Overtraining Syndrome and Strategies to Prevent It

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You may have felt this before – you’re training hard, putting in countless hours training as your program requires yet your progress is at a stalling point, or getting worse. If this is the case, you may be suffering from Overtraining Syndrome, a common and overlooked phenomenon that affects endurance sport athletes, but can occur in any physical sport which requires a high level and volume of training.

Other symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome are regular muscular pains that would dissipate in a day or two now take longer to recover from, and even your mental clarity isn’t what it was months ago. One would think that the harder you train, the fitter you should get and better prepared for the event you are training for, whether it be a one-time race or an ongoing season. However, with Overtraining Syndrome, the opposite occurs.

While UESCA will take a deeper dive into Overtraining Syndrome in updated certification content, this post serves as a general overview of what, how, when, and why Overtraining Syndrome exists.

What Is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining Syndrome can be described as a point at which a person may have a decrease in performance and plateauing as a result of failure to consistently perform at a certain level or training load; a load which exceeds their recovery capacity. People who are overtrained cease making progress, and can even begin to lose strength and fitness. Overtraining Syndrome is also known as chronic fatigue, burnout and over-stress in athletes. It should be noted that from a physiological perspective, it is very hard to ‘overtrain’ to the point of suffering from Overtraining Syndrome from a physical stress standpoint. Therefore, the primary factor in Overtraining Syndrome is a lack of recovery, not too much physical stress via training/racing.

Research has shown different variations of overtraining.

First, ‘monotonous program overtraining’ suggest that repetition of the same movement such as certain weight lifting (i.e., Olympic lifting), a volleyball player hitting hundreds if not more serves in practice daily, and/or a baseball player hitting countless amounts of 90+ mile per hour fastballs to adjust their swing time can cause performance plateau due to an adaption of the central nervous system which results from a lack of stimulation.

A second example of overtraining is described as chronic overwork type training where the athlete may be training at a particular intensity or volume and not allowing sufficient recovery time for the body. When endurance athletes refer to overtraining, this is typically what is being referred to.

The symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome may not be noticeable at first and just chalked up as part of the process. Symptoms include: chronic fatigue, decreased performance output at the same training loads or variables, decrease in blood pressure or resting heart rate, irritability and mood swings, lack of motivation, loss of appetite, unusual muscle soreness, and weight loss. Other signs may also be lack of sex drive and/or changes in the menstrual cycle for females.

It can be hard for athletes to self-diagnose Overtraining Syndrome as they are training for a specific goal in mind and can usually dismiss the signs and “play on.” Listening to your training partners, or coach, as well as working with a sport-specific nutritionist or sports medicine doctor can be extremely helpful in knowing if it’s time to strategize or tweak your training approach.

In conjunction with working with a coach or other professional, there are self-monitoring methods to look at your biometrics that can include using technology. Listed below are fairly simple and/or less expensive methods to more time consuming and/or costly methods.

These are not mandatory, but if you are a tech geek and/or feel you (or your athlete) is not heading in the right direction utilizing these tools may be beneficial to check and track. If you are seeing consistent deviations or out of the norm levels then this could be an indication of Overtraining Syndrome.

Checking and Tracking Your Biometrics

Heart Rate (HR)

This are probably the easiest metrics to check. Simply check and track your resting heart rate (RHR) first thing in the morning before getting out bed. Avoid caffeine or any other stimulants before measuring as they may impact your true resting rate. A consistently and substantially elevated or depressed heart rate may be indicative of Overtraining Syndrome. Smart watches (listed below) track heart rate and can typically log your information for you to come back to.

Bodyweight

Generally speaking, checking your weight on a daily basis isn’t typically recommended but if you are feeling a decrease in your performance this, is simple enough to do. Rapid changes in bodyweight could indicate you are not consuming enough calories to provide your body the macro and micro nutrients it needs for optimal training performance. If there is a significant decrease in weight with all other variables remaining consistent (training, calorie consumption, sleep) this may be something to see a physician or dietician about.

Sleep Monitors/Smart Watches/Smart Rings (Oxygen Saturation)

With the rise of smart watches and devices (think Fitbit or Apple smart watches, Oura sleep rings to name a few), the benefits of these devices can be of high value. These devices will provide your resting and exercise HR, but also provide more in-depth analysis of your sleeping patterns including hours in REM sleep, total step count, estimated calories burned from physical activity and rest.

These devices may also provide an overall Wellness or Health Index that shows an all-encompassing number of all these metrics combined. Obviously the higher the index score, the better range you are in for ‘optimal’ well being and ideally performance. Any major deviations or changes/drops in a particular or overall index could indicate Overtraining Syndrome, and allow you to more closely identify what the problem could be (i.e., RHR too high could equate to higher levels of stress, lower sleep scores mean focusing on addressing your sleeping routine to improve there).

Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs)

These devices, while relatively new in the fitness and performance world, have been around since 1999 for the use of glucose monitoring for people with diabetes. As no two individuals who suffer from diabetes are the same with their symptoms, and will need a different treatment plan to effectively manage their disease effectively, it is similar to how a coach works with their athletes… have a baseline plan and modify it accordingly to the specifics needs or desired outcomes of the athlete.

Specific to athletic performance, more research is being done focusing on athletes training and nutrition utilizing blood glucose levels at rest and during activity. Endurance athletes can especially benefit in respect to having a better understanding of how much food to eat and when to eat, optimizing their fueling strategy to prevent “bonking” during a long training session or race.

Intervention

Overcoming Overtraining Syndrome may consist of:

  1. Addressing your current nutrition plan and eating behaviors to ensure adequate nutrients for recovery are being consumed. Consult with a Registered Dietician if needed who has, or is currently working with endurance athletes.
  2. Complete rest from activity or reduced volume and/or intensity of training.

Preventing Relapse

One of the biggest mistakes is to jump back into your training where you left off before the initial signs developed. It is suggested that athletes should start back at 50-70% of their training level upon return and ramp up from there. Each athletes’ re-entry will be different based on years of training, experience, and severity of overtraining. Soreness will naturally be a byproduct of any training program but essentially listening to your body and noting your performance in some type of training log will be of tremendous value.

Summary

Overtraining Syndrome can occur in novice to advanced and professional athletes. In the beginning stages of overtraining, it can be challenging to distinguish general fatigue from normal day stressors and activity. While it may be tempting to blow off one workout and likely not impact your overall training program tremendously, it can become a vicious cycle if you don’t evaluate your training regimen, recovery plan, nutrition, and other.  A training journal or use of training app that you will consistently use can be a great tool to monitor your progress and determine see any correlations on your progress.  Most importantly, listen to your body and back off as needed;

  • Please note that the use of tracking your biometrics or using listed devices should not be used for medical diagnosis or to be used to treat existing health conditions without consulting with a physician. Always confer with your physician if experiencing any health issues or seeking medical treatment plans.

_________________________________________________________________________

Sean Begley is an advisor and contributor to United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running, ultrarunning and triathlon coaches (cycling coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.

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Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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