overtraining

Overtraining: 10 Warning Signs and How to Fix It

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Endurance athletes are a stoic bunch. Unfortunately, your ability and willingness to absorb hours of training, strenuous workouts, and the fatigue that comes with them can make endurance athletes less likely to recognize (and slower to accept) the symptoms of overtraining. Here’s what you need to look for and what you need to know about recovery from overtraining.

What is Overtraining?

Sports scientists and coaches have varying ways to refer to what most athletes call ‘overtraining’. Some call it ‘overtraining syndrome’, which is a good because it recognizes that the causes of overtraining are multifactorial.

Some refer to it as “under recovery” to highlight that it is an imbalance between training stress and recovery. You don’t have to be training excessively to suffer the symptoms of overtraining. For Time-Crunched Athletes it can be difficult to accumulate an excessive amount of workload. However, busy lifestyles, high-stress jobs, and poor nutrition can hinder recovery to the point they show signs of overtraining.

For the purposes of this article I’m using the term ‘overtraining’ because it’s what most athletes recognize.

Who Suffers from Overtraining?

Overtraining is not just a problem for highly-trained athletes or athletes who train 20 hours a week. The imbalance between stress and recovery can happen to athletes of any fitness or training level. The less fit you are as an athlete – either because you’re new to the sport or your training level is low – the lower your threshold for reaching an overtrained state. You have less capacity to absorb the physical demands, so the dysfunction happens sooner.

A rapid increase in training workload is a frequent cause of overtraining for novices or people who are starting with less fitness. Experienced athletes can also trigger overtraining symptoms by doing too much too soon. This often happens in the spring when warm weather, longer days, and event goals boost enthusiasm and commitment.

Athletes who are accustomed to a high training workload have a higher threshold to reach before suffering the symptoms of overtraining. Experienced or very fit athletes more often get into an overtraining situation because of prolonged period of training with insufficient rest and/or disruptions in their recovery habits (lifestyle/job stress, dietary changes, disrupted sleep, etc.)

Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining

Overtraining does not have a single cause, but rather, results from a constellation of factors. It also does not happen overnight. You don’t go from being fine to being overtrained in a week. It requires a prolonged period of imbalance. Here’s what to look for:

Diminished acute performance

It’s not just a background feeling of being tired and unable to recover. Your workouts are a mess. You’re not hitting your targets for intervals and you’re quitting intervals early. You feel sluggish and heavy, and it takes longer to recover hard efforts.

Stalled progress

The relationship between workload and recovery is dysfunctional and your acute workout performance is diminished, so the conditions for positive training adaptations no longer exist. You’re in quicksand. You’re working hard, but the longer you continue to struggle the deeper you sink.

Erratic waking heart rate

Tracking morning heart rate, bodyweight, and mood is a common way to look for signs of overtraining. Occasional changes that go away within one or two days are pretty normal, but significant changes in any of them, and particularly two or more, over at least a 5-day period are cause for further investigation. For waking heart rate, look for a +/- 7-10 beats per minute change from baseline.

Low Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability is another measure we use to see how an athlete is handling their training load. Using a heart rate monitor with the appropriate features, HRV measures the variability in the times between heartbeats. Higher variability is a sign your autonomic nervous system is reacting to changes in stimuli quickly, which is what you want. Lower variability is a sign your nervous system is fatigued and not responding to stimuli as well as it could. If you plan on using HRV, it is important to measure HRV consistently and immediately upon waking, as you need a baseline level to compare against. For more information, here’s an in-depth article on HRV from Corrine Malcolm.

Emotional volatility

Some people cry more than usual, others snap at their spouses and coworkers, but increased emotional volatility can be a sign of overtraining. It’s a matter of amplitude, not the specific emotion. Your emotional responses are disproportionate for the situation, particularly compared to how you normally respond.

Reduced sex drive

It seems pretty logical that you’d be less interested in sex when you’re exhausted, and research has shown that increased training intensity and duration can have a negative affect on libido – for men and women. Some of this may be due to hormonal changes, including the increase in stress hormone cortisol.

