Do you know the signs of overtraining?

More is not always better.

Have you ever struggled with your training program or felt a little too tired, sore, or just plain bored? Every athlete, whether a beginner or a pro, has felt that way at some point.

All effective training plans require a delicate balance between training load and recovery. When you train too hard – like too many miles or too much intense lifting – and don’t get enough rest, you can start to feel physiological and/or psychological symptoms that limit your performance and make exercise miserable. And the whole reason you are moving, training, or competing is to feel good and accomplish your goals.

Check out the graph below. The right amount of training load combined with the right amount of recovery leads to optimal performance. But too much training and not enough recovery will hurt your performance:

Training Curve

Time is a critical component of overtraining. If you train too much one day without enough recovery, you can get back to the “just right” zone after a few days. If you train too much for several days, it can take weeks to months of recovery to get back into the optimal training zone. But if you consistently overtrain for months, or even years, it could end your career. And not just your competitive career, but potentially your playing-basketball-with-your-kids career too.

The technical name of the “too much” area of the training curve is overreaching. When overreaching becomes chronic (think many days and weeks) it becomes overtraining. And when overtraining becomes a consistent thing, welcome to the danger zone of overtraining syndrome.

In medical terms, a syndrome is a set of multiple symptoms that are distinctly different, yet related by their cause. For instance, depression and stress fractures are completely different things (one happens in your brain, the other happens in your legs), but they can both be caused by the same thing – overtraining.

For us noncompetitive exercisers, overtraining is usually the result of busy work lives, inadequate nutrition, emotional stressors, not enough sleep, or anything that causes us to lose track of the right balance between training and recovery.

For athletes, overtraining can develop quickly due to internal and external pressures to succeed, combined with a super-competitive attitude that ignores the common symptoms.

For many others, exercise can become addicting. This addiction, along with unrealistic goals or a lack of a real training plan, can quickly evolve into a non-functional, overreached state, and eventually the overtraining syndrome. And with the increasing popularity of high intensity exercise programs, ultra-endurance competitions, and year-round competitive seasons in kids, overtraining is definitely something to be on the lookout for.

So how do you know when you are overreaching or overtraining? Diagnosing overtraining is increasingly difficult because of the subjective nature of the symptoms. But some estimates of the prevalence of overtraining syndrome in athletes are as high as 20%.

There are over 100 signs and symptoms of overtraining that have been identified in exercise research. The most obvious sign of overtraining is a decrease in performance. If you are training more and performing worse, it’s not because you aren’t trying hard enough, or you’re lacking focus or intensity: you are most likely overreaching. But if you’re not really measuring your performance (or even if you are), here are some of the most common, tell-tale signs of overtraining:

• Persistent muscle soreness, fatigue, and washed-out feeling

• Increased number of infections, colds, or aches

• Nagging, chronic injuries and joint pain

• Sleep disturbances, restlessness, or decreased mental concentration

• Depression, anxiety, or increased irritability

• Elevated heart rate, both resting and during exercise

• Loss of appetite and weight loss

• Absence of menstruation

You can avoid overtraining! Have a purpose and a plan, and stick to it. Identify the signs and symptoms of overtraining and closely monitor your susceptible athletes. Minimize sudden increases in training loads and frequent competitions. Individualize training programs for each athlete, and schedule plenty of recovery and rest days into your training plan!

Photo credit: Sport the library/Tom Putt