What is it and how can you avoid it?
One common mistake people make in the gym is thinking you have to go 7 days a week to get fit. This can lead to something called overtraining which results in excess fatigue, sleep disturbances and mood changes. This can limit your progress and often discourage people who are trying to get back into shape. It is important to consider all the components of a healthy training program when exercising at any level to optimize your progress and avoid doing more harm than good. In this article we’ll discuss what overtraining syndrome is and how to avoid it.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome is a very broad term that can encompass many different experiences and signs/symptoms. It occurs on a spectrum and people of all fitness levels from beginners to Olympic athletes can experience some form of overtraining symptoms. Experts explain that symptoms can begin as what is called “overreaching” where you perform too much vigorous exercise in a short period of time. This can result in increased muscle soreness compared to your usual levels, soreness that lasts more than 48 hours and/or swollen/red muscles that are tender to the touch. This type of vigorous exercise can also lead to injuries such as stress fractures or tendonitis (1). This can happen if, for example, you usually run two miles every other day but instead you run 4 miles 3 days in a row or something along those lines. Quickly increasing intensity and volume of your workout can lead to these types of symptoms. Overreaching is generally the goal of training programs in order to facilitate increased strength and/or endurance, however if it is not combined with proper rest and recovery it can lead to overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining syndrome is a more serious condition which can lead to physical, mental and physiological symptoms beyond just excess muscle soreness. NASM categorizes overtraining syndrome as two or more months of underperformance in training and states it can take months, even years to recover from depending on the severity of the condition.(4) Overtraining syndrome more commonly occurs in high level athletes who train at a high intensity day in and day out, but as I mentioned earlier, it can occur for people who are just starting a new program or trying to get back into shape. Overtraining is described by Dr. Jeffrey Kreher and Dr. Jennifer Schwarts in their research article as “a maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in perturbations of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes.”(2) It can lead to decreased performance during workouts, plateau of progress, increased fatigue with regularly easy workouts and recurrent injuries. However, overtraining can also lead to more serious symptoms such as sleep disturbances, mood swings, lack of motivation, trouble concentrating, changes in heart rate/blood pressure, weight loss/gain, decreased immune system function and feelings of being rundown. Basically, your body is just burnt out.
If you ignore the signs of overreaching and continue to push your body past its limits, allowing your symptoms to progress to Overtraining Syndrome, this can take weeks to months to reverse and allow your body time to heal. This is why rest days are so important!
How to Fix It:
If you’re feeling symptoms of overreaching, this is a pretty simple fix. You just have to give your body some rest until the soreness/pain goes away. A couple days should be enough for your body to recover and then you can get back to your exercise, but remember to progress slowly when you return and assess your body’s response to increased intensities.
Recovering from true overtraining syndrome can be a little bit more difficult. Dr. Caitlyn Lewis, a sports medicine physician, states that recovery from overtraining may require resting from exercise for 6-8 weeks.(3) Rest is the most important part of recovering from overtraining, however it is important to consider other aspects of health as well such as nutrition, sleep and mental health.
Nutrition is key to making sure your body can keep up with the demands you’re placing on it. Making sure you have adequate calories and protein to maintain energy and muscle building as well as proper vitamins and minerals to keep up with high intensity workouts, is super important. Talking to a nutritionist can help you get a better understanding of what your body needs to perform at whatever level you are asking it to perform at.
Sleep is another key factor in recovery from overtraining and just exercise in general. Sleep is when your body does the most to recover and repair itself. If you are not getting adequate sleep all of your bodily functions are performing at a lower level. Optimizing your sleep schedule and learning what your body needs to function can not only help you recover from overtraining but it can improve your overall quality of life.
Mental health is also an important factor. Especially if you are used to working out often, sometimes taking a break can be really hard. Talking to a mental health professional can help you to work through what you’re feeling while you’re recovering and also understand your body’s needs better to help prevent the problem in the future.
How can you prevent overtraining?
The number one thing you can do is listen to your body. If you’re sore, let your body rest. If you’re feeling fatigued or run down, take a few days off and see if it gets better. This is the best way to avoid overtraining and optimize your training performance.
Sleep, as we mentioned before, plays another key role in making sure that your body has adequate recovery time from exercise. We discussed earlier how sleeping is when your body does the majority of its recovery of healing. When you exercise you stress the muscles and create “damage” that the body has to heal, which results in new muscle growth and other physiological adaptations throughout the body. The majority of these processes occur while we’re sleeping so it is important that we get good, quality sleep for 7-9 hours a night.
Again, not only is nutrition important in recovering from overtraining syndrome but it is also crucial for avoiding it all together. Proper nutrition is essential for your body to perform at a high level. It provides essential energy, vitamins and nutrients for you to be able to perform exercises but also recover from high intensity workouts and continue to build strength and endurance. In addition to proper food intake, proper water intake is also extremely important. Inadequate water intake can lead to increased muscle fatigue which can impact performance and recovery. Consulting a nutritionist may be beneficial if you want to optimize your training and improve your overall health
Overtraining syndrome is a combination of negative physical, mental and physiological changes in the body in response to over exercising at a high intensity. It can result in excess fatigue, decreased performance, mood changes, sleep disturbances, decreased immune function, increased risk of injury and increased resting heart rate in addition to a multitude of other varying symptoms. It can happen to people of all fitness levels and it is important to notice the symptoms early and give your body rest when it needs to prevent it from getting more serious and requiring a prolonged break from training. Proper exercise programming, diet, sleep habits, stress reduction and mental health all contribute to an optimized exercise routine so it is important to take all these factors into consideration, especially when you are just starting out with a new exercise routine or when you are trying to train at a very high level. There are a number of experts you can reach out to who can help you come up with a program that works for you but the easiest place to start might be with a personal trainer who can guide you and also suggest other professionals who might be able to help if you need it such as a nutritionist or Physical Therapy.
I hope this article gave you some good information and if you have any questions feel free to reach out to me on the website, email or instagram! You can also let me know if there are any other topics you want more information on, I’d be happy to do some research and help you out!
Thanks for listening!