Overtraining: What it Is & How to Prevent It



Rest and recovery are as important to your exercise plan as the exercise itself. If you don’t allow your body and mind time to recover from your workouts, you could eventually develop symptoms related to overtraining, or even overtraining syndrome.

What is Overtraining

Overtraining is really more accurately named under-recovery. Mark Rippetoe’s defines overtraining as occurring “when performance does not recover within one reduced load training cycle.” Essentially, the body can’t keep up.

Overtraining can also occur if there is a sudden, sharp rise in exercise volume and/or intensity. Exercise is a type of stress on your nervous, cardiovascular and muscular systems. Like other types of stress, the recovery period from the stress is what makes you stronger or faster or more resilient.

There’s no hard and fast time period for when overtraining might occur and no one diagnostic test. If you know the signs and symptoms, though, you should be able to quickly identify when you’re on the verge and make the necessary corrections to prevent extreme cases. Taking preventive measures is of course ideal.

Signs and Symptoms

There are two types of overtraining: sympathetic and parasympathetic. These relate to the two parts of the autonomic nervous system bearing the same names. EXRX.net does a great job breaking down the two, and goes into the finer points of overtraining. I’ll summarize below, but feel free to dive deep here.

Sympathetic overtraining is more common in sprint-type sports. Some symptoms include:

  • elevated resting heart rate,
  • increased fatigue,
  • decreased performance,
  • increased resting blood pressure,
  • increased irritability, and
  • decreased interest in the sport or workouts.

Parasympathetic overtraining is more common in endurance-type sports. Some symptoms include:

  • decreased resting heart rate,
  • decreased performance,
  • altered glucose regulation (blood sugar) and possible hypoglycemic symptoms,
  • apathetic behavior, and
  • faster return to resting heart rate after exercise.

Other symptoms that can be interpreted incorrectly can include: insomnia despite being exhausted, digestive problems, common cold-like symptoms, and random sharp pains that occur sporadically throughout the day/night.

Prevention and Treatment

Of course prevention is always best. Ways to reduce your risk include:

  • program variety,
  • management of other life stressors (e.g. work, commuting, home life),
  • program periodization,
  • exercise nutrition, and
  • program periodization (a program that accounts for waves increased and decreased demands).

Other steps include sufficient recovery steps taken after each workout or on a regular basis, including stretching, self-myofascial release, massage, hot-cold contrast showers, sufficient sleep, and full on rest days.

When in doubt, rest—which is also the treatment for overtraining unless it gets so serious it becomes something bigger, like Rhabdomyolysis. The longer overtraining symptoms linger, the longer it will take to recover and the more serious the case. Other more general signs of overtraining include: insomnia, decreased appetite, weight loss, muscle soreness, and increased incidence of illness and/or injury.

If you have any of these signs, or those listed previously, you’ll want to back off until they diminish. If you have a coach or trainer, work with him or her to identify the causes of your overtraining so they do not recur. This is when it’s helpful to have a workout log. Doubly true if you do not have a coach or trainer and are making up your own workouts.

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