Reading Time: 6 minutes 50 seconds
By: Dr. Fred Hatfield
Every personal trainer knows how it feels to face challenges with an exercise program. We’ve all been there—trainers and clients alike—encountering roadblocks to progress. All too often, the roadblock is overtraining.
Here we do a deep dive into what overtraining is and why it’s a problem. We also discuss the factors that can contribute to overtraining syndrome. Next, we give you the common symptoms and how your body may respond. We end by sharing how to avoid overtraining for both trainers and exercisers or athletes.
Overtraining refers to engaging in excessive exercise without giving enough recovery time. In sports health and sports medicine, it is referred to as overtraining syndrome.
In some cases, overtraining is a result of working out too often. You do one training session in the morning and another in the afternoon. This can be made worse by an excessive training load, causing muscle tissue to weaken.
Other times, overtraining is from using the same muscle groups repeatedly. An example would be if you run for miles a day, every day. In both cases, recovery is hindered, leading to overtraining symptoms.
Science has found that overtraining decreases performance (1). It also disturbs mood states and creates persistent fatigue. Additionally, when an athlete overtrains, it can take months if not years to recover.
In one study, researchers compared healthy athletes with those who overtrained. The overtrained athletes had (2):
poorer sleep quality
lower basal metabolic rate
reductions in fat burning
decreased muscle mass
Research has even connected overtraining with poorer immunity. This can mean more bouts of sickness because you’re unable to fight off the latest bug or major illness (3).
Many experts agree that the root cause of overtraining symptoms is cumulative microtrauma. This is a fancy-sounding name for something pretty simple. It refers to a whole lot of microscopic tears in the muscle and connective tissue.
These tears occur for two general reasons. The first is engaging in high-frequency, severe movements (especially eccentric movements). The second is using improper training techniques.
Several other non-training factors may also hurt your training. Some may affect it in ways that you don’t even perceive. They include:
academic work and stress
poor training facilities
monotony in training or lifestyle
poor diet or sleep habits
lack of encouragement
time-consuming or stressful job
drug or alcohol use
poor coaching or personality conflicts with the coach
Overtraining can often be from several factors that converge at the same time. To train optimally, you must be able to respond well to stress. This includes physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The big question is: How do you know if you are an overtrained athlete or exerciser? Here are a few common physical symptoms of overtraining:
high levels of fatigue (chronic fatigue)
persistent muscle soreness or unusually sore muscles
longer recovery times
inability to keep up with training volume
increased thoughts of skipping exercise
Overtraining can also affect your mental health. The mental symptoms associated with overtraining include:
higher levels of stress
emotional fatigue, such as not feeling the same joy that you used to
increased feelings of stress or anger
an unexplained negative mood state (feeling depressed or anxious for no reason)
trouble with sleep or relaxing
Overtraining can also show up in how the body functions. These overtraining symptoms fall into two types: Addisonic and Basedowic overtraining.
Addisonic overtraining is named after Addison's disease. This disease causes the adrenal and pituitary glands to malfunction. Some of the symptoms of this type resemble those of the disease, hence the name. Addisonic overtraining usually affects older or more advanced athletes. Its symptoms of overtraining include:
a minor feeling of being overly tired, yet no increase in sleep needs
no weight loss
a lower than normal resting heart rate
a normal metabolic rate
higher blood pressure
normal temperature with no psychological changes.
Basedowic overtraining is named after Basedow's disease. Basedow’s causes thyroid function to be too high. This overtraining type is more common in strength athletes. It’s also common in explosive athletes such as sprinters, jumpers, and lifters. It also occurs in young and less advanced athletes. Physiological symptoms of this overtraining type include:
becoming easily tired
reduced appetite and weight loss
greater need for sleep
elevated resting heart rate
higher temperature and blood pressure
slower reaction time
difficulty with skill movements
While overtraining is generally from overuse, there is often no one identifiable factor. And it's not as simple as spending too much time at the gym. Still, you may notice a few signs.
If you feel like you’re in a slump, for instance, it may be due to overtraining. If three or four workouts in a row seem to be sub-par, this is another sign. So too is feeling tired, sore, or generally unwell most of the time.
Some elite athlete coaches will tell you that the biggest problem with their athletes is that they train too much. This makes it appear that overtraining is a major issue.
Other coaches and trainers disagree. They contend that the biggest issue is that most athletes haven’t periodized their training. With periodization training, all progress must be gradual and orderly. What you do next is based upon what you've just accomplished.
