Overtraining Syndrome: The Effects of Excessive Exercise on Your Health
So you’re a devoted exerciser who is always hitting the gym hard, passionately pursuing your weight training goals. Or maybe you’re a runner or cyclist logging hour after hour of training as you attempt to better your times. You may LOVE exercising; you’re used to exercise giving you more energy, finishing your workouts triumphantly and then benefiting from your energized state for the remainder of your day.
But something is changing. You notice your workouts are leaving you with less energy than usual. Your performance seems to be lagging when you thought you were on a great track. You may be feeling physically fatigued and emotionally drained for no reason you can think of, among other symptoms such as decreased appetite and changes in sex drive. You may notice these symptoms cropping up all of a sudden, or you may notice a slow creep over days, weeks, or months.
The underlying problem may be overtraining syndrome, affecting many exercisers and athletes who push themselves hard. While it’s great to zealously pursue your fitness goals and you should be congratulated for that, you need to make sure you’re not actually going overboard. Overtraining causes many physiological and psychological issues while increasing your risk of injury through entering the cumulative injury cycle.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
The National Academy of Sports Medicine defines overtraining simply as “training beyond the body’s ability to recover.” More common names for overtraining syndrome include “burnout” and “staleness”.
We all know that we need to push ourselves hard to achieve greatness. Gains in fitness are made by the body adapting to the progressive levels of stress we put ourselves though during exercise. The body needs a challenge to continue adapting to higher levels of fitness, but prolonged stress on the body without adequate care leads to breakdown and injury. This breakdown of the body from excessive exercise is referred to as overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining is different from feeling tired after a hard workout, being sore after increasing exercise volume, or day to day fluctuations in athletic performance. Overtraining syndrome is a more serious issue and is more difficult to resolve.
Causes of Overtraining Syndrome
Excessive exercise without adequate rest and self-care will result in overtraining. An important fact to remember at all times is that the body adapts and improves in the rest periods between workouts. If you don’t allow adequate time to rest and recover, your body won’t be able to adapt and improve.
Remember that everyone’s genetics and fitness levels are different, and the level of exercise that causes one person to develop overtraining syndrome may leave another unscathed.
That being said, you may be a super fit person accustomed to high levels of demanding exercise. You think you’re doing great, but overtraining can catch up with you anyway. Don’t assume you’re immune. Take good care of yourself and take a step back if you begin to notice certain things taking a turn for the worse.
Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome
Keep an eye out for the following signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome:
- Fatigue, physical and/or emotional
- Decrease in performance
- Sleep issues
- Changes in sex drive
- Decreased appetite
- Mood disturbances
- Getting sick more often
- Changes in heart rate during your normal exercise activities
If you are a devoted exerciser and you experience any of these signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome, you may be overdoing it. If symptoms are severe, you should see your doctor right away. Other conditions such as certain illness and depression can mimic symptoms of overtraining syndrome.
How to Prevent Overtraining Syndrome
Of course, the best thing you can do is prevent overtraining from developing in the first place!
The following tips will help you prevent overtraining syndrome:
- Allow yourself adequate rest and recovery time. Take at least one day a week completely away from fitness. You can still be active during recovery days; for example, take walks and stretch instead of running or weight training.
- Use a periodization model when designing your exercise routine. Periodization basically means cycling though periods of lower intensity and higher intensity. Periodization also has the added benefit of preventing and breaking plateaus in fitness gains.
- Keep track of your workouts by using an exercise journal or workout log. Record such details as exercises performed, volume, and intensity, along with subjective factors such as how hard the workout felt, and levels of muscle soreness and fatigue. That way, you can track your progress, keeping tabs on when it’s time to change up the routine. You’ll also be able to track any overtraining patterns.
Treatment for Overtraining Syndrome
At this point, you may be thinking, “Great, I wish I would have prevented overtraining like you say, but I’m smack dab in the middle of the symptom set, so now what?” The good news is that overtraining syndrome usually resolves on its own if you take steps to adjust your behavior.
The main treatment for overtraining syndrome is rest and recuperation. This is probably intuitively true to you. The more severe the overtraining symptoms, the longer the rest period needed. Nip it in the bud by knowing the symptoms and keeping a watchful eye on your body.
If you start to notice symptoms, start treatment right away. Rest from your usual routine and see how you feel. Either completely step back from fitness for a few days, or do only light activities such as yoga, walking, or gentle swimming. Don’t begin heavy training again until you’re feeling better. This may take days, weeks, or even months in severe cases. Your recovery period will be longer based on how long you’ve been overtraining.
If symptoms of overtraining are severe, or if milder symptoms don’t resolve with rest, see your doctor right away.
A Word on Exercise Addiction
Exercise can become an addiction. People addicted to exercise are at high risk for overtraining syndrome. Exercise addiction can be hard to track, since on the one hand, exercise is objectively healthy, and is endorsed by our culture as a positive activity, in contrast to most other addictions!
You may justify an exercise addiction to yourself by minimizing it, saying “There are worse things I could be addicted to,” or ignoring it altogether, continuing to push yourself beyond what is healthy. Exercise addiction plays out the same as any other addiction: you pursue your addiction at the expense of everything else in life, sacrificing relationships, career and your long-term health and well-being.
Signs of exercise addiction can include always working out alone, always following the same rigid pattern, fixating on weight loss or obsessively counting calories, skipping out on other obligations such as work, class, or family/friends to exercise, and feelings of guilt and anxiety if you miss a workout.
Remember that if you are addicted to exercise, you’re not alone. Exercise addiction is more common than many realize, and help is available. If you suspect you might be addicted to exercise, ask for help from your doctor or a mental health professional such as a counselor.
The Bottom Line
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”; the old saying holds especially true with regard to overtraining syndrome. Prevent the nasty symptoms of overtraining syndrome while maximizing your fitness gains by mindfully building time for rest and recovery into your exercise schedule. What’s your experience with overtraining? Let us know in the comments below!
1. Clark, M.A., Lucett, S.C., and Sutton, B.G., (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2. Williams, M., and Jenkins, H.E. (2013). Exercise addiction. Brain Physics, http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php
3. Jenkins, M. (1998). Overtraining syndrome. SportsMedWeb, http://www.rice.edu/~jenky/physiol.html