High perceived exertion

Not only will your power outputs be lower, but you’ll also feel like it’s more difficult than normal to produce those diminished results. This can be a sign of acute fatigue that’s perfectly normal during a training program. You’ll often see it the day after a particularly hard workout, or at the end of training blocks. The key difference is that it normally goes back to normal within a few days, or even a single day. When the mismatch between performance and perceived exertion is prolonged, it’s a cause for concern.

Along with higher-than-normal perceived exertion, heart rate is often less responsive to changes in intensity level during workouts. It takes longer and feels like it requires more effort for an athlete to get heart rate to rise. Following an interval or hard effort, it also takes longer for the athletes heart rate to come back down.

Lethargy/Low motivation

You may be overtrained when you get to the point where every day it’s a struggle to get out the door for a ride, you find more excuses to delay or skip rides, you’re bored with training, and you just don’t want to do it anymore. Again, this can happen every once in a while during normal training, but prolonged feelings of lethargy and low motivation are indicative of a problem.

Trouble sleeping

While you would think that a big mismatch between workload and rest would make it easy to sleep, the opposite is often true. Insomnia, disrupted sleep, or just less restful sleep are all symptoms of overtraining. New sleep tracking apps can be helpful for monitoring your sleep behaviors, like how often you stir and how long you stay in different levels of sleep.

Illness/Injury

Your immune system and your body are taking too much of a beating and not getting enough time or support to recover. An athlete who is overtrained may experience frequent illnesses and illnesses that take longer than normal to go away. You may also be more susceptible to both overuse and acute injuries and are more likely to start getting a series of nagging injuries.

How to Recover from Overtraining

Living and training in an overtrained state is a pretty miserable experience. Recovery from overtraining takes time and patience, but you can get your training back on track. Here’s what to do about it.

Rest

Obvious, yes, but the unwillingness or inability to recognize the need for rest is how you got here in the first place. You’ve been digging a deep hole, and the first step for recovery from overtraining is to stop digging. Hang up your bike for a while, because riding it isn’t helping you feel or perform better.

How long will you have to completely rest? It is different for everyone, but I think one key milestone is when your lifestyle symptoms have gone away. When your emotional volatility, sleep, sex drive, and overall energy level for your life, your partner, and your job improve, you’re headed in the right direction.

More directly related to training, your morning heart rate should be consistently back to normal and you should feel rested and eager to ride again. Your enthusiasm for your goals should be strong again (or find a new goal). When you do return to training, your response to training should be back to normal: perceived exertion matches workload, heart rate rises normally with hard efforts and comes back down quickly afterward, etc.

Address work/rest balance for future training

You ended up overtrained due to a combination of problems with your training program and your lifestyle. Before you start training again, examine your program or talk to a coach who can help you adjust your workload. Be realistic about the amount of rest you will be able to get with the other priorities in your life. If your sleep hygiene is poor, fix it so you get more and better sleep. If there are career or family stresses that can be addressed and resolved, now is a good time to do that. Fixing these problems is important because otherwise, these aspects of your lifestyle increase your chance of experiencing overtraining again soon.

Tune up your diet

Consistently failing to consume enough energy to meet your energy needs contributes to overtraining. Part of your recovery from overtraining should include eating more to give your body what it needs to recover and adapt. The quality of your diet is also important. This is a time to focus on eating fresh, whole foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a balance of carbohydrate, fat, and protein.

It’s also a time to look at your overall dietary strategy. Does the way you eat and your food choices adequately support your training goals? If you have been restricting a particular macronutrient for a perceived performance benefit, it’s time to re-evaluate its effectiveness.

Fortunately, most athletes never end up in a significant period of overtraining. Short-term fatigue or a few weeks of training too hard is common and easily remedied by a week or two of rest. But if you have been dealing with the signs and symptoms above for several weeks or a few months, it’s time to take action and kickstart your recovery from overtraining.

