Overtraining Part 1

For the next month we'll have posts regarding the total athletic picture ranging from specific training techniques to what athletes can do outside of training to improve performance. Today we'll kick it off with a post about over training. Wha?? What does THAT have to do with athletic performance? Well, my friends, we live in an era where the attitude I'm-so-tired-I-can-barely-move mentality constitutes a "good workout"; an era where the adage "pain is weakness leaving the body," is plastered on every high school athletic t-shirt and perpetuates the notion that only utter exhaustion means "progress." This is not to say that no pain is warranted, but that excessive, persistent joint and muscle pain is NOT. We can be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a hardy work out? Who doesn’t like to train hard, pwn some weight (or mileage if you’re a distance person), and conquer the physical goals you’ve set for yourself?

I know I do.

However, sadly, there can be too much of a good thing. We may be superheroes in our minds, but sometimes our bodies see it differently. Outside of the genetic freaks   who can hit their training hard day after day (I’m a bit envious…), most of us will reach the realm of overtraining. I should note, that for many competitive athletes (college, elite, and professional levels) there is a constant state of overtraining, but it’s closely monitored. But, this post is designed for the rest of us, including middle school and high school athletes (all of whom think they are invincible).

Hopefully, after today’s post, you’ll be able to recognize the symptoms and thus stop the process. Next post, we’ll talk about strategies to avoid over training as well as correcting and reversing the effect.

Now, everyone is different and not everyone will experience every symptom or perhaps experience it in varying degrees depending on your state of training. These are general symptoms that you/parents/coaches should keep an eye out for.


1.  Repeated failure to complete/recover in a normal workout- I’m not talking about a failed rep attempt or performing an exercise to failure. This is a routine training session that you’re dragging through and you either can’t finish it or your recovery time between sets is way longer than usual. For distance trainees, this may manifest as slower pace, your normal milage seems way harder than usual, or your heart rate is higher than usual during your workout.

2. Lifters/power athletes: inability to relax or sleep well at night- Overtraining in power athletes or lifters (any athlete outside of triathletes or cross country runners/bikers, I'm looking at you, playing-year-round-northern Virginia kids) results in an overactive sympathetic nervous response (the “fight or flight” system). If you’re restless (when you’re supposed to be resting), unable to sleep well, have an elevated resting heart rate, or have an inability to focus (even during training or practice), those are signs that your sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive. It’s your body’s response to being in a constantly stressful situation, like training, that it refuses to relax and stays in the sympathetic state.

3. Endurance athletes: fatigue, sluggish, and weak feeling- Endurance athletes experience parasympathetic overdrive (the “rest and digest” system). Symptoms include elevated cortisol (stress hormone that isn’t bad, but shouldn’t be at chronically high levels), decreased testosterone levels (more noticeable in males), increase fat storage or inability to lose fat, or chronic fatigue (mental and physical).

4. Body composition shifts away from leanness- Despite training hard and eating well,  you’re either not able to lose body fat, or worse, you start to gain what you previously lost. Being overtrained results in elevated cortisol levels (for both kinds of athletes). Cortisol, among other things, increases insulin resistance which promotes fat storage and inhibits fat loss.

5. Sore/painful joints, bones, or limbs- Does the thought of walking up stairs make you groan with the anticipated creaky achiness you’re about to experience? If so, you’re probably overtraining. Whether it be with weights or endurance training, you’re body is taking a beating and if it doesn’t have adequate recovery time, that’s when tendiosis, tendoitis, bursitis, and all the other itis-es start to set in. The joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are chronically inflamed and that equals pain. Maybe it’s not pain (yet) but your muscles feel heavy and achy. It might be a good time to rethink you’re training routine…

6. Getting sick more often- Maybe it's not the flu, but perhaps the sniffles, a sore throat, or a fever here and there; these are signs your immune system is depressed. This can be a sneaky one especially if you eat right (as in lots of kale), sleep enough, and drink plenty of water (I’m doing all the right things! Why am I sick??). Training is a stress on the system and any hard training session will depress the immune system for a bit afterwards. Not a big deal if you’re able to recover after each training session… but if you’re overtraining, your body never gets that recovery time. Hence, a chronically depressed immune system… and that’s why you have a cold for the 8th time in two months.

7. You feel like garbage- You know the feeling: run down, sluggish, not excited to train… NOOOOO!!!!! Training regularly, along with eating well and sleeping enough, should make you feel great. However, if you feel like crap… something is wrong.

Those are some of the basic signs of overtraining. There are more, especially as an athlete drifts further and further down the path of fatigue, but these are the initial warning signs your body gives you to tell you to stop what you’re doing or bad things will happen.

Next time, we’ll discuss ways to prevent and treat overtraining.