What Are the Symptoms of Overtraining?

Bodybuilder wearing headphones on weights


It’s important to exercise regularly for improved physical and mental health. We all understand the risks of not exercising enough or exercising too irregularly, but what about the opposite of that? Can you exercise too much and what are the symptoms of overtraining?

How Much Exercise is Recommended?

The NHS recommends that healthy adults do at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week.  They also recommend bi-weekly strengthening exercises like yoga or weight training.  The recommended amount of vigorous exercise — where both heart and breathing rate is elevated —  is around 75 minutes a week.  Both recommendations fall well within what most physically active people are likely to be doing anyway.  And these have been echoed by other health bodies around the world including the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Bodybuilders, athletes and professional sportsmen and women are most at risk of overtraining. Events and competitions create a hard deadline in a fitness schedule. Top-flight performance is only achieved through intense practice, repetition and with considerable stress being placed on the body, so it’s understandable why some people are prone to overtraining syndrome (OTS).  Thinking, too, of the sports and fitness communities, much of its ethos and rhetoric is about pushing beyond the body’s physical and mental limits: pain and fatigue become the price for glory. It’s really not difficult to overdo it.

Many of us put the act of physical training at the heart of our exercise regime.  After all, you can’t run a marathon by sitting still. You can’t prepare for the Worlds Strongest Man by focusing on yoga.  But repeated physical exertion and stress isn’t enough. Everyone from couch to 5K novices to professional road race cyclists should understand the importance of giving the body the chance to recover.

Is Overtraining the Same as Overreaching?

No.  Overreaching is a decline in performance that can be reversed within a couple of days.  With overreaching, you may notice that you’re beginning to feel tired or are unable to sleep well.  Your muscles might feel a little heavier even after a rest day. Symptoms may mirror overtraining but are less severe. You’re doing too much too quickly, and when you recognise this you can adapt your regime by slowing down and taking a day out of training.  Overreaching is relatively common.

Overtraining, however, is more serious.  The OmegaWave website illustrates the difference by suggesting we think of a traffic light.  Amber would be overreaching and overtraining would be red.

Should I be Concerned by Overtraining?

Most normal people who exercise regularly aren’t going to be affected by overtraining.  The body is highly adaptable and regular aerobic exercise and strength training are key factors in good health.  According to researchers, exercise makes us happier than money and hitting the gym regularly can help reduce the symptoms of mild depression.  If you’re just starting to exercise regularly, then you shouldn’t worry unduly about accidentally training beyond your endurance.  You should just be aware of the signs and strive to maintain a responsible schedule.  Exercise is so important for a healthy lifestyle that you shouldn’t be unduly concerned about the risks of OTS.


What Are the Symptoms of Overtraining?

There are a number of symptoms to overtraining worth being aware of.  If you recognise some of these, then it’s time to slow down, take a look at your exercise schedule and re-examine your nutritional intake.  Get a second opinion by asking someone you trust with experience and expertise to tell you honestly about whether you’re overreaching or overtraining.

  1. You feel tired and drained even before you start exercising.  You feel as if you don’t have the same amount of energy as you used to.

  2. Your heart rate is elevated throughout the day even when you’re resting, and you find that after exercise it takes longer for it to return to normal. Personal fitness trainer Scott Laidler writes in the Telegraph that During periods of overtraining, you’ll notice that your waking heart rate will be 10-15 beats per minute higher than usual.’

  3. You have little or no motivation to workout even though you enjoyed exercising before.  You feel apathetic and disinterested in the sport.  Even with this disinterest, however, it’s likely that you’ll still keep hitting the gym or track.

  4. Your performance is suffering.  You will still be training hard but notice that your endurance isn’t what it was.  Your form may be slipping, too. Response and reaction times are slower with little reason why.

  5. You may feel tired but are unable to sleep at night.

  6. You may notice you’re getting more colds and infections and it’s taking you longer to shake them off, too.

  7. You feel depressed or mentally run-down.  You may notice your mood souring for no reason.

  8. You may find that you regularly lose your appetite and aren’t eating as much.

  9. You find it difficult to quite your mind.  Overproduction of stress hormones can make relaxing difficult.  You may be frustrated by this.

  10. Your muscles will feel sore for prolonged periods —  much longer than they ever have in the past.

What If You’re Overtraining?

The Maximuscle website offers a simple and effective solution to overtraining: take a week off to let your body recover.  A week sounds like a really long time if you’ve been training hard enough to manifest symptoms of OTS, but you won’t suddenly lose everything you’ve worked for by slowing down.  It’s only 7-days. Once you’ve rested sufficiently then you can start exercising responsibly and effectively, increasing your performance without compromising your health.  If you’re feeling particularly run-down, then you might want to make an appointment with a healthcare professional.

How Can I Avoid the Symptoms of Overtraining?

You need to start listening to your body. We all expect a degree of pain, discomfort or fatigue post-workout but the symptoms of overtraining can not only affect your physical health and mental wellbeing but they will seriously undermine your performance and put you at an increased risk of injury.  When you can’t sleep or have persistent muscle soreness or when you’re appetite disappears, your body isn’t being weak — these are warning signs that you’re heading for something much worse so LISTEN to them.

Pushing through this discomfort—  especially if you have a competition or event coming up —  may seem tempting but you’re only putting your fitness in jeopardy.  It’ll take far longer to recover from the illnesses or injuries caused by OTS than it will to reduce your gym-time and settle yourself back into a more manageable routine.

Build-in rest periods for each muscle group.  Stop overworking the same ones thinking that you’ll get stronger or fitter faster.  You won’t.

Look at your training schedule to see if you’re doing too much too quickly.  You want gradual improvement and gains rather than sudden performance spikes.  You won’t know your body’s limits if you steam right through them. Triathlete.com advises its audience to train progressively by writing, ‘As a general rule, you should increase your weekly training volume by no more than 10 percent each week.  So if you train 10 hours this week, train no more than 11 hours next week.’

Make sure that you’re being responsible with your nutritional intake.  Get advice from professionals if you need to. Underfueling increases your risk of overtraining.

Build rest days into your schedule and use them.  You may think that your body is sitting idle but it isn’t.  There’s a lot going on inside you that you can’t see — you may be taking it easier but your muscles and tissue are recovering, rebuilding and getting stronger.

The Physical Therapy Advisor suggests using a foam roller as it can aid in recovery by using manipulation to increase blood flow to muscle tissue.

It can be all too easy to overtrain but no one is a machine. It’s vital that you approach intense exercise with an understanding of the importance of rest and recovery.  Without it, you won’t perform and compete at the levels you know you’re capable of.

Have you ever experienced overtraining and if so did you stop it in time?  Drop us a comment below. 

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