By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 28

  1. Pingback: Training Burnout: Prevention, recovery, and how it's different from Overtraining - CTS

  2. Hi, interestingly you don’t mention Sally Edward’s method. In her book she recommended monitoring you morning heart rate, before getting out of bed. If your resting heart rate is elevated then rest. And in the 1990’s that was counting your pulse. With todays watches it is so simple.

    This is also a great way to forestall an illness. If the RHR is high and you have not been training, you may be getting sick. I have also used it to go workout, if I ‘feel’ tired but the RHR is low, then it’s just that Resistance demon in my head and ‘Bla Bla Bla Go Workout’.

  3. Pingback: 8 oorzaken (en oplossingen) van chronische vermoeidheid - Dagelijksvoormannen

  4. Great article. I also had what felt like a very sudden shift from things going great (workouts improving, high libido) to complete disaster (waking wide awake in middle of night, unable to walk 20 minutes). For me, so many factors could have played a role, it’s hard to tease out what the primary one was–in the workout that put me over the edge, a congenital hip issue (will need a replacement) caused more pain than normal, I had sinusitis, then after workout ate some seafood that was a little off.
    What’s worrying is that 5 weeks later, I’m still not back to normal (25% slower at same perceived effort). The only thing I could imagine is it’s Covid (?)

    1. I could have wrote this comment. I had a stellar summer of training and then I got tired, then I got headaches, then the sinusitis that went to an infection. I’m still fatigued and my training is awful. I can’t do anything near the power I had two months ago.

      1. How are you two guys doing right now? Everything back to normal?
        I would be highly interested in getting to know more about your OT-history, since I am currently dealing with my own recovery…
        If you already managed to heal yourself, would there be any experiences or tips you could share with me?
        I guess everyone’s OT-story and recovery is different, but it is still very refreshing to hear about people who suffered from similiar symptoms.

  5. Thank you for this article and to all the people who have replied. It is very helpful to see what others have experienced. I think I am struggling with OTS. I have been training from marathon to ultra to triathlon to extreme triathlon for the last 6 years. I have not really stepped back to look at what I’ve been doing or where I’m going with it. Recently I have been getting slower and slower and finding my heart rate is going up when i’m simply walking. I also fell and hit my face, hands knees etc while I was running and I think it was due to tiredness and hunger. I think that gradually I have been increasing my training load and not my calories and despite doing more and eating less I have been putting on weight, it is a vicious cycle. I really to struggle to find the right balance. I am a personal trainer, but despite knowing what I should be doing it is much harder to implement it. I think, having read all this I will compromise by stopping the higher impact exercise for now and focus on yoga and swimming, this way I can still feel like i’m doing something. I would be most grateful for any advice.

  6. Where do I begin? W-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-y back in 2000, at age 46, I did a cross-country ride with the good folks at PacTour. I put in over 7,000 training miles between February and the event in September, including quite a few hours in an altitude chamber. All this while holding down a full-time job (since I was doing the ride as a fund-raiser for my company’s charitable foundation, they were very accommodating). The ride went well and I don’t think I’ve ever been in better shape.

    My riding became pretty sporadic in the intervening years and hit a major snag in ’06 when I developed a close-to-100 percent blockage in my lower descending coronary artery (aka “the widowmaker”). After getting roto-rootered out, I resumed riding but at a much more leisurely pace and relaxed schedule.

    My work changed quite a bit and I pretty much fell out of shape, mainly due to laziness, lack of motivation and the arrival of the GrandDroids ™. The bike gathered some dust, as did I until well after I (was) “retired” in 2011.

    In January of 2016, 279 weeks ago, I embarked on a weight-training program and have continued at a minimum of four sessions per week since then, not missing a week nor a session (1,160 of ’em). This past January, I hopped on the Spinner, modestly starting to train in anticipation of another long-distance PacTour ride in 2022.

