Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome in Athletes

In This Article

Overtraining syndrome frequently occurs in athletes who are training for competition or a specific event and train beyond the body's ability to recover. Athletes often exercise longer and harder so they can improve. But without adequate rest and recovery, these training regimens can backfire, and actually decrease performance.

Conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little recovery may result in both physical and psychological symptoms of overtraining syndrome.

Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining

These are common warning signs of overtraining syndrome:

  • A compulsive need to exercise
  • Decreased appetite
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Increased incidence of injuries
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of energy, feeling washed-out, tired, or drained
  • Loss of enthusiasm for the sport
  • Lower immunity (increased number of colds, and sore throats)
  • Mild leg soreness, general aches, and pains
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Reduced training capacity/intensity
  • A sudden drop in performance

Self-Diagnosis of Overtraining

There are several ways you can objectively measure some signs of overtraining. One is by documenting your heart rates over time. Track your aerobic heart rate at specific exercise intensities and speed throughout your training and write it down.

If your pace starts to slow, your resting heart rate increases and you experience other symptoms, you may heading into overtraining syndrome.

Track your resting heart rate each morning. Any marked increase from the norm may indicate that you aren't fully recovered.

Another way to test recovery to use something called the orthostatic heart rate test, developed by Heikki Rusko while working with cross-country skiers. To obtain this measurement:

  • Rest comfortably for 10 minutes at the same time each day (morning is best).
  • After 10 minutes of laying down, record your heart rate in beats per minute.
  • Stand up.
  • After 15 seconds, take a second heart rate in beats per minute.
  • After 90 seconds, take a third heart rate in beats per minute.
  • After 120 seconds, take a fourth heart rate in beats per minute.

Well-rested athletes will show a consistent heart rate between measurements, but Rusko found a marked increase (10 beats/minutes or more) in the 120 second-post-standing measurement of athletes on the verge of overtraining.

Such a change may indicate that you have not recovered from a previous workout, are fatigued, or otherwise stressed and it may be helpful to reduce training or rest another day before performing another workout.

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 tired. You can also ask those around you if they think you are exercising too much.

While there are many proposed ways to objectively test for overtraining, the most accurate and sensitive measurements are psychological signs and symptoms and changes in an athlete's mental state. 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.

Overtraining Treatment

If you suspect you are overtraining, start with the following:

  • Begin cross-training. This often helps athletes who are overworking certain muscles or suffering from mental fatigue.
  • Get a sports massage. This may help relax you mentally and physically.
  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids, and alter your diet if necessary.
  • Rest and recover. Reduce or stop the exercise and allow yourself a few days of rest.

Research on overtraining syndrome published in 2015 shows getting adequate rest is the primary treatment plan.

Total recovery from overtraining can take several weeks and should include proper nutrition and stress reduction.

How to Prevent Overtraining

It's often hard to predict overtraining because every athlete responds differently to certain training routines. It is important, however, to vary training through the year and schedule in significant rest time.

If you recognize warning signs of overtraining, it's important to objectively measure your training routine and make adjustments before you wind up sick or injured.

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