"Athletes get trapped in this idea that they need to be exhausted to improve.”
Under-recovery is a slippery slope that can lead to full-blown overtraining syndrome. Overtraining is a specter that looms just over the hill of most dedicated athletes’ training, but it is a mysterious state that is hard, if not impossible, to diagnose, with both physiological and psychological implications. This amorphousness has been combined with confusing terminology that calls overtraining “staleness, “burnout,” or “overwork.” Sometimes overtraining is described as an imbalance between training and rest; sometimes it is described, more holistically, as an imbalance between stress and rest. This latter definition includes all the life stressors that combine with training stressors and contribute to problems in the athlete who does not allow for recovery.
It’s useful to think of overtraining as one point on a spectrum. Before an athlete progresses into overtraining, he moves further along the spectrum.
When we apply an increasingly stressful training load, we go into a period of intentional overreaching, which involves carrying a heavy load for a week or two, then pulling back and absorbing the work by devoting adequate time and attention to recovery. It’s pushing the body to the brink and then yanking back before the athlete topples over the edge. A powerful and useful strategy for training, it happens notably at running and triathlon camps of a week or 10 days’ length.
Such stress must be followed, of course, by sufficient recovery. An athlete will leave a period of intentional overreaching with a large load of fatigue. That should be enough to generate positive adaptations through supercompensation, without pushing the athlete into injury or illness. Coach and sport psychologist Kristen Dieffenbach likens the work of overreaching to getting just the right toast on a marshmallow. You need to come close to the fire (a heavy training stimulus) to create change in the marshmallow (the body). “You want it to be brown and crinkly, without catching on fire,” she says. “How it comes out depends on how hot the fire is, and where you’re standing.”
The fine line between perfectly roasting the marshmallow and incinerating it needs special attention. You must know when to pull back from the fire and cool off. Coach Gordo Byrn explains, “There are times when it’s desirable to get pretty tired. But you need to prepare for those overload periods and bear in mind that they’re special occasions. Athletes get trapped in this idea that they need to be exhausted to improve.” The success of your overreaching period, Byrn explains, has less to do with the numbers you can post during the week and more to do with how well—and how quickly—you can recover from the overload.
This ability to recover quickly is key, and it can save you from progressing further along the spectrum toward full overtraining. When you are carrying big fatigue, you should be able to rebound after a few days of rest or very light training. This pre-overtraining state is characterized by a performance decline. Keeping a detailed training log and regularly testing your performance in the field can alert you if such a decline begins. Next come feelings of fatigue that Tim Noakes colorfully describes in The Lore of Running as “heavy leg syndrome” and the “super plods” (Noakes 2001). As alarming as they may sound, they aren’t full-blown overtraining; careful attention to rest can still avert the shift toward a more serious problem.
But if the load is too great, for too long, or if your training is too monotonous, including too much of the same stimulus day in and day out, and if your recovery continues to be insufficient, you can bring yourself into a state of overtraining.
How to Identify Overtraining
Psychological indicators often point to a state of overtraining sooner and more clearly than physiological indicators, such as blood tests and heart rate measurements. Because psychological and physiological issues such as depression and thyroid problems can resemble overtraining, it’s important to work with an experienced health care practitioner to make the appropriate diagnosis.
Signs of overtraining can be hard to identify. An overtrained athlete may exhibit a cluster of the symptoms listed below (based on Noakes, Lore of Running) while not showing others. And because many of these symptoms can indicate other underlying medical conditions, do not use this list as a selfdiagnostic tool. Instead, consult with your coach and health care providers.
Thinking about overtraining continues to change, but most agree that it’s reversible only by a prolonged period of rest, one that can last for weeks or even months. Hence, your athletic success depends on purposely avoiding pushing yourself into such a state.
How to Prevent Overtraining
My book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery examines the many practical things you can do to prevent overtraining: focus on your recovery nutrition; make sleep a priority; find a balance between training, work, and relationships; and employ recovery strategies such as wearing compression clothing and practicing restorative yoga. On the broadest level, though, simply knowing your goals and paying close attention to your body will help keep you from overtraining.
Context is everything. Setting appropriate goals and keeping the big picture in mind throughout the season will help athletes stay away from overtraining. Sport performance coach and psychotherapist Marvin Zauderer says that overtraining is a common result of an athlete setting unrealistic goals. If you have set your goal so high that it becomes all-consuming, then you’re going to take a hit, and that can easily move you into overtraining. In addition, anxiety often causes athletes to seek to exert control. When athletes feel anxious, Zauderer says, they turn to the things they think they can control—for example, the volume and intensity of their training—often to the detriment of their recovery.
Carl Foster, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, agrees that the problem is a need for control. In his years working at a teaching hospital, he says, “I’d see the residents, tired all the time, do boneheaded things that don’t have good outcomes. Then did they go home and sleep? No, they’d go to the library and read up on the issues. Similarly, if artistic performers have a less than stellar performance, they do more rehearsal.” An accomplishment-oriented mindset causes the trouble, Foster explains. “That’s how you get overtraining syndrome. You say, ‘I’m out of shape, I need to work harder,’” when you’re not out of shape at all; you’re simply unrested.
Paying attention to your psychological and physiological states is key. Know your habits, know your stressors, and know your goals. Beyond that self-awareness, keep careful track of your performance in workouts and races and analyze it to confirm that you are adapting as planned. A decline in performance should lead to a search for its cause and to a focus on the quality of your recovery. Remember, often doing less is more powerful than training more.
Tracking metrics such as mood, hours slept, and various physiological parameters will help you keep an eye on the state of your recovery and hence your training. Such attentiveness will keep you from approaching a state of overtraining as well as help you reach your peak potential.
- Loss of interest in competition and training
- Loss of ability to focus, both in training and at work
- Loss of appetite
- Lower sex drive
- Disturbed sleep
- Bad mood
- Decline in performance
- Heavy, lifeless feeling in the legs
- Weight loss
- Gaunt visage
- Raised heart rate at rest, during postural shifts, and/or after exercise
- Muscle soreness that does not abate
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Gastrointestinal (GI) trouble, especially diarrhea
- Frequent illness
- Slow healing
- Amenorrhea (loss of menstrualperiod)
- Overtraining is a serious condition from which it can take months to recover. Pay attention to the state of your recovery so that you don’t reach an overtrained state.
- Taking a few days off at the first sign of under-recovery can yank you back from the edge.
- The signs of overtraining can also be symptoms of other medical conditions; check with your health care provider.
- Sometimes doing less is far more powerful than doing more.