Overtraining Syndrome: Walking a Fine Line
Accelerate your recovery with tips from one of Moji’s fitness experts.
Sean Lee, NASM ACE – CPT, NSCA – CSCS
Fitness Expert, Barrington, IL
- “Overtraining Syndrome” is a collection of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, most accurately defined as a cumulative state of exhaustion persisting for several weeks to several months.
- Overreaching, a temporary state of overtraining, occurs when there is a dramatic increase in training volume, intensity, or duration.
- Overtraining / overreaching signs and symptoms include low energy levels, a sudden decrease in performance and intensity, acute muscle and joint aches, increased incidence of overuse injuries, a loss of enthusiasm for your chosen activity, irritability, and depression.
- Overtraining and overuse injuries often coincide as they both develop gradually in athletes who often overlook the signs and symptoms associated with these conditions.
- Factors contributing to overtraining injuries include increasing training time or intensity too quickly, using poor technique, or performing only one type of exercise resulting in repetitive stress to bone and soft tissue structures.
For elite level athletes, the secret to achieving peak performance is learning how to listen to their bodies and balance training volume and intensity with proper nutrition and recovery. Adherence to these fundamental principles aids in the prevention of overtraining and decreases the risk for acute or chronic injury.
Overtraining is defined by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as “untreated overreaching that results in chronic decreases in performance and an impaired ability to train.”
Overreaching, a temporary state of overtraining, occurs when the physical stress of training exceeds the rest needed to adapt to these demands. Rigorous exercise breaks down the soft tissue structures of the body and thus requires time for adaptation and recovery. Unfortunately, many exercise enthusiasts believe that if some is good, more must be better. This could not be further from the truth, and often leads to injury and holds an athlete back from achieving their goals. Success lies in finding a delicate balance between exercise and recovery. A comprehensive recovery plan consisting of cooling down, stretching, icing, nutrition, and rest allows time for healing and a return to an improved state of physical and mental performance.
“Overtraining Syndrome” is a collection of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms most accurately defined as a cumulative state of exhaustion persisting for several weeks to several months. Athletes, trainers, and coaches also refer to it as “staleness” or “burnout.” In this state, short and intermediate bouts of rest no longer provide the time needed to fully recover from training. Medically speaking, “overtraining syndrome” can be classified as a temporary neuro-endocrine disturbance where the hormonal balance, neural response, and psychological state are impaired, thus decreasing the body’s ability to repair itself while at rest.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
- Low energy levels
- Decreased training capacity and tolerance
- Decreased levels of performance including, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance,
- Strength, and power
- Altered resting heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration
- Chronic fatigue
- GI distress
- Sleep and eating disorders
- General muscle aches and pains and increased incidence of overuse injuries
- Loss of enthusiasm for the desired sport or exercise
- Decreased self-esteem
- Sensitivity to stress
- Decreased storage levels of muscle glycogen
- Altered glucose regulation
- Decreased serum testosterone
- Increased cortisol (“stress hormone” levels)
- Adrenal stress
Research indicates there are two forms of the syndrome, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The latter is more common in endurance athletes who exhibit an inability to sustain a given workload at their normal heart rate or “set point.” Some athletes may also have trouble regulating glucose and could experience symptoms of hypoglycemia during training. The sympathetic form affects those participating in short burst or sprint sports. These athletes will experience a decrease in max power output, and an increase in resting heart rate, and in some, an increase in stress hormones levels.
OVERTRAINING AND OVERUSE INJURIES
It is no coincidence that overtraining and overuse injuries often go hand-in-hand. They both develop gradually over time with the athlete, often not recognizing the signs and symptoms associated with these conditions. Overuse injuries are the result of repetitive movement stress and microtrauma to the tendons, bones, and joints. Common overuse injuries include “runner’s knee”, “jumper’s knee”, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and tennis elbow. What begins as mild tenderness or a small nagging ache can quickly turn into chronic pain if not recognized or treated early. If you have ever experienced any of these conditions, it is unlikely you will ever forget what it felt like.
Training errors represent the most common reason for developing overuse injuries. Examples include increasing training time, intensity, or frequency too quickly; using poor technique; or performing only one type of exercise. Anatomical and biomechanical factors also play a role. Muscle imbalances, unequal leg length, flat or high arched feet, and poor posture will make some people more prone to overuse injuries
Rest is the first line of treatment. The amount of rest needed is dependent upon the frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise or activity performed. In an overreached state (temporary overtraining), decrease the frequency, intensity, and time of your training for a period of 5-7 days. Consider cross-training, aquatic exercise, and other forms of low intensity and low impact exercise. Focus on active rest for recovery until you feel physically and mentally ready to go. In more severe cases of overtraining, passive rest is needed to calm the catabolic state of the body. This may last a few weeks to a few months. To avoid exercise withdrawal consider mind/body exercises such as yoga, gyrotonics, and pilates. Light aquatic exercise is also an excellent option. Massage, myofascial release, trigger point release, and other therapeutic forms of exercise will also prove helpful.
If you suspect an overuse injury(s), seek out a sports medicine specialist or physical therapist who can provide an accurate diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan for your specific condition.
Prevention is the key. Following a cycled training schedule, also known as periodization, will allow for a gradual progression in exercise frequency, intensity and duration, and has built-in periods of recovery. This technique is employed by many elite athletes and frequently alternates light and hard exercise days within a training plan. This strategy has proven to be quite successful for those who apply it. Using a training log to monitor training and track progress is also a valuable tool. Consider recording the following:
- Heart rate
- Training frequency, intensity, time
- Sets and repetitions
- Passive and active rest
- Body weight
- Levels of muscular fatigue and soreness
- Acute and/or chronic repetitive stress injuries
To achieve peak performance you must train hard, push the limits, and then recover. There is a fine line between balancing training, overload, and recovery. Detecting the early warning signs and symptoms of these conditions is the first step towards prevention. When in doubt, use the rule of 10. In general, you should not increase any program training variable by more than 10% per week. Do this through the implementation of a progressive exercise plan (periodization), which will accelerate your training progress while greatly reducing the risk for developing an overuse injury. Be smart, train smart and listen to your body. Remember that old phrase “no pain, no gain” need not apply here.
- Budgett R (1998) Fatigue and under performance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 32:107-10.
- Eichner E (1995) Overtraining: Consequences and prevention. Journal of Sports Sciences. 13:S41-S8.
- McKenzie D (1999) Markers of excessive exercise. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. 24:66-73.
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