What to Know About Overtraining

Medically Reviewed by Ross Brakeville, DPT on June 18, 2023
4 min read

As an athlete, training is probably a part of your daily life. You work hard to stay in shape, as well as build endurance and strength. Despite your hard work, you may notice that you’re actually performing worse instead of better. This is called overtraining.

While exercise is generally good for you, too much exercise can be strenuous on your body. Exercise has a “dose-response relationship,” meaning the more you work out, the better your performance will be, to a point. When you reach a certain point, you’re doing your body harm, and you’re not getting the normal benefits of exercise.

The limit where your performance starts declining from exercise instead of improving is called overtraining syndrome (OTS) or burnout. You can reach the point of overtraining by exercising too much without enough recovery time between workouts. You can also reach this limit by not properly fueling your body with the calories and nutrients it needs.

The first phase of OTS is called overreaching. This is when you feel muscle soreness that’s more intense than unusual, but you push through and train without resting. You can experience overreaching after several consecutive days of hard workouts. Past this point, you will begin to experience overtraining syndrome as you train without resting.

Many athletes take this decline in performance as a reason to train harder. Continuing to work out while your body goes through OTS will only do more damage to your body and make your necessary recovery time longer. Letting your body properly recover from overtraining could take weeks or months of rest without training.

There are several signs of overtraining. OTS can affect both your physical and mental health, along with your overall well-being.

Exercise-related symptoms. You may experience symptoms of overtraining that are directly related to exercise, including:

  • Increased muscle soreness that gets worse the more you train
  • A plateau or decline in athletic performance
  • Inability to train at the level you usually do
  • Excessive sweating and overheating
  • Feeling like your muscles are heavy or stiff, especially your legs
  • Injuries that keep coming back, like muscle sprains, stress fractures, and joint pain
  • Loss of enthusiasm for exercise, or feeling like you want to skip your workouts altogether

Health-related symptoms. Other symptoms of overtraining can affect your health. Some signs to look out for include:

  • Repeated illnesses, like colds or respiratory infections
  • Increase in blood pressure or resting heart rate
  • Changes in skin, hair, and nails that make you appear unwell
  • Digestive issues, like diarrhea or constipation
  • Irregular menstrual cycles or loss of menstruation completely
  • Sudden weight loss, loss of appetite, or disordered eating

Lifestyle-related symptoms. Symptoms of OTS can affect other aspects of your life. These symptoms include:

  • Persistent fatigue, exhaustion, or low levels of energy
  • Poor sleep or insomnia caused by not being able to relax
  • Decreased motivation or self-esteem
  • Signs of depression, like loss of enjoyment in activities or moodiness
  • Increased feelings of anger or confusion
  • Inability to concentrate, which affects your performance at work or school

The main ingredient to recovery from overtraining is rest. This means that you need to limit or even stop training for a determined period of time. The time will vary depending on the sport and the level of activity, but most recovery takes between 4 to 12 weeks.

As you recover from overtraining, you can still do a bit of low-intensity aerobic exercise to keep fit and healthy while not doing your normal workouts. These should be short-interval workouts that are not related to the sport that you normally train for. Once your symptoms have completely gone away, you will be ready to ease back into a training schedule.

Your doctor and coach can help you determine when to get back to training and create guidelines for you. Getting back into training will be a slow process because you don’t want to push your body too hard. A good recommendation is to start at 50% of your normal training load and add on 10% more work each week.

There are steps you can take to prevent overtraining. The most important way is to get proper rest. This can inlcude taking at least one day off from physical activity each week to let your body recover. Athletes may benefit from time off each year from sports to allow for rest and recovery from sports-related injuries.

It’s important to take cues from your body. Keeping a training log with your workouts and how you feel afterward can help you realize when to slow down. You shouldn’t try to exercise through pain just because you feel guilty about missing a day.

Nutrition can also play an important role in preventing OTS. Make sure that you’re eating a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates and protein to help fuel and repair your muscles. Your calorie intake should also be high enough to match what you burn off during training. Also, you should drink at least eight glasses of water per day to stay hydrated.