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7 Possible Causes of Overtraining

Conducting primary research studies on the causes of overtraining is difficult because it’s unethical to induce overtraining syndrome, which can damage a person’s performance for months. Kreher and Schwartz (2012) reviewed previously published overtraining research and summarized seven hypotheses (see Figure 5) for mechanisms that cause overtraining syndrome.


This represents an imbalance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, which directly impacts HRV. In overtrained athletes, decreased HRV on waking may disrupt normal modulation of the autonomic nervous system. Balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic forces may be restored after a week of rest (Pichot et al. 2002).


Excessive oxidative stress leads to muscle damage and muscle fatigue. Oxidative stress is a disruption in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (like free radicals) and antioxidant defenses in the cells that neutralize free-radical buildup. Skeletal muscle is the body’s largest consumer of oxygen and is vulnerable to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can cause damage to mitochondrial proteins, cell membranes and even DNA (Sayer et al. 2013).


Low levels of muscle glycogen may impair performance if a person’s diet is inadequate for the amount of exercise they are performing. Kreher and Schwartz (2012) say some research suggests that glycogen depletion can alter the synthesis of central neurotransmitters involved in fatigue.


Overtraining often disrupts mood, sleep and behavior. The central fatigue hypothesis proposes that the central nervous system is not providing adequate drive to recruited working muscles. Kreher and Schwartz (2012) say central fatigue results from numerous physiological changes, including increases in brain levels of tryptophan (an essential amino acid involved in protein biosynthesis), decreased branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) concentrations, and increased synthesis of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) in the brain.


Glutamine is important for immune function. Glutamine also plays a role in DNA synthesis, acid-base balance, and gluconeogenesis—making new glucose or energy for exercise. Low plasma glutamine concentrations have been reported in overtrained individuals (Halson & Jeukendrup 2004).


The increased inflammation or cytokine hypothesis suggests that overtraining syndrome is a physiological adaptation or maladaptation to excess stress initiated by an imbalance between training and recovery (Smith 2000). Those who train at a very intense level for long periods of time without adequate rest may enter a state of chronic inflammation with high levels of cytokines. This chronic inflammation has been highly correlated with overtraining syndrome (Smith 2000).


Kreher and Schwartz (2012) summarize several studies indicating that cortisol, testosterone and other hormones regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axes may be altered when clients (especially endurance exercise clients) are overtraining.

Figure 5

For more information about 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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