Working out too much without enough recovery time between sessions can be more harmful than helpful. Pushing yourself too hard can sometimes result in overtraining syndrome, which can cause serious side effects. Learn more about what overtraining is, the signs of overtraining, and how to prevent it.
What is overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a condition in which an athlete experiences extreme fatigue, poor performance, and burnout.1 Overtraining can affect anyone, regardless of what physical activity they participate in, be it running, cycling, football, or something else. Overtraining can also happen at any age.
Athletes can occasionally overtrain, with effects lasting a day or two. Or they can also chronically overdo it and suffer from symptoms for weeks, months, or years.
How is overtraining syndrome diagnosed?
Unfortunately, there’s no medical test that can detect OTS. Instead, a doctor will diagnose you based on your training history and reported symptoms. If you think you’re experiencing overtraining syndrome, you should see your doctor, as some of the symptoms could also potentially indicate other health problems.2
15 common signs and symptoms of overtraining
Feeling tired or sore after working out is normal, but those symptoms usually resolve within a few days with adequate time to rest and recover. On the contrary, signs, and symptoms of overtraining last a lot longer and can be more intense. Some of the most common signs of overtraining and symptoms include: 3,4
1. Chronic fatigue
Feeling excessively tired during or after workouts indicates that your body isn’t fully recovering between sessions and is a sign of overtraining. It could also mean your body needs more (or different) fuel before you train.
2. Soreness and muscle pain
Lingering soreness or muscle pain, especially heaviness or stiffness in the muscles, could be another sign of overtraining your body. Pushing yourself beyond your limits during specific workouts or chronically overstressing your body’s systems is likely to cause these issues.
3. Frequent injuries
Injuries can happen every once in a while, but you shouldn’t experience recurring injuries or certain types of injuries often. For example, a high-impact exercise like running can easily cause overuse injuries like shin splints or stress fractures if you don’t give your body the time and fuel it needs to recover.
If you’re experiencing frequent injuries, this is a sign of overtraining, and it’s best to speak with your doctor and take a break from training to give yourself time to heal.
4. Reduced appetite
If you’re working out regularly, you should have a healthy appetite. However, overtraining syndrome can sometimes cause hormonal imbalances that affect your appetite. If you’re experiencing a decrease in appetite and excessive or unintentional weight loss despite the demands of your training efforts, you might be dealing with OTS.
5. Digestive issues
Similarly, signs of overtraining can also lead to digestive problems like constipation or diarrhea. Research indicates strenuous exercise can damage cells in your intestines, leading to short-term or long-term digestive issues.
6. Increased illness
Along with constantly feeling run down, weak, and tired, you might also get sick more often. Repeated bouts of illness like colds or respiratory infections are another sign of overtraining. You may also be more prone to infections.
7. Cognitive issues
Overtraining can cause restlessness, making it hard to get things done, a sign of overtraining. You might find it difficult to concentrate at work or school, and your professional or academic performance might also suffer, which is a sign of overtraining.
8. Excessive sweating or overheating
It’s normal to feel sweaty and warm when you work out. But a sign of overtraining is if you feel excessively overheated and can’t get cool, or you’re sweating profusely with your regular workout routines, is a sign of overtraining.
9. Menstrual changes
If you’re overtraining, your sex drive might decrease, and your period may become more irregular. Some women also experience a complete loss of menstruation as a sign of overtraining, which may last for an unknown amount of time.
10. Mood swings and irritability
Excessive exercise can make your body produce excess amounts of cortisol and adrenaline. This increase in stress hormones can have other side effects like mood swings, mental fog, irritability, and depression, which is a sign of overtraining. It can also affect your concentration and motivation.
11. Poor physical performance
OTS can make your regular workouts feel more difficult than usual. You might struggle to get through a routine that typically feels easy, or you may feel like your body is working harder than normal to complete specific exercises, a sign of overtraining.
12. Lack of motivation
A general decline in enthusiasm for exercise is also common with OTS and is a sign of overtraining. You might want to skip your workouts more often if you’re overtraining. Or, you may even get started but then give up halfway through because you just don’t have the motivation to finish.
