What Is Overtraining Syndrome—and How to Avoid It
Sport & Activity
Learn the signs and symptoms of overtraining syndrome, how to manage it and prevent it from happening in the first place.
When you're on the road to reaching your goals, it can be easy to overdo it. From clocking hours at the gym or trying your first two-a-day workout, recovery can slip to the wayside. But all work and little recovery can majorly impact your ability to continue to strive towards your goals.
Introducing overtraining syndrome: a condition that can affect any athlete, in any sport, at any level. But what is overtraining syndrome? And how do you know if you're suffering from it? Check out the must-know details about overtraining syndrome, common symptoms and how to try to avoid it from happening in the first place.
What Is Overtraining Syndrome?
Ever squeeze in a couple of hard workouts back to back—and then feel like a slug for the rest of the week? This is an example of overreaching, the precursor to overtraining syndrome. When your muscles aren't given the opportunity to recover, rebuild and reset, your body experiences higher levels of fatigue, which can cause the system to short circuit.
According to a 2012 review published in Sports Health, overtraining occurs when overreaching isn't addressed and your stress level (physical or mental) remains high. When you have overtraining syndrome, you're more inclined to experience longer and more serious performance setbacks along with other, potentially, severe symptoms.
What Are Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome?
When you're experiencing overtraining syndrome, The Sports Health overview explains that you may feel depressed, fatigued or unmotivated, among other symptoms. These can occur due to the central nervous system's response to heightened systemic inflammation. What's more, you may be more likely to get sick because you would be experiencing a suppressed immune system.
Other common signs and signals of overtraining syndrome might include insomnia, irritability, high blood pressure, restlessness and lack of concentration, the overview says. If you experience any of these symptoms, it's best to check in with your doctor to learn what's going on, as these can be symptoms for a range of conditions—including overtraining syndrome.
A 2016 research review in Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine on overtraining syndrome pointed out that although several systems of the body are affected by this condition, there isn't currently a direct way to test for it. A consensus statement by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) along with the European College of Sport Science also suggests that diagnosis is complicated.
The statement says that when athletes present with the clinical and hormonal changes suggested above, along with significant signs of fatigue, a decline in performance and mood disturbances, a physician makes a diagnosis by ruling out other possible diseases and conditions. One of these potential conditions might be a nutrient deficiency caused by calorie restriction, which is especially common in endurance athletes. Changes in resting heart rate are not consistently found in athletes experiencing OTS, according to the statement.
How to Manage and Prevent Overtraining Syndrome
Because there's not a direct way to test for the condition, it also means there isn't a direct way to prevent it, either. The European College of Sport Science and ACSM agree that the lack of a clear diagnosis makes prevention measures more difficult to define.
However, experts suggest that because overtraining syndrome is mainly due to an imbalance in training (too much training or too many competitions with too little recovery), tracking your training volume and frequency could be useful to identify any trends to overdo it. You can also use apps like Nike Run Club or Nike Training Club to review how many runs or workouts you're stacking up month after month, day after day.
For beginners to elite athletes, working with a coach or personal trainer may be a smart option to lay the foundation and work through a comprehensive training plan. A coach can evaluate your training load and workouts, apply standard periodisation methodology to your programme (which should include down weeks and rest days, along with your workouts) and evaluate trends to help avoid overreaching or overtraining.
Across the board, though, it's important to note that there isn't a linear way to treat overtraining syndrome—you'll need to figure out with your doctor what makes the most sense. For some, you might need to take a week off training, and prioritise sleep and quality nutrition. For others, you might be benched for several months, depending on your condition and needs.
To get ahead of overtraining syndrome, the European College of Sport Science and ACSM advise taking at least one rest day each week. They also suggest getting adequate sleep, which they define as the amount of time that is required to feel awake during the day (which may vary considerably between individuals), to fight overtraining. It's also important to note that your need for longer sleep sessions might increase as your training intensity heightens.
Lastly, good nutrition can aid in recovery from training or overtraining. Specifically, they suggest that athletes should be encouraged to increase their fluid, carbohydrate and energy intake during training and recovery to meet the increased demands of their sport and support well-being.
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