What Is It?
Overtraining syndrome (OTS), also known as burnout, is a condition which occurs when an athlete exceeds their body’s ability to recover from strenuous physical activity. The condition often leads to a long-lasting decline in athletic performance that can take several weeks or months to overcome.
OTS is often described as the physical and emotional stress of working too much or too hard without giving the body sufficient time to rest. It’s a condition that’s particularly common among elite athletes who regularly push their body to the limit in preparation for a competition or an important event.
There are thought to be different variations of OTS, with two particular types more prominent than others. Firstly, the chronic overwork training as touched upon above. Secondly, monotonous program overtraining where repetition of the same movement firstly results in a plateau of performance, and then subsequently, physical and mental burnout.
This guide will take an in-depth look at some of the common warning signs of overtraining, as well as the methods which can be used to prevent, treat, and overcome the syndrome.
Overtraining Warning Signs
There are a number of different warning signs that may suggest you’re overtraining. These indicators are important to look out for, because if detected early, the effects of the syndrome can be significantly reduced. Below, we’ll take a closer look at nine of the most common signs of OTS.
1). Soreness and Pain
Consistently pushing yourself beyond your physical limits during training will eventually take its toll on your body, leading to muscle pain and soreness. It’s also likely that you’ll experience microtears in your muscles. Extended muscle soreness and pain that doesn’t subside is another sign of OTS. Many athletes guilty of overtraining are susceptible to chronic injuries or niggling pain that lingers for a long period of time.
2). Decreased Appetite and Weight Loss
The vast majority of the time, working out will lead to a healthy appetite. However, overtraining can often cause hormonal imbalances which influence how hungry or how full you feel. This usually results in a decreased appetite and notable weight loss - both of which aren’t healthy signs.
3). Overuse Injuries
An overuse injury is a type of muscle or joint injury that’s caused by repetitive trauma. For example, running too often can lead to overuse injuries such as shin splints or stress fractures. If you feel that you’re suffering from an overuse injury, it’s important to take a break from training to allow your body time to heal.
4). Performance Decline
You may think that the more you train, the better and fitter you’ll become, but overtraining can cause performance to plateau or decrease rather than improve. Levels of endurance, strength, and agility can all suffer, making it significantly more difficult to reach your training goals.
Everyone feels a little tired after a heavy workout or an intense training session, but proper fatigue occurs when the body consistently doesn’t have enough time to recover after exercise. Fatigue will leave you feeling excessively drained - both physically and emotionally.
Fatigue can also manifest itself when you repeatedly fail to fuel your body before training. Without proper fuel, your body is forced to use its carbohydrate, protein, and fat reserves for producing energy.
6). Loss of Enthusiasm and Motivation
If you’re finding it difficult to motivate yourself before training, and feel a distinct lack of enthusiasm whilst you’re working out, this could be a sign of OTS. These feelings often stem from other problems such as mental exhaustion or failing to achieve training goals.
As mentioned earlier, overtraining can affect your hormone levels, in particular stress hormones. This can often lead to feelings of depression, uncertainty and restlessness. You may also be susceptible to mood changes and a general lack of enthusiasm.
8). Lower Immunity
Not only can you feel run-down from overtraining, you may also have a reduced immunity. This will make you more prone to mild illnesses such as colds and sore throats, as well as other infections around the body.
9). Trouble Sleeping
With stress hormones out of balance, it’s often difficult to relax and let go of any built-up tension at bedtime. This may directly impact the time your body needs to rest and restore itself during sleep. Moreover, a lack of quality sleep can result in mood changes and chronic fatigue.
Overtraining vs Overreaching
It’s important to note the difference between overtraining and the issue of overreaching. Overreaching is when an athlete trains hard and long but with adequate recovery, whereas overtraining is an athlete working just as hard without the required recovery time. With overreaching, any consequential drop-off in performance is less of a problem, and can usually be resolved in a few days or a couple of weeks.
How To Prevent Overtraining
It’s never easy to predict whether you’re at risk for overtraining because every athlete will typically respond differently to various training routines. Some may feel worn out after a couple of intense sessions, whereas others have bags of energy to expend and have to be dragged out of the gym.
It’s important for all athletes, however, to vary their training as much as possible and schedule in adequate time for rest. It’s also recommended that you objectively measure your training and workouts, so you can make subtle adjustments when needed, to avoid injury.