13. Increase in blood pressure or resting heart rate
If you’re overtraining, your heart rate might be higher while you’re working out, and your resting heart rate may increase too. After you complete a workout, your heart rate could take longer to return to its normal resting rate.
14. Sleep disturbances
Maybe you’re having trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or the overall quality of your sleep has drastically declined, a sign of overtraining. Sometimes overtraining can cause or contribute to these types of sleep disturbances, especially if they’re new to you.
15. Extreme thirst
Sure, any typical workout routine will make you thirsty. But if you feel like you can’t get enough water, it could be a sign of overtraining. Excessive exercise can put your body in a constant catabolic state, or fat-burning state, which can deplete your nutritional stores. Feeling incredibly thirsty all the time can be a result of this.
How do you recover from overtraining?
Continuing to work out while you have OTS can severely damage your body and make it harder to recover. In most cases, the best way to recover safely is to work with your doctor or a licensed trainer and adopt certain lifestyle habits.
Recovering from overtraining will look different from person to person, but generally, it will include the following things:
- Rest: You’ll need plenty of rest to recover from overtraining. You may need to reduce your training regimen by 50% or more to see any improvements. However, that doesn’t mean you have to lie around and do nothing. Active rest is also beneficial, so light activities like walking or gardening don’t have to be off-limits.
- Sleep: Your body may need more sleep when recovering from OTS. If you’re not already getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours each night, plan on getting more. It’s also helpful to establish a healthy sleep routine, such as going to bed and waking at the same time each day, eliminating cell phone use a couple of hours before bed, or making your bedroom a more conducive environment for sleep.
- Proper nutrition: Your body will need a healthy and well-balanced diet that provides all the typical nutrients runners, cyclists, and other athletes need. Staying hydrated will also help you recover from OTS more quickly.
- Treatment of injury: If you have any physical injuries, you should treat those issues before you return to physical activity. If your healing takes more time than anticipated, you may also need to work with your doctor or trainer to modify your workout routine until you’re completely healed.
- Personal reflection: Taking time away from your sport or regular exercise routine will also give you time to reflect. Use the time to think about changes you might need to make to prevent future overtraining but still maximize your results.
When you’re ready to start training again, start slow and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. Listen to your body and pay attention to any physical or mental side effects you may experience. The more gradual your return to physical activity, the more likely you will recover fully and return to a regular training routine faster.
How do you prevent overtraining?
Recovering from overtraining can sometimes be a long and arduous process. Fortunately, it’s completely preventable! The following tips can help you avoid overtraining syndrome in the first place:5
- Listen to your body and do your best to give it what it needs. If you need to rest, rest.
- Keep a log of all your workouts and include notes on how you feel (physically and emotionally).
- Cross-train and vary the intensity of your workout.
- Balance your physical activity with recovery.
- Work with a licensed and certified physical trainer to make sure your workout routine is right for you.
- Make sure you’re getting enough calories and the right nutrients. Drink plenty of water!
- Take time to address sources of stress that affect your physical health, such as your job, finances, or relationships.
Key Takeaways:Overtraining syndrome is a common condition among athletes, although there are many different signs and symptoms. Fortunately, you can treat and prevent it with healthy lifestyle and training habits, such as getting adequate rest and nutrition and establishing a balanced workout routine.
- Quaglio, L. (n.d.-a). 19 Signs of Overtraining: How to Avoid Excess Fatigue and OTS. National Academy of Sports Medicine. https://blog.nasm.org/strategies-for-overcoming-overtraining
- Carrard, J., Rigort, A. C., Appenzeller-Herzog, C., Colledge, F., Königstein, K., Hinrichs, T., & Schmidt-Trucksäss, A. (2021). Diagnosing Overtraining Syndrome: A Scoping Review. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 194173812110447. https://doi.org/10.1177/19417381211044739
- Carter, J. G., Potter, A. W., & Brooks, K. A. (2014). Overtraining Syndrome: Causes, Consequences, and Methods for Prevention. Journal of Sport and Human Performance. https://doi.org/10.12922/JSHP.0031.2014
- Kreher, J. B., & Schwartz, J. B. (2012b). Overtraining Syndrome. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 4(2), 128–138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738111434406
- Kreher, J. (2016). Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education strategies. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 7, 115–122. https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s91657