The truth is that no system of training is perfect or right for everyone. And no training program will give you immediate success in your sport. It may even hamper your progress if you push too hard too soon.
Take your time. Be scientific and thorough. Above all, stick to a cycle training program. It's the best way to avoid overtraining.
When you or a client is eager and ready to push your body to the limits, that's great. But there are smart ways to stay passionate and dedicated without overdoing it. They include:
Be aware of whether your training style encourages overtraining. A good trainer wouldn’t consciously overtrain their clients. But you may inadvertently be over-motivating them. This can cause them to overtrain. If you’re unsure if you’re doing this, ask. You might question, “Do you feel that I am pushing you too hard?”
Educate clients about the value of rest. Make sure clients know the importance of recovery time and taking a rest day. Confirm that they are getting adequate rest between training sessions. If they complain of fatigue, mood changes, or sleep issues, it might be time to back down the training.
Develop a schedule that minimizes the client’s stress. You can have the best workout in the world, but if it increases your client’s stress, it may do more harm than good. At the intake interview, make “Tell me about your schedule” one of your must-ask questions. Find a way to work exercise into their week without them having to stress about how to fit it in.
Create a training program that reduces overtraining risk. Of course, the best thing you can do as a trainer is to create a program that avoids overtraining syndrome. One way to do this is to conform your workouts to cycle training principles. With periodization, the client trains based on where they are in the cycle.
Vary your training methods. Don’t have the client do the same type of training at every workout. Alternate between different types of cardio to lessen the stress on the same muscle groups. When strength training, work different parts of the body on different days. This allows enough time for muscle recovery. It can also reduce the risk of overuse injury. Vary the workout intensity too. If you do hard training one day, do light training the next.
Do a regular symptom check. We all live busy lives. This can make it easy to miss a symptom of overtraining. Doing a regular symptom check keeps this from happening. Asking, “How do you feel after our training?” is helpful for this purpose. This will tell you if the exercise is leaving the client invigorated or worn out. You might also create a list of overtraining symptoms and go down it. Ask the client if they have any. If they do, modify the exercise schedule.
Keep in mind that symptoms of overtraining can also be symptoms of something else. They may be signs of too much stress, for instance. Or they could signal a health issue. If you modify the client’s exercise and they still have one or more overtraining symptom, encourage them to talk with their health provider. Something else may be causing them to not feel their best. (If their symptoms are more physical, they may need to speak to a mental health professional.)
If you’re an athlete or avid exerciser, there are also things you can do to keep from overtraining. They include:
Sleep eight hours every night.
Eat a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Take a nap during the day. A 20-minute nap is all it takes to re-energize.
Help your body recover after training. After your workouts, you may want to whirlpool the muscle groups you worked the hardest. Then, massage them vigorously for one minute.
Following these basic guidelines can help you avoid overtraining and its resulting symptoms. If you’re overtraining now, these steps can help create a healthier training program.
It can also be helpful to enlist the help of a sports medicine clinic. This clinic can help monitor for overtraining syndrome. At a minimum, if you aren’t currently working with a trainer, consider finding one. It’s tough being objective with your own training. A trainer can help recognize if you’re overtraining. And if you are, they’ll call you out on it.
Another option is to become an Exercise Recovery Specialist. This will teach you more strategies for avoiding overtraining syndrome. You’ll also learn how to help others engage in safe physical activity. Show clients how recovery, proper rest, and stress are connected so you can build long-term customer loyalty and maximize your revenue.
This distance education course covers training, recovery, motivation, and nutritional strategies to prepare the personal trainer to work with bodybuilders.
Kajaia T., Maskhulia L., Chelidze K., Akhalkatsi V., Kakhabrishvili Z. (2017). The Effects Of Non-Functional Overreaching And Overtraining On Autonomic Nervous System Function In Highly Trained Georgian Athletes. Georgian Medical News, 3(264), 97-103. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
Cadegiani, F., & Kater, C. (2018). Body composition, metabolism, sleep, psychological and eating patterns of overtraining syndrome: Results of the EROS study (EROS-PROFILE). Journal Of Sports Sciences, 36(16), 1902-1910. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2018.1424498
Guimarães, T., Terra, R., & Dutra, P. (2017). Chronic effects of exhausting exercise and overtraining on the immune response: Th1 and Th2 profile. Motricidade, 13(3), 69. https://doi.org/10.6063/motricidade.10049
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