    I started outdoors on March ninth and have accumulated just under 1,000 miles as of today (May 21). I’ve rediscovered the fun that goes along with riding in the Cleveland MetroParks along with the frustration of dealing with meathead drivers…no, they haven’t improved discernably since my training days in ’00.

    Having said all that, I’m finding that, at age 67, it takes longer to recover (no surprise there). Even though I still lift (albeit at reduced weight) four times a week and ride four to six times weekly, I don’t feel I’ve drifted into overtraining as I don’t really fall into any of the categories listed above. However…

    Ever since I started outdoors, my thighs and quads absolutely refuse to bounce back. It doesn’t matter how far/long I ride, the heaviness is always there…before/during/after…and has been since I started. It’s reached the point where sometimes I have to stop for a second at the top of the stairs, just to let the feeling pass. No shortness of breath, no instability or balance issues, just utter, total and unremitting exhaustion from my hips to my knees. Nowhere else in my body, just there.

    My question is this: can there just one section of the body be overtrained? Aerobically I’m not bad, I’m pretty strong and mentally sharp…not bad for an old man…just crushed in that area. What’s up with that?

    Sorry to have gone on so long.

    Great article, one of many that have re-ignited my interest in being on two wheels again…keep up the good work…and no matter how tired these old getaway sticks might be…

    Rock On!!!

    Jeff Sipos
    Strongsville, Ohio
    John 16:33

  7. Been there a couple of times and it really sucks. My son in law who coaches cross country told me you can’t over-train, you just under-rest… the diet info and stretching/yoga on the off days are welcome suggestions.
    Tnx Chris for the excellent articles.

  8. Had struggled with OTS for 7 years, 2013 (summer) to 2020. Was a pretty competitive ultrarunner, definitely overdoing, plus the perfect storm of increase of work load, a few huge personal negative changes, menopause, and the last 2 added a complete lack of sleep. Literally, after my last 100 miler, having run it as one of my best, a couple of months later I couldn’t run a mile, getting winded and exhausted. That lasted, on and off, for so long, I gave up ideas of “running free”, though I technically never gave up running (and walking, and hiking) as my morning routine and therapy. Last year it was suddenly on the rise. Now, I’ll never hit the pace (I did get 7-8 years older and in full menopause now with lack of hormonal support) I ran, lost lots of technical skills on the downhill parts, and will not even attempt the weekly miles I felt comfortable doing when in training for an event. But, more days than not, I can run “free”, run long, and faster than any good stretch in the previous OTS years. Maybe moving to COS has something to do with it:) But indeed, I wish I could reverse all those years, as I missed on a lot of good running I could still put. Now, I am back signing up for races, and finding my new space in the field. Lucky for me, I still love it a whole lot.

  9. Take heed to this advice. I think I heard Ned Overend say, I can still train hard but it takes me twice as long to recover, and thats super human Ned! The last 5 years I found some of the best fitness and I can remember in my 40 years of cycling. I was never an Elite rider but I could hang with the young guns in my mid 50s. Two summers ago in an age group TT, I felt I was not able to go as hard as I should with the fitness I had. This was my first warning and I should have taken a more notice, but I didn’t take it seriously enough and tried to work though it. Now if this was 20 years ago I might have had a better chance with just riding outside and doing recovering rides but those numbers on the indoor trainer are just too seductive! I think this is why it’s so important to follow a program or have a coach on these indoor trainers. Its very easy to hammerfest your way to overtraining. I too time off but it was till not enough and I finally got to a point where I couldn’t even think about riding my bike, getting through the day without a 2 naps was the challenge. A year later Im still trying to get back on the bike. Im an experienced cyclist, but not experienced at being near 60 years old. I think the new “Structure Training” is “Structured Rest”, if you find yourself feeling any lingering fatigue take a step back and evaluate, a month off the bike sure is better than a year off the bike! Thanks again Chris for sharing you insights.

