Overtraining Part 1: Symptoms

This month's theme is in-season training since the spring sports are starting up.  All the  practices, games, and tournaments start to add up to over time, not to mention any weight room sessions the coachs' require of their athletes. Lack of proper awareness and management of physical stressors can lead, very quickly in some cases, to overtraining... which leads to poor performance, lost games, increase risk of injury, and a rather unpleasant season.

The subject of overtraining is a vast one and we won't be able to cover all the aspects that contribute, but by the end of this two part series, you should have a decent grasp on what overtraining is and how to avoid it. Today's post will be about recognizing the symptoms of overtraining while next post will offer techniques and training advice to avoid the dreaded state of overtrained-ness. (Yes, I made that word up.) Li'l food for thought: quite often the strength and conditioning aspect of in-season training is the cornerstone of maintaing the health of the athlete. Too much, and the athlete breaks, but administered intelligently, a strength program can restore an athlete's body and enhance overall performance. Right, let's dive in!

Who doesn’t like a good work out? Who doesn’t like to train hard, pwn some weight (or mileage if you’re a distance person), and accomplish the physical goals you’ve set for yourself? Every work out leave you gasping, dead-tired, and wiped out, otherwise it doesn't count, right? (read the truth to that fallacy here)

We all want a to feel like you've conquered something, 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 out there who can hit their training hard day after day (I’m a bit envious…), most of us will reach a point where we enter 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.

Now, everyone is different and not everyone will experience every symptom or perhaps experience it in varying degrees depending on training age, other life factors, and type of training. These are merely general symptoms that both athletes and coaches should keep a sharp 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. Coaches: are you players dragging, taking longer breaks, or just looking sluggish? Especially if this is unusual behavior, they're not being lazy; it might be they've reached stress levels that exceed their abilities to recover.

2. Lifters/power athletes (baseball, football, soccer, non-distance track, and nearly all field sports): inability to relax or sleep well at night- Overtraining in power athletes or lifters 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 just stays in the sympathetic state.

3. Endurance athletes (distance runners, swimmers, and bikers): fatigue, sluggish, and weak feeling- Endurance athletes experience parasympathetic overdrive (the “rest and digest” system). Symptoms include elevated cortisol (a 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. Overtrained individuals typically have elevated cortisol levels (for both kinds of athletes). Cortisol, among other things, increases insulin resistance which, when this is the chronic metabolic state, 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 achy-ness you’re about to experience? If so, you’re probably over training. 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 chronicallyinflamed 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 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, the body never gets it's much-needed 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 the body gives 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.

Exercise & Your Body's Circadian Rhythm

Anyone who travels across time zones regularly knows quite well about the challenges of trying to quickly get your body on-board with it's new schedule. With the constant quest being to find the perfect combination of rest, food, relaxation, etc. to ease the transition quickly.

So, is there an answer?

A recent study from the University of Kentucky examines the role of "zeitgebers" - or time cues - in helping to reset the body's internal clock.

As it turns out the body has several tried and true time cues. The most common, strongest, and well-known is the role of night vs. day (or dark vs. light). Meals are also an important and well-known cue to help set the body's circadian rhythm.

But, as it turns out, scheduled exercise is also an important time cue:

These data provide evidence that the molecular circadian clock in peripheral tissues can respond to the time of exercise suggesting that physical activity contributes important timing information for synchronization of circadian clocks throughout the body.

What's the best way to quickly adjust to a major time zone change?

  1. Make yourself sleep when it's dark and wake when it's light outside.
  2. Eat meals at regular times (Usually have lunch in NY at 1pm? Then eat lunch at 1pm London time, too).
  3. Stick with your usually scheduled training times. Don't fall for waiting for your body to tell you 11pm "feels right" for training, that will prolong the adjustment process.

Hmm, that list above looks suspiciously like good advice to follow whether your traveling or just looking for good information on how to make the most out of your day and maximize energy levels!

When You Can’t Sleep

So, you’re not sleeping? Ahh – neither am I.

Here’s a list of things to keep your busy mind occupied and focused on something positive instead of dwelling on the issues that are probably keeping you up in the first place:

  1. Eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Why not? Who cares that it’s 2AM? They’re delicious and will probably make you feel a little bit better about being awake.
  2. Take the bull by the horns: address whatever is keeping you from falling back to sleep. Returning emails, addressing little projects, addressing little parts of big projects, etc. Can’t hurt, right?
  3. Listen to music.
  4. Turn on SportsCenter. It’s sports, it’s on 24-hours a day, it’s usually pretty positive and inspiring.
  5. Do something enjoyable/out of the ordinary.

Here’s my early morning play-by-play after Arabella woke up at 1:17AM (you start remembering the exact time after about the 300th occasion you’ve been roused by crying in the dead of night):

  1. Lay awake in bed for approximately 60-minutes mulling over small, but important and irritating, “issues.” Eventually, I officially acknowledged I’m not going back to sleep.
  2. Go downstairs and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (see #1 above). It was delicious.
  3. Return a few emails.
  4. Fill out SAPT product survey: I filled out a review on one of SAPT’s excellent products (if you’re reading between the lines, yes, that means I buy them, too… at full price). They actually are excellent and I actually enjoyed pouring some positivity out in a way, which for me is very non-traditional.
  5. Rediscover my love for Britney Spears. I'm totally serious right now.

  6. Make adjustments to my program for women’s basketball (Mason).
  7. Realize I can do a blog post on not sleeping – begin that.
  8. Fill out testing roster for women’s soccer (Mason) and go over testing protocol and setup one more time to ensure things go smoothly in the morning.
  9. Finalize this blog post while watching highlights of Pro Bowl players on SportsCenter.

Seriously though, here are some Actual Recommendations for Improving Sleep Patterns:

  1. Exercise daily: this helps reduce stress and expend the extra energy that may be stored up.
  2. Eat sensibly: throughout the day and before going to bed. It’s best to steer clear of large, dense meals right before trying to sleep.
  3. Set yourself up for some relaxing wind-down time: take a shower, drink some water, and get into bed with a good book (again, something relaxing).
  4. Allot 7-9 hours for uninterrupted sleep.
  5. Avoid allowing young, fitful sleepers occupancy near your bedroom. I’m hoping to surmount this problem in about 5 years.

Good LUCK!