All About Overtraining

by Trisha VanDusseldorp, MS and Len Kravitz, PhD on Jan 21, 2015

Personal trainers regularly monitor clients' physiological and psychological responses to progressive overloads during a training program. After sufficient recovery from training fatigue, the body compensates by building strength and improving performance. However, chronic overtraining often leads to physiological and psychological symptoms that impair performance and delay full recovery for weeks or more (Meeusen et al. 2013).

The phenomenon of overtraining syndrome, often called "burnout" or "staleness," has motivated many researchers to investigate its causes and consequences. First, researchers have had to decide on a common title—in the past, OTS was called "underperformance syndrome" and "sports fatigue syndrome" (Armstrong & VanHeest 2002). To provide both researchers and practitioners with standard language, Meeusen et al. (2013) recently proposed the following terminologies and definitions:

  • Overtraining is a process of intensified training leading to possible short-term outcomes of overreaching (called functional overreaching), extreme overreaching (called nonfunctional overreaching) or overtraining syndrome.
  • Functional overreaching is a short period of increased training leading to a temporary performance decline. With satisfactory recovery, overreaching can lead to what Meeusen et al. (2013) call a "supercompensation" effect of enhanced performance.
  • Nonfunctional overreaching is a longer process of intense training leading to stagnation and sustained performance decline that can last weeks or months (Meeusen et al. 2013). However, full recovery happens after satisfactory rest.
  • Overtraining syndrome is a "prolonged maladaptation" that disrupts hormonal, biological and neurological regulatory mechanisms; these physiological consequences are accompanied by mood disturbances (Meeusen et al. 2013). Uniquely, Armstrong and VanHeest (2002) observe that OTS and clinical depression involve remarkably similar signs and symptoms, brain structures, neurotransmitters, endocrine pathways and immune responses.

What Overtraining Looks Like

A plethora of research has focused on identifying and assessing the physiological and psychological changes associated with overtraining, but not all studies measure the same variables, and those that do don't always find the same results.

It is therefore important to note that no single overtraining marker or group of overtraining markers has been identified as essential for a positive diagnosis of overtraining (Meeusen et al. 2013). Initially, there is some decline in performance. Additionally, several other signs and symptoms are commonly associated with overtraining:

  • insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • persistent fatigue and apathy
  • disrupted heart rate variability
  • stress, irritability and restlessness
  • lack of mental concentration
  • change in appetite
  • persistent muscle soreness
  • loss of body mass

How to Prevent Overtraining Syndrome

Exercise professionals must remember that the underlying causes of overtraining are not fully understood. Meeusen and colleagues (2013) suggest that personal trainers and coaches must first try to exclude organic disease as the cause of declining performance. Possibilities include allergies, anemia, infectious diseases, eating disorders, adult-onset asthma, cardiovascular system conditions, diabetes, thyroid problems, adrenal gland problems and any biological abnormalities. Exercise professionals may need to encourage clients to see a doctor to rule out any of these illnesses. Also, Meeusen et al. (2013) emphasize that athletes require adequate rest and sufficient sleep. The absence of one full passive recovery day each week (during intensified training) is closely related to the signs of overtraining, according to these authors.

10 Ways to Prevent or Combat Overtraining in a Client

A client who develops overtraining syndrome needs to return to a healthy state as fast as possible. While there is no magic cure for overtraining, these 10 preventive strategies for nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining syndrome, from Kreher and Schwartz (2012), should prove helpful:

  1. Education the client. Emphasize that enhanced recovery will allow the client to train more and improve his or her overall fitness.
  2. Incorporate periodization training, which provides for planned recovery and variation in intensity and volume.

For more ways to prevent overtraining, plus a much wider discussion of the topic and a full reference list, please see "Heart Rate Variability & Overtraining" in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Authors

Trisha VanDusseldorp, MS

Trisha VanDusseldorp, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD

Len Kravitz, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he recently won the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. Len was also honored as the 2006 Fitness Educator of the Year by the American Council on Exercise.