  10. I’m 71. I’ve been running for well over 40 years and I’m a frequent over trainer. I enjoy running, weight lifting, cycling etc so much I don’t know when to stop which probably sounds daft. But I feel fine and the outdoors beckons. My body rebels quite suddenly in my case. I usually run 40 to 50 miles a week but last week I ran 72 in 7 days. Now I’m paying the price and have all the symptoms. Time to take stock before launching off with enthusiasm hurtling towards my next episode of overtraining and enforced rest I’ve no doubt. It’s not deliberate of course but I have few warning signs. Pre covid I managed a sub 20 min 5k not bad for my age so I could say it works for me but could I do better if I got out of this cycle? I have a very low heart rate often in the 30s but sometimes drops to 29. Is that a cause or consequence I wonder?

  11. Thank you Chris for the useful information and advice. This is exactly what is happening to me right now! I think I was somehow conscious that I was pushing a bit too much, but your article really enlightens me.

  12. I agree with the previous comment . This is the most practical advice I have read on the matter.
    I have been training for a mountain marathon, combining distance with ascent for the first time. 4 weeks ago I did a long coastal run on a sweltering day and since suffered many of the symptoms you describe.
    I lost all enthusiasm and energy for running and I had no choice but to dramatically cut back my on my training. Today is the first day I’ve been able to run up a steep hill again but it was hard, took longer for my heart rate to recover than normal and my legs were aching.
    As I have the enthusiasm back and made it up the hill I was wondering whether I can now start to get back in to training properly? I’m really worried that I go full throttle and never quite get back to 100%.
    Thanks for the great advice!

  13. This article describes perfectly how I’m feeling atm!

    I’m 45 years old and have been a keen roadie for years now. About 2 years ago I broke my collar bone and due to complications was off my bike for 14 weeks, when i finally returned I put everything into regaining my form which didn’t take too long. Ever since then I’ve been pushing myself harder and harder which worked fine for a year or so, but over the past 12 months my form has been on a steady downward spiral. Of course when my form first started slipping I thought the only thing to do was train harder, which I continued to do until I couldn’t anymore!
    That method completely backfired and it’s now gotten to the point where I’m constantly lethargic, my motivation has disappeared completely, along with my performance output and I just feel like packing it all in.

    I’ve tried resting and taking time off my bike, 3 weeks at one point, but I just can’t seem to shake this feeling of exhaustion. It affects my moods, my work performance and even my relationship.

    Do I need to take an extended break or is there another way back from this horrible abyss?

  14. Fabulous article, and it describes exactly what I have been feeling for the last 3 months!
    I have been running for 40 years, reaching 100 miles/week while in my late 20’s with no significant overtraining then. With the pandemic and more time to train, I decided to make running a priority again (6 days a week), instead of the typical 4 days of running and 2 days of cycling in between. Additionally, I also moved to an area with very hilly terrain and lack of soft surfaces to run on. All of these factors created the perfect storm for me to feel the symptoms of overtraining as covered in the article, 6 weeks into the training block, running ONLY 20 – 30 miles/week. I could not believe it! Cut my mileage to 15 miles/week for two weeks, running mostly on a flat dirt road that I found, and could see the improvement immediately. Just had a block of 3 weeks running 35, 35 and 30 miles /week respectively, and am feeling more normal, but again will be lowering my total mileage this week but adding a couple interval workouts to cause a different type of stimulus, and avoid running up/down hill as much.

  15. Well done. I was a Cat 3 racer for many years. Burned out. Started up again a few months ago. Felt the irregular HR and knew I over did it the next day. I did a Crit. Stupid. Killed myself. Now resting and limiting interval sessions to 60 to 75 minutes with easy Z1 rides in between.
    However, after a few weeks still feeling fatigue. I’ll pop on my HR monitor to get my baseline testing HR do I have the number to reference.

  16. Very timely, as the pandemic has given many of us more time to exercise. This is exactly what happened to me. I’m also recovering from a fracture/dislocation of my ankle with 2 surgeries. So I was very unfit from a year of convalescence, and I suddenly had extra time to ride. Over 10 weeks I went crazy with riding, thinking I’d adapt like when I was younger. I developed classic symptoms of overtraining. I couldn’t get my power up on hard efforts, heart rate wouldn’t go up, and I was always sore and fatigued. I took 4 days off the bike and am returning with a more realistic riding regimen. Thanks for the article!