The best method of preventing OTS is to ensure that you give yourself plenty of recovery time in your training routines. Needless to say, the more rest you give your body, the better it’ll be able to function over longer periods of time.
It’s essential to schedule regular rest days after long and gruelling workouts. If you do a lot of work with weights, make sure you don’t target a particular muscle group too frequently - it’s more beneficial to take at least a day’s break in between. Despite this, it’s also worth noting not to overcompensate and give yourself too much time between workout sessions.
In addition to scheduling rest periods after a workout, it’s also useful to have rest periods during a session. These can be scheduled into most training sessions and provide an opportunity to reduce the volume and intensity of the workout if needed. Most rest intervals tend to be anywhere from 30 seconds up to a few minutes.
On your days of recovery, it’s often tempting to sit in front of the TV and relax all day. While this is more than acceptable some of the time, active rest days that include low impact activities such as walking or swimming are far more beneficial. Activities such as these will relieve muscle tightness and help you stay active whilst recovering from a strenuous session.
Relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation are also great for preventing OTS, as they help to balance stress levels.
Varying your workouts is one of the most effective ways to prevent yourself from overtraining. Whether this is a gradual variation of the intensity and volume of your sessions, or instead making them more enjoyable and interesting, variation provides numerous benefits.
Keeping track of your workouts in a training log is a good way to note down how you’re feeling each day before and after training sessions. It may seem like a waste of time at first, but it’s a useful method of noticing any potential downward trends in performance or decreased levels of enthusiasm and motivation you may be experiencing.
In order to sustain and fuel your workouts, a well-balanced diet is essential. Feeling low on energy is a common sign of OTS, so to prevent this from happening, it’s important to add more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables to your diet.
These are essential power foods for combatting possible overtraining, as they provide high quantities of many of the vitamins and minerals necessary for effective muscle repair. Carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats are also important for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Best Treatments for Overtraining
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, there are a number of treatments that can help offset OTS. Below we’ll take a look at four of the most common methods. If you’ve tried similar methods and haven’t noticed any improvements within a week or two, it’s best to consult with your doctor or a healthcare professional.
Deep-tissue or sports massage is an excellent method of relieving muscle tension and reducing the likelihood of injury. It’s also effective at improving delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you’d prefer not to have a professional massage, you can try self-massage using essential oils on the affected muscles.
Drinking plenty of fluids is another effective treatment for OTS. Not only will it keep you properly hydrated which is essential for muscle recovery, it also flushes toxins out of the body and transports vital nutrients into the cells, making sure your general health doesn’t suffer from the condition.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Some of the most common methods of hot therapy include saunas, heating pads, and hot baths. These types of therapy are used mainly to soothe aching muscles and improve blood circulation. On the other hand, cold therapy methods such as ice baths or an ice pack can treat the pain and swelling of muscles.
Most research shows that getting rest is the primary treatment plan for OTS. Taking a complete break from training and competition for a set period of time allows the body time to heal and recover like no other treatment. The length of this period depends on the sport and the athlete, but it usually ranges from four to 12 weeks.
Seeing a Doctor
If you have any concerns about symptoms that you’re experiencing such as muscle soreness that lasts longer than 24 hours, it’s always a good idea to seek some professional advice.
Also, if the effect of overtraining isn’t only impacting your athletic ability, but also other areas of your life such as work and socializing with friends, it’s important to talk to your doctor.
They’ll be able to help you come up with a suitable and realistic training program that balances your workouts with an adequate amount of rest and recovery. This is essential if OTS is affecting other areas of your life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is weight gain a sign of OTS?
Excessive exercise without enough rest in between can lead to reduced testosterone levels and increased levels of cortisone, the stress hormone. These significant hormonal changes are often linked to weight gain and excess belly fat.
How many rest days should you have a week?
As a general rule, it’s recommended to have a rest day every three to five days. However, this often depends on the intensity and frequency of your training routine. If your sessions typically involve vigorous activity that pushes your body to its physical limit, then you’ll need more rest days in order to give your body time to sufficiently recover.
While excessive training may seem like a good idea in principle for faster fitness gains, overtraining will eventually take its toll on your body, proving detrimental to any long-term fitness goals you may have.
Now that you’re aware of many of the warning signs and symptoms of OTS, making informed decisions and adopting some of the prevention methods is hopefully something that you’ll incorporate into your training routines for healthy fitness gains.