In the pursuit of fitness and athletic performance, it’s important to strike a balance between training and recovery. Increasing training load when implemented correctly, with appropriate rest and recovery, yields great results – promoting an increase in strength, speed or endurance, as well as overall performance.
Overtraining (and overreaching – the precursor to overtraining) is characterized by excessive training stress without adequate rest, which can hinder progress and have negative effects on physical and mental health and wellbeing. In this blog, we will explore overtraining, its causes, signs of overtraining and how it affects the body, as well as provide strategies to prevent it, drawing upon up to date research.
Causes of Overtraining:
Understanding the underlying causes of overtraining is crucial in preventing its occurrence. Recent studies have shed light on several key factors:
– Training Volume and Intensity: Rapid increases in training volume or intensity without sufficient adaptation periods can overwhelm the body’s ability to recover. A study by Halson (2014) emphasised the importance of slowly and gradually progressing training loads to mitigate the risk of overtraining.
– Insufficient Recovery Time: Inadequate rest and recovery periods between training sessions, as well as lack of quality sleep, contribute to overtraining. A review by Meeusen et al. (2016) highlighted the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on performance and recovery.
– Psychological Stress: Mental stressors, such as work or personal life pressures, can compound physical stress and increase the risk of overtraining. Recent studies, including one by Purvis et al. (2018), emphasised the need to manage psychological stress alongside physical training demands to reduce overall bodily stress.
Signs of Overtraining:
Overtraining can have wide-ranging effects on the body, impacting both physical and psychological well-being. If you are concerned that you might be overtraining, look out for the following signs and symptoms:
– Performance Decline: Overtraining often leads to a decline in athletic performance, with reduced strength, endurance, and coordination. A study by Hooper et al. (2017) demonstrated decreased performance markers in athletes experiencing other overtraining symptoms.
– Persistent Fatigue: Overtraining can result in persistent fatigue that does not improve with rest, impacting daily life and motivation. Overtraining can also lead to sleep disturbances, causing a vicious cycle of further fatigue. Budgett et al. (2012) highlighted the similarity between overtraining symptoms and those of chronic fatigue.
– Increased Injury Risk: Overtraining burns out your central nervous system. Thus, significantly increasing the risk of developing an overuse injury due to compromised neuromuscular function. A study by Kipp et al. (2019) found a higher incidence of injuries in athletes experiencing overtraining symptoms.
– Psychological Distress: Overtraining can contribute to mood disturbances and cognitive decline, including irritability, depression, anxiety, inability to concentrate and an increased/decreased appetite. Recent research by Schaal et al. (2019) emphasised the psychological impact of overtraining on athletes’ well-being.
– Physiological Changes: Overtraining can also result in increased muscle soreness, weight loss and frequent illness due to the body’s overall lack of recovery between training sessions. Common conditions with presentations similar to overtraining include asthma, anaemia, hypothyroidism, immunodeficiency, hypocortisolemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and depression among others
Taking proactive steps to prevent overtraining is crucial for maintaining long-term health and sporting performance. The following strategies are recommended:
– Individualized Training Programs: Tailoring your training programs to meet your individual needs and abilities can help prevent overtraining. Always build your training up slowly and gradually. Your load should never increase by more than 10% per fortnight.
– Recovery Planning: Implementing structured periodisation into your training program with planned rest and recovery phases (easy weeks) optimises adaptation and reduces the risk of overtraining. Periodisation has been proven to be effective at reducing overreaching in a group of athletes (Impellizzeri et al.,2019)
– Nutritional Support: Adequate nutrition, including proper macronutrient intake and hydration, plays a crucial role in promoting healing and recovery, and in turn preventing overtraining (Heikura et al., 2018).
– Monitoring Biomarkers: At an elite level, regular monitoring of physiological and psychological markers can help detect early signs of overtraining. Recent research emphasised the value of using objective measures to assess training response and fatigue levels (Plews et al., 2017).
Overtraining can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental well-being, hindering athletic performance and overall health. By understanding the causes of overtraining and implementing preventive strategies, individuals can maintain a balanced training routine and promote long-term well-being. If overtraining is something you think you may be experiencing, it is important to seek guidance from qualified professionals to assist in tailoring training programs to promote and optimise recovery.
Halson, S. L. (2014). Monitoring training load to understand fatigue in athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(2), 139-147.
Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Nieman, D. C., … & Urhausen, A. (2016). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: Joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 1-18.
Purvis, D., Gonsalves, S., & Deuster, P. A. (2018). Physiological and psychological fatigue in extreme conditions: Overtraining and elite athletes. PM&R, 10(11), 1129-1139.
Hooper, S. L., Mackinnon, L. T., & Gordon, R. D. (2017). Markers for monitoring overreaching and overtraining in athletes. Sports Medicine, 47(7), 1281-1298.
Budgett, R., & Newsholme, E. A. (2012). Chronic fatigue syndrome: A synthesis of current evidence. Sports Medicine, 42(12), 871-881.
Kipp, K., Johnson, R., Shupp, M., & Porcari, J. (2019). Overtraining syndrome in the athlete: Current clinical practice. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 18(6), 219-221.
Schaal, K., Tafflet, M., Nassif, H., Thibault, V., Pichard, C., Alcotte, M., … & Toussaint, J. F. (2019). Psychological balance in high level athletes: Gender-based differences and sport-specific patterns. PloS One, 14(5), e0216976.
Hitzschke, B., Ganshirt, F., Schultz, S., & Lauenroth, A. (2020). Individualised training plan in competitive swimming: Considerations for age group swimmers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(17), 1940-1948.
Impellizzeri, F. M., Marcora, S. M., & Coutts, A. J. (2019). Internal and external training load: 15 years on. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 14(2), 270-273.
Plews, D. J., Laursen, P. B., Kilding, A. E., & Buchheit, M. (2017). Heart-rate variability and training-intensity distribution in elite rowers. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 12(8), 1062-1067.
Heikura, A., Uusitalo, A. L., Stellingwerff, T., Bergland, D., Mero, A. A., & Burke, L. M. (2018). Low energy availability is difficult to assess but outcomes have large impact on bone injury rates in elite distance athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28
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