  17. My son just turned 15 in Feburary. He has been in martial arts and sports since he was 5. In the last year he has went from playing school sports through out the year, practice 2-3 times for an hour a week and 1 game a week. Also, martial arts went from 4 hours a week to 6 hours a week then up to 15 hours a week on top of his sport schedule.
    In January, he was lethargic sleeping all dayy and night, behaviour changes, missed school for 2-3 weeks. We went to the hospital 3 times in 4 days. They did blood work, spinal tap, neurology did some physical test and all came back negative. He eventually got over it and back to normal schedule.
    With the pandemic, the first 2 weeks he did very minimal exercise, then april a full month of 2 hours a day exercise.
    Last week of April, Ramadan ( fasting from sun rise to sunset). May 1st until now no exercise just fasting. 3 days ago, he is Lethargic sleeping all the time, feeling foggy. Took him to his pediatrician got blood work waiting for results.
    Any thoughts?

  18. Hi there, I am looking for some assistance with regards to my training. I average about 12 hours a week of mixed training. Running, Cycling, gym, pilates and yoga. I was following a training routine and have since stopped. I trained and ran a marathon back in April and I felt strong and ready for the race. I ended up running with someone who was undertrained and as a result I was not too stressed. Since then however, my training in particular running and cycling has become terrible. I feel like I am a beginner and cannot sustain any increase in effort. I have had a stress e c g and blood tests to check for thyroid, virus and other factors. I am happy to say that at 56 I am in great health and very fit.
    This does little to help give me peace of mind since I really struggle to run even 5 kms without having to walk and allow my heart rate to drop. I have an elevate heart rate when I exercise hard, but it drops quickly and this is still the case. I cannot however sustain prolonged effort and this is really frustrating.

    I have a healthy diet and avoid red meat and large quantities of carbs, I am not sure that my diet might need tweaking, but since this feeling has been ongoing for at least 3 months, I am trying to find answers to my predicament and wonder if I have OTS?? your help would be greatly appreciated.

    1. This sound like a symptom of a cardiovascular desease, I experienced. Now fix, but you should consult to check a ” bloquage d’artères”, where I also had to walk for short distance of running. Don’t deny any problem thinking you are in shape.

  19. You.hit the nail on the head. I schedule a week off about two weeks after a peak event and an extra rest day after any long and intense workout or race. Ride recovery for two days after weight session. Anything else?

  20. As a 73 year old who still trains, I’ve found a technique that might be useful for folks who are so driven they just “have to keep working out.”

    When my body says enough is enough, I take a day or two and devote the time to stretching–not killer stuff, but long-duration gentle work on all the parts of my body. I do most of it laying on a mat. I do standing stretches as well, but taking it easy is key.

    There are a ton of good youtubes or articles showing lots of stretches. This not only gives you more flexibility to avoid injury when you do train, but it really helps you sleep.

  21. I went from feeling great to feeling awful last April and May, and it seems to be happening again this year. I’m also trying to lose 8 pounds to get back to race weight (like I had to do last year). How do you lose weight and stay strong at the same time?

    1. Post
      Author

      Richard,
      That can be quite challenging, and we typically recommend focusing on improving fitness first – and eating to support that training workload – and then focusing on using that improved fitness to focus on weight loss later. Improved fitness gives you the tools (increased work capacity per hour, greater mitochondrial density, etc.) to increase energy expenditure during the period when you are trying to create a caloric deficit.

      If you don’t have time for that strategy, still focus on fitness first. If you restrict total energy intake too much while training hard, the quality of your training declines so much you either lose power or fail to make meaningful improvements. So the question becomes, is it better to be stronger and a bit heavier, or weaker but a bit lighter? If you can only improve one, opt for more power. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach and Co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”

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