Overtraining Syndrome: Warning Signs and How to Cut Back

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Overtraining the body without taking time to rest can impact athletes and exercisers both physically and mentally and lead to a condition known as overtraining syndrome. Excessive training may cause decreases in athletic performance that can be long-lasting, sometimes taking several weeks or months to improve.

The psychological effects of overtraining can also lead to unfavorable changes in mood. Some research has linked overtraining syndrome with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Learn the telltale signs of overtraining and find out what you can do to cut back in order to avoid injury or burnout.

What Is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining syndrome is a condition where you feel extreme fatigue, reduced performance, mood changes, sleep disturbances, and other issues as a result of working out or training too much or too hard without giving the body enough time to rest. If you do not manage overtraining, you can end up with injuries and more frequent illness and infections. Overtraining is common among elite athletes who train beyond their body's ability to recover, particularly when preparing for a competition or sporting event.

Athletes often exercise longer and harder than the average person in order to reach peak performance in their sport. But without adequate rest and recovery, these training regimens can backfire and actually start to decrease physical performance.

Conditioning for athletes and exercisers alike requires a balance between work and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little recovery can result in both physical and psychological symptoms of overtraining and lead to overtraining syndrome. Proper hydration and nutrition are also essential to performance, recovery, and prevention.

Signs of Overtraining

There are a number of signs to look out for that may suggest you might be overtraining. Some of the most common symptoms of overtraining syndrome include:

  • Decreased appetite or weight loss
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, moody, or irritable
  • Increased incidence of injuries or headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular heart rate or heart rhythm
  • Lack of energy, feeling washed-out, tired, or drained
  • Loss of enthusiasm for the sport, or reduced competitiveness
  • Lower immunity (increased number of colds, and sore throats)
  • Mild muscle or joint soreness, general aches and pains
  • Reduced training capacity, intensity, or performance
  • Reproductive issues
  • Trouble concentrating

New exercisers can become discouraged, while advanced exercisers might get frustrated and want to give up on their sport before they've reached their peak performance.

How to Prevent Overtraining

It can be tricky to predict whether you're at risk for overtraining because every person responds differently to various training routines. It is important for anyone, however, to vary your training throughout the year and schedule in adequate time for rest. It's recommended that you objectively measure your training routine and make adjustments along the way before you wind up injured.

While there are many methods to objectively test for overtraining, the psychological signs and symptoms associated with changes in an athlete's mental state are often an indicator. If you think you may be training too hard, try the following tactics to prevent overtraining syndrome.

Notice Your Mood

Decreased positive feelings for sports and increased negative feelings, such as depression, anger, fatigue, and irritability often appear after a few days of intensive overtraining. Once you start to notice these feelings, take some time to rest or dial back the intensity.

Keep a Training Log

A training log that includes a note about how you feel each day can help you notice downward trends and decreased enthusiasm. It's important to listen to your body signals and rest when you feel especially fatigued.

Monitor Your Heart Rate

Another option is to track changes to your heart rate over time. Monitor your heart rate at rest and at specific exercise intensities while you train, and make a note of it. If your heart rate increases at rest or at a given intensity, you may be at risk for overtraining syndrome, especially if any of the above symptoms start to develop.

Track your resting heart rate each morning. You can do this manually by taking your pulse for 60 seconds immediately upon waking. You can also use a heart rate monitor or fitness band. Any marked increase from the norm may indicate that you have not yet fully recovered.

Take a Heart Rate Test

You can also test your recovery with the orthostatic heart rate test. This involves resting for 10 minutes, recording your heart rate for a minute, standing up, and then noting your beats per minute at various intervals (15 seconds, 90 seconds, and 120 seconds.

Well-rested athletes will show a consistent heart rate between measurements, but athletes on the verge of overtraining often have a marked increase (10 beats per minute or more) at the 120-second measurement.

Treatment for Overtraining

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, there are a number of ways you can treat overtraining syndrome naturally. If you suspect you may be overtraining, consider the following options. If you don't notice any improvements within several days or your symptoms become worse, call your doctor.

  • Rest and recovery: Reduce or stop the exercise and allow yourself a few days of rest. Research on overtraining syndrome shows that getting adequate rest is the primary treatment plan.
  • Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids. Staying properly hydrated is key to both recovery and prevention.
  • Sports nutrition: Make sure you're getting enough protein and carbohydrates to support muscle recovery. Carbs are important for endurance athletes and protein is important for athletes relying on muscular strength and power.
  • Cross-training: Overtrained athletes and exercisers experience fatigue in overworked muscle groups. Cross-training with low-impact exercises like yoga, Pilates, walking, or riding a stationary bike can give the overworked muscles a break while still maintaining a level of fitness.
  • Sports massage: Research shows that sports massage is beneficial for muscle recovery and can improve delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
  • Relaxation techniques: Stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercises can aid in rest and recovery.

Total recovery from overtraining syndrome can take several weeks or longer. A physician can refer you to a physical therapist, who can formulate a recovery plan to help get you back on track.

A Word From Verywell

Now that you know the signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome, the first step to getting yourself back to your regular training regimen is rest, hydration, and proper nutrition. It may take some time to return to peak performance, so try to be patient with yourself during the recovery process. Consult with your doctor if your systems persist or if you find it difficult to achieve a healthy balance between training and rest.

Remember that whenever you're engaged in any physical activity, it's important to listen to your body. Notice when you may be working too hard and give yourself permission to rest. Once you've taken time to recover, working one-on-one with a sports medicine doctor, physical therapist, or personal trainer can help you reach your fitness goals.

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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.