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Overtraining Syndrome: What It Is and How to Avoid It

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Ask many people who’ve been exercising for a while, and they’ll likely tell you that working out has become part of their routine. It’s something they just do because it’s ingrained in who they’ve become. It’s like taking the dog for a walk every day or brushing their teeth in the evening. Reaching this stage in your fitness journey is usually a blessing.

But for some people, this level of dedication can also be a curse — in the form of overtraining syndrome.

First, What Is “Overreaching”?

Most of us think that the more we train and the more effort we put in, the more we stand to gain from it. While this is true most of the time, there comes a point beyond which added work is doing your body more harm than good. This is known as overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrom can affect both new exercisers as well as seasoned veterans, and although it’s most common in weight training, other athletes are also at risk.

On the other hand, overreaching is simply an accumulation of increasing training loads. Overreaching results in temporary performance decrements that could take days or weeks to properly recover from. Training loads usually accumulate for one of two reasons:

  1. You’re not giving your muscles enough time to fully recover after a workout.
  2. You’re not eating properly, whether this is because you’re eating the wrong things or simply not enough of the right ones.

The bright side of this overreaching is that if it’s only short-term, we call it “functional” overreaching. This kind of overreach can ultimately lead to an overall performance increase through a process called supercompensation.

Overtraining Syndrome: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Moving From Overreaching to Overtraining Syndrome

If your training loads continue to stack up and prolonged overreaching occurs, it can translate into “nonfunctional” overreaching. Although unlikely to cause you any permanent damage, non-functional overreaching takes much longer to recover from — weeks to months, in fact. And during this extended time period without regular training, your physical performance will either remain in a state of stagnation or begin to diminish.

The final progression of chronic overreaching is what we want to discuss in depth today: overtraining syndrome. While this shares many similarities with nonfunctional overreaching — in fact, it can be quite difficult to distinguish — it’s also more serious and recovery may take months or even years.

Overtraining syndrome is always associated with a decrease in performance. Due to many of its signs and symptoms being shared by other common conditions, many of which are benign, overtraining syndrome is difficult to diagnose. Therefore, it’s typically diagnosed by exclusion. Meaning, if no other cause can be found for the physical and physiological changes experienced, overtraining syndrome is diagnosed.

Overtraining Syndrome: What It Is and How to Avoid It

How Overtraining Syndrome Affects Our Bodies

One of the most telling signs you’re overdoing it is an inability to perform at your usual level, or finding it more difficult than usual to do so. Bear in mind that a single workout in which your strength, endurance, or agility is not up to snuff is most likely a one-off. We all have those days, but consistently failing to perform is one of the biggest indications you’re overtraining. Similarly, a lingering feeling of fatigue day after day might also be associated with overtraining.

Occasional aches and pains are an inescapable part of regular exercise. However, when these small injuries start showing up more frequently or begin to become serious, they may suggest overtraining. Unfortunately, it can be hard to determine whether these injuries are run-of-the-mill or something more serious. Pain that doesn’t subside on its own after a period of around two weeks should be considered a notable injury. Another thing to remember is that muscle soreness shouldn’t typically last more than two days and chronic muscle fatigue also suggests overtraining.

Overtraining doesn’t just affect the muscles, joints, and bones, either. The strain influences all the body’s processes, including the immune system, which means you get sick more often. Upper respiratory tract infections are a common occurrence in athletes who push themselves too hard.

Overtraining Syndrome: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Overtraining and Your Heart Rate

Overtraining also speeds up your heart rate. Dan Harris, British Rowing Start Coach, says an increase of 10bpm or more is significant enough to indicate an athlete should take it easy for a while or stop altogether.

Of course, you need to know your typical heart rate before you can tell if it’s increased. So if you want to use your heart rate as a training tool, start keeping a log so you can compare “normal” to “overtrained.” The best time to measure your heart rate for these purposes is first thing in the morning.

Whether you measure your heart rate or not, if you feel yourself getting tired or out of breath doing activities that normally wouldn’t tax you, it’s a good bet your heart rate has increased and you might be overtraining.

How Overtraining Syndrome Affects Our Minds

Beyond the physical and physiological effects, overtraining can actually affect our minds. For instance, it’s common for overtrained athletes to be stressed, moody, and irritable. An inability to concentrate accompanied by a diminished capacity for complex thought are also frequently seen.

And, of course, these people experience a deep feeling of mental fatigue. The constant strain on the mind can take a toll and completely sap people of their motivation to do much of anything, training or otherwise. Ironically, despite this nagging feeling of tiredness, insomnia or a general lack of good sleep is common with overtraining syndrome.

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How to Avoid Overtraining Syndrome

First, if you’re trying an exercise for the first time, ease into it. Your body isn’t a machine, it needs time to adjust to unfamiliar stresses and strains. Be sure to take enough rest days — and don’t be afraid to take more if you feel like you’ve overdone it. Often, there’s no need to completely stop exercising, just keep it light for a while.

Second, never underestimate the importance of sleep. The average adult needs about seven to eight hours a day — any less or more could be detrimental, both physically and mentally.

Third, all the exercise and all the rest in the world will do you no good if you don’t eat well or if you don’t eat enough to fuel your body’s repair. So, be diligent with your nutrition.

Lastly, and this is likely the most important but also the most difficult, try to catch signs of overtraining early so you can nip it in the bud. Keep the indicators we’ve just discussed in your mind so you can recognize them. At the end of the day, you’re the most familiar with your own body, so if something doesn’t feel right, trust your instinct.

The Conclusion on Overtraining Syndrome

As human beings, we tend to strive toward improvement in whatever we’re passionate about. It’s this drive that enables us to push past plateaus to become better versions of ourselves.

Yet, it’s this same passion that can sometimes blind us from seeing what is in front of us. Overtraining syndrome not only prevents improvement but can actually set you back, sometimes even permanently. Remember that taking a few days off when you need it is not weakness. It’s preparation to come back stronger than ever.

Eric Ellul Falzon on Linkedin
Eric Ellul Falzon
Eric is a certified medical laboratory scientist currently working as a freelance medical and health writer. Two of his biggest passions in life are medicine and the English language, so this career was his way of merging the two. His goal is to share the beauty of medicine and health with his readers and to show they can be a joy to learn about, regardless of one’s professional background.