of the signs of overtraining above, chances are, you may very well be suffering from overtraining syndrome.
I bet it’s been very disorienting indeed; to have suddenly lost passion for something you used to enjoy and love. And no, taking more workout supplements (e.g. caffeine) is not going to help. So – how do you recover from overtraining? How do you get back the spark?
- Take a break: For professional athletes diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, the typical recommended rest time ranges between 6 to 12 weeks or more. Now, that can sound like a lifetime to you if you’re someone who’d rather die than stop exercising. In that case, start with a week of complete rest, then see how your body responds. If you’re still struggling, then rest more. If not, you’re good to go.
- Reduce your training volume: Still reeling from the thought of having to stop exercising? Well, the truth is, some research also shows that low-level exercise can benefit recovery from overtraining syndrome. It is still unclear whether complete rest or relative rest (i.e. reduced training intensity) is most beneficial for recovery, so if you literally can’t live without working out, then just reduce your training volume.
- Focus on alleviating muscle soreness: Because sore muscles can impede your ability to get adequate sleep for recovery, your priority (in addition to taking it easy) should be to relieve muscle soreness. Here’s an article on what helps (and what doesn’t) with sore muscles after working out.
To recover from overtraining, you can take a break, reduce training volume, and focus on alleviating muscle soreness through various recovery methods.
How to avoid overtraining
Here comes the million-dollar question: how can you avoid overtraining in the first place?
If you don’t suffer from overtraining syndrome, you wouldn’t have to take an extended break from exercising against your will, after all. Of course, it can be all too easy to just think, “I’ll just take it easy for my workouts. This way, I won’t suffer from overtraining.”
Well, yes. For sure. If you don’t push yourself hard enough, you won’t run the risk of overtraining.
But let’s be honest: what’s the point of training if you’re not looking for improvements – no matter if it’s for performance or aesthetic reasons? Truth is, to improve, you’ll have to push yourself hard.
The better question, instead of “How to avoid overtraining,” should, therefore, be “How can I train smart such that I make the most progress while limiting burnout?”
- Minimize mental stress: Many studies and reviews now suggest that mental stress is a risk factor for overtraining syndrome (18, 19, 20). That’s because mental stress can slow post-exercise recovery, slow gains in performance, hypertrophy, and endurance, and even cause some individuals to train even more (21, 22, 23, 24)! To minimize mental stress, you can spend more time with friends and family, go for a yoga session, or engage with your hobbies, for example (25, 26).
- Get adequate sleep every night: Sleep is crucial for your immune system. Chronic sleep loss can increase your chances of falling sick (27). And worse still, prolonged periods of disturbed sleep can worsen your mood, impact cognitive ability, and slow motor skill acquisition – all of which affect performance (28, 29). Because sleep is so important for recovery and performance, ensure you get at least 7 to 9 hours nightly (30). Here’s a guide on how to sleep better!
- Make sure you’re eating right: If you’re training at such a high intensity, you’ll have to fuel your body right. In addition to staying well-hydrated, you also need to consume sufficient carbohydrates (for optimal performance), calories (for energy), and protein (for recovery purposes) (31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36). So, yes, that means you shouldn’t be on a low-carb diet. Even if you’re not tracking your food down to the grams, you should do a quick calculation so you’re more aware of how much protein you need, along with other macronutrients.
- Plan for deloads: 4 weeks is typically considered the maximum time that athletes can withstand intensification of already high training loads (37). As such, your training program should have built-in periods of increasing total workload (i.e. overreaching), followed by periods (typically a week) of relatively lowered total workload (38, 39, 40). You can also reactively deload if you feel like you’re close to overtraining. Just don’t take it as a reason to slack off, though!
- Include recovery days: In addition to planning for deload weeks, you should also plan for recovery days weekly. Repeat after me: there is no need to go to train every single day. A consensus statement from the American College of Sports Medicine and European College of Sport Science recommends at least 1 rest day per week to prevent overtraining (41). Depending on your unique needs, you may need more.
- Stop training/reduce workout volume when sick: As a general guideline, avoid pushing yourself too hard when you’re sick or injured (42, 43, 44, 45). That said, moderate exercise is typically considered okay when your overtraining symptoms are mild. Regardless, only you know your own limits. Be sure to listen to what your body is telling you!
When it comes to ‘how to avoid overtraining,’ the better question should be ‘how can I train smart such that I make the most progress while limiting burnout?’ And there are several ways to do so:
- Minimize mental stress
- Plan for deloads
- Include recovery days
- Stop training/reduce workout volume when sick
- Get adequate sleep nightly
- Make sure you’re eating right
Ultimately, just remember that your body is unique. Some people can train at a high intensity more frequently without suffering from overtraining syndrome, while others need more rest between max efforts.
That’s why it’s so important for you to find the sweet spot that’ll maximize your performance while minimizing the chances of you experiencing adverse effects.
No matter what training program you’re on, be sure to pay close attention to what your body is telling you. Observe how it’s responding. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments whenever necessary.
And perhaps most important of all, don’t scrimp on recovery! Your body absolutely needs it.