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​Overtraining syndrome – symptoms, prevention and recovery

Posted by James Eacott on

Sometimes referred to as burnout, training stress syndrome or chronic fatigue, they’re all essentially the same thing: overtraining syndrome. Discover the symptoms and best prevention and recovery methods.

overtraining syndrome - symptoms, prevention and recovery - koala

Feel like this on a daily basis? You could be suffering with overtraining syndrome

Overtraining syndrome – what is it?

According to the Journal of Sports health, overtraining syndrome is “a maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in perturbations of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes”.

In plain English, it’s when you train too hard and too often with inadequate recovery. What follows is a cascade of physiological and psychological problems.

Overtraining syndrome is reportedly experienced by 60% of elite athletes but don’t be fooled into thinking this it’s the reserve of pros. In fact, I've suggest that the committed amateur or age grouper - with their daily work, family and life stressors - are more susceptible.

Overtraining syndrome – why do we get it?

The emotional demands of competing and completing arduous challenges like ultra marathons and Ironman triathlons are taxing both physically and mentally. The investment which they demand of us is part of their attraction, but it can also be our downfall.

overtraining syndrome - symptoms, prevention and recovery - walker

Overtraining syndrome will creep up and take hold unless you recognise it early

Added to training demands, add work, family and social pressures which combine to create a perfect breeding ground for overtraining syndrome to develop.

Overtraining syndrome – what are the symptoms?

Overtraining symptoms can be split into two camps: Sympathetic and parasympathetic.

Sympathetic symptoms are more common within athletes completing frequent high-intensity training such as sprinters and weight-lifters. They include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased body mass
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Increased fat stores
  • Emotional instability

Whereas parasympathetic symptoms are more common in endurance athletes where excessive training volumes are the cause. Parasympathetic symptoms include:

  • Increased muscle soreness
  • Increased lethargy
  • Increased injury occurrence
  • Decreased recovery time
  • Low mood – depression, anxiety and short temper
  • Lack of motivation
  • Elevated resting heart rate

overtraining syndrome - symptoms, prevention and recovery - sleepy

Being unable to keep your head up is a classic sign of overtraining syndrome

Of course, many athletes experience lethargy, lack of motivation and muscle soreness on occasion – that’s all part of training – but there’s clearly a point at which they go beyond the norm.

But it can be difficult to self-diagnose these subjective feelings, and thus it’s easy for overtraining syndrome to creep in. This is where a coach can be invaluable, but equally so family members and friends who spot changes in mood.

Overtraining syndrome – can I test for it?

Although many are subjective, some symptoms can be tested. For example:

  1. Heart rate variability. HRV is considered a gold-standard method of diagnosing overtraining. Measured using a heart rate strap, HRV tracks the change in interval time between heart beats and determines your readiness to train
  2. Resting heart rate. Get into the daily habit of taking your heart rate each morning and learn what your normal range is. If it ever creeps 10–15bpm higher than normal – and displays alongside some other symptoms – you could be on the brink of overtraining
  3. Physical performance. You’ll likely have a good idea what heart rates you normally train at. For example, if you usually complete an easy run around 120bpm but for the past few sessions it’s been above 130bpm (and felt harder too for the same pace) then it could be time for some rest

Overtraining syndrome – how to recover from it

The best treatment is very simple, in theory. In practice, it’s hard (because if you were good at this then it wouldn’t have developed in the first place!):

Rest. Plenty of it.

overtraining syndrome - symptoms, prevention and recovery - recover

Take as much rest as you need to shift all overtraining syndrome symptoms

There’s no way of prescribing how long you need to rest – each case will be individual – but it’s safe to say it needs to be as long as it takes for all symptoms to disappear. That includes improved sleeping, normalised eating habits and settled emotional stability.

Regardless of previous fitness level, professionals recommend commencing training as little as 5 – 10 minutes per day to begin. Very slowly build this up to an easy 60-minutes ensuring no fatigue is developed within your system.

After your period of complete rest, this gradual re-introduction of exercise must be taken slow because the risk of relapse is high at this stage.

A sports psychologist can come in handy here - or even a councillor if your overtraining syndrome was in some part due to poor mental health - because this stage is tough and an outsider can provide objective direction.

The importance of sleep cannot be underestimated during recovery. Not only is it likely to have been a contributing factor to overtraining syndrome in the first place, but high quality sleep is imperative for the bodies symptoms to achieve homeostasis.

Read our guide to better sleep for athletes

Overtraining syndrome – prevention

Although most attention is given to recovery, it’s also important to prevent it occurring in athletes and the best way to do this is through education.

This means both education as to what constitutes overtraining and what the far-reaching consequences can be but also education on best training practices in a world where “more is better”.

Overtraining syndrome – nutrition

It goes without saying that nutrition is a key factor in both the cause and recovery because at the heart of overtraining syndrome is inflammation. For optimal recovery, an anti-inflammatory diet will really boost recovery time and reduce the severity of many symptoms.

Nutrient density is also important, because you don’t want to consume excess calories which are not going to directly impact your recovery.

Finally, don’t overlook hydration. Water makes up 70% of our bodies and if you don’t have enough, you’ll be diverting energy away from recovery and towards addressing your dehydration.

To kick-start your daily nutrient intake, mix just one spoonful of our Ultimate Daily Greens with water to tick both the nutrient-dense and hydration boxes.

overtraining syndrome - symptoms, prevention and recovery - greens

Kickstart your recovery from overtraining syndrome with our Ultimate Daily Greens

Overtraining syndrome - conclusion

Overtraining syndrome is a very real issue, particularly within endurance sports. Understanding the symptoms and having the ability to recognise it – either by yourself or a coach / family member – is key to prevention.

If you are unfortunate enough to develop overtraining syndrome, make peace with it and tread the right path to optimal recovery.

Recovery can take weeks and, in severe cases, months if not years. But don’t rush the process. To get yourself back and firing on all cylinders, be diligent and patient throughout the recovery process.

More performance boosting content

From the Vlog – Interview with Sophie Power: Athlete, entrepreneur, mum

From the Podcast – Better sleep for athletes

From the Blog

Inflammation and food – what’s the deal?

Post-exercise immunosuppression (PEIS)

Better sleep for athletes

Nutrient density and sports performance

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