What is overtraining?
Overtraining occurs when a person exceeds their body’s ability to recover from strenuous exercise, resulting in loss of strength and fitness, with chronic fatigue and ‘burnout’ type symptoms. These symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss, sleep issues, worsening allergies, colds/flu, persistent muscle soreness, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory infections. Overtraining is most commonly seen in professional athletes where training programming is either too intense and/or has too much volume. In the context of an everyday exerciser (i.e. the non-professional athlete) overtraining is somewhat unlikely. The exception being the small (but growing) number of ultra-endurance athletes such as ultra-distance runners and triathletes, who put their bodies through a high load of repetitious movement patterns, and very high training volume.
How is overtraining relevant when exercising?
So, how is overtraining relevant to us mere (exercise) mortals? Firstly, it is important to be cognizant that as a non-professional athlete it is quite unlikely you are overtraining (i.e. don’t jump on the overtraining bandwagon). The reality is that most of us simply do not exercise at the level of intensity or with the amount of training volume to over-train. Much more likely we are ‘under-recovered’, that meaning there is inadequate rest between workouts, a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and lack of hydration (or some combination of these). This ‘under-recovery’ can lead to poor energy levels, feeling fatigued, and also increase the chance of injury. Being mindful and structured in your approach to recovery will ensure that your recovery is adequate when set against your training programming. Therefore, think about your training sessions in the wider context of your day-to-day commitments and lifestyle choices.
Secondly, overtraining may be confused with poor programming of workouts, by arranging training sessions in a format that doesn’t allow enough time for recovery. For instance, muscles require time to repair and rebuild, typically 48 hours. This is why it is recommended to avoid training the same muscle group on consecutive days when strength training. Similarly training protocols such as High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T) and track sprint drills should be programmed carefully, and max out at 2-3 sessions per week.
Thirdly, increasing training volume or training intensity very rapidly is likely to be an issue. Our bodies are good at dealing with physical stress (in fact, this is what our bodies need) but a sensible and progressive plan to increase both intensity and volume over time will ensure that burnout and injury are much less likely.
Summary and recommendations
More likely you are under-recovered than over-trained (don’t jump on the over-training bandwagon!)
Look at your training in the context of overall lifestyle factors (e.g. work commitments, sleep, nutrition, hydration, stress, underlying health conditions)
and plan your sessions accordingly to ensure that you are not ‘under-recovered’
Programme your weekly sessions sensibly (get advice from someone knowledgeable or spend some time to research yourself)
Increase training intensity and volume gradually (the human body reacts well to physical stress, but not ‘too much too soon’)
Walker, Brad (17 March 2002). “Overtraining – Learn how to identify Overtraining Syndrome”. stretchcoach.com. Retrieved 2016-05-17.
Noakes, Tim (1985). Lore of Running
Johnson, MB; Thiese, SM (1992). “A review of overtraining syndrome-recognizing the signs and symptoms”. Journal of Athletic Training. 27 (4): 352–4. PMC 1317287. PMID 16558192.