How To Know If You Are Overtraining

There are hundreds of athlete and coach quotes extolling the virtues of training hard. We hear stories of star performers going to extremes to capture gold, like Michael Phelps training every day for four straight years in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So you assume that the same applies to you: if some training is good, then more must be better. The trouble is that most of us aren’t the greatest Olympian in history and we have to also factor work, family, and more into the equation. So while training hard is admirable in theory, you might go too far and end up in a bad place. In this article, we’ll help you see the warning signs of overtraining, explore the causes, and provide ways to get your workload and recovery back into balance.

What is Overtraining?

In a presentation for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Dr. Thomas M. Best from the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute defined overtraining as, “A sharp increase in training volume, intensity, or frequency, up to near max capacity for the individual, that can be endured for only a short time” of less than a month. He went on to explain overtraining syndrome as “The result of overtraining, a long-term fall in performance capacity, with RPE and fatigue increased and energy and mood decreased.”[1]

It’s important to note the distinction here. There might be times in which you ramp up your training in pursuit of a certain goal, or when your coach deliberately prescribes a short block of what could be called overtraining. This is purposeful, specific to a desired outcome, and short-term. However, if you keep pushing yourself with a high training load for too long, you might start suffering from overtraining syndrome, which can be detrimental to your results and health.

Overtraining Causes

The most obvious cause of overtraining syndrome is excessive training that you try to sustain for longer than your body can handle. We’re not talking about being sore from the occasional all-out interval session but rather going hard, fast, and/or long too often for weeks or months at a time. If you were to rate the volume, density, and intensity of your training from one to 10 and found that your workouts were consistently an eight, nine, or 10 in two or three of these categories for more than a couple of weeks, it’s likely that you’ve been overtraining.

Yet sometimes it’s not your training that is at fault. The authors of a study published in BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation stated that overtraining syndrome is “caused by an imbalance among training, social, sleep, and eating patterns.”[2] In other words, you might not be overdoing it in your workouts, but could be failing to adequately recover and refuel. Consulting with an experienced coach or training partner can help you start to identify and correct such a disparity.

Signs That You’re Overtrained

Overtraining syndrome can manifest itself in a number of different symptoms. A study published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine states that in aerobic sports, these include fatigue, depression, and bradycardia (excessively low heart rate), while in anaerobic sports, irritability, hypertension, and tachycardia (excessively high heart rate) are more common.[3] Both groups can suffer from weight loss, increased muscle soreness and fatigue, and lack of mental concentration.

A research team from Central Queensland University found that athletes who are struggling with overreaching (an imbalance between training and recovery) or overtraining often find it hard to fall and stay asleep [4] They suggested that this might be tied to changes in immune function, a theory supported by a study released via Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that concluded overtrained athletes are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.[5]

While blood testing can reveal physiological indicators like increased levels of creatine kinase, ammonia, and uric acid, you don’t need a full panel to see the effects of overtraining. If your sessions feel harder than usual, you experience an energy crash midway through, or your performance metrics plateau or go backward for an extended period, then you might well be doing too much, too often.

How to Recover from Overtraining

In his ACSM presentation, Dr. Best recommended that if you’re severely overtrained, you should rest for two weeks or until your symptoms start to improve, and then start again slowly with up to three easy 10 to 20-minute sessions per week, gradually adding more time and intensity. He also suggested cross-training for a while rather than doing your normal activities. If your symptoms aren’t that severe and you’ve only been overdoing it for a brief period, then you could try reducing the weight, sets, and reps during strength workouts and dialing back both pace and mileage in endurance sessions.

Another crucial component of bouncing back from overtraining is recovery. Your body won’t ever adapt fully to a training stimulus if you aren’t getting enough rest or the right fuel, particularly during periods when your overall load is at its peak. With this in mind, you should re-prioritize sleep, as your body does most of its repair work at night. If you’ve already dialed in your evening routine but struggle to drift off, try taking a natural aid like Momentous Elite Sleep – which combines research-backed melatonin, valerian root, L-Theanine and tart cherry juice - before hitting the hay.

It’s also vital that you give your body the building blocks it needs to recover from overtraining. Strength and power athletes know the benefits that a complete whey isolate or plant-based protein supplement provide, but according to a paper published in PLOS ONE, endurance athletes frequently underestimate their protein needs.[6] So in addition to eating foods like eggs, fish, meat, and dairy, consider adding one or two servings of a premium protein supplement like Momentous Essential to your morning smoothie or evening bowl of oats.

Resources:

[1] Thomas M. Best, “Overtraining and Chronic Fatigue,” American College of Sports Medicine, available online at http://forms.acsm.org/TPC/PDFs/40%20Best.pdf.

[2] Flavio A. Cadegiani and Claudio E. Kater, “Novel Causes and Consequences of Overtraining Syndrome: the EROS-DISRUPTORS Study,” BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, September 18, 2019, available online at https://bmcsportsscimedrehabil.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13102-019-0132-x.

[3] Jeffrey B. Kreher et al, “Diagnosis and Prevention of Overtraining Syndrome: An Opinion on Education Strategies,” Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, September 8, 2016, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5019445/.

[4] Michele Lastella et al, “Can Sleep Be Used as an Indicator of Overreaching and Overtraining in Athletes?” Frontiers in Physiology, April 24, 2018, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928142/.

[5] Christophe Hausswirth et al, “Evidence of Disturbed Sleep and Increased Illness in Overreached Endurance Athletes,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2014,available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24091995/.

[6]Hiroyuki Kato et al, “Protein Requirements Are Elevated in Endurance Athletes after Exercise as Determined by the Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation Method, PLOS ONE, June 20, 2016, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4913918/.

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