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Overtraining - Signs, Symptoms and Prevention

Too much exercise and too little rest are a dangerous combination. Your risk of injury and illness is much higher, and you won't progress in your training. In fact, you are likely to lose ground. If you feel like you're working as hard as ever and not getting anywhere, you may be overtraining.

Some common signs of overtraining include:

  • Sleeping problems
  • General fatigue, beyond normal post-workout tiredness
  • Aching muscles or joints
  • High resting heart rate
  • Depression
  • Increased incidence of injuries
  • Inability to finish workouts
  • Lacking motivation or energy
  • Increased frequency of colds and flu
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor performance
  • Feeling compulsive about exercising

Medically, overtraining is considered to be a neuroendocrine disorder, because it alters the delicate balance between the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal system. Clinical studies on athletes show increased levels of cortisol, the body's stress hormone, decreases in testosterone, and increase in products of muscular breakdown, and altered immune status in some participants. However, every person is unique, so biochemical markers vary greatly from athlete to athlete. Some show no biochemical signs whatsoever, but exhibit many of the signs listed above. However, few overtraining athletes show biochemical changes without showing any of the signs above.

There is a recovery test you can take to see if you have recovered sufficiently from a previous workout. This test was developed by Heikki Rusko for cross-country skiers.

  1. Lay down for 10 minutes in the morning and record your heart rate in beats per minute.
  2. Stand up and wait 15 seconds, then take another heart rate in beats per minute.
  3. At 90 seconds and take a third heart rate in beats per minute
  4. At 120 seconds, take a final heart rate.

If you are sufficiently recovered from your last workout, your heart rates should be consistent between measurements. An increase of 10 or more beats per minute may indicate that you are not yet recovered and are on the verge of overtraining. If this is the case, it is best to rest another day before doing more training.

The first thing to do if you believe you are experiencing overtraining is to visit your doctor to make sure you are in generally good health and not battling an underlying illness that has little or nothing to do with your training. If all looks good there, you can begin to measure and treat overtraining.

Paradoxically, rest is the key to successful sports performance, no matter the activity. When you exercise, you stress and break down muscle tissue, and it needs enough time to repair and become stronger. If you continue to stress the muscles without giving them adequate repair time, you'll gradually lose ground and your performance will suffer.
Opinions on the best way to recover from overtraining vary, but rest is key. Some recommend low intensity exercise as a way to speed recovery. The longer the overtraining has occurred, the more rest you will need.

Recovery may take several weeks and should also include eating well and reducing stress. Many athletes overtrain as an escape from other stresses in their lives. Its important to remember that even if you rest, if you aren't able to deal with the additional stresses in your life they will still be there when you return to training. While you may feel limited in what you can do while you recover, choose non-athletic activities you enjoy. This kind of rest is not meant to be jail time or boredom time. If there are books you've been meaning to read or some form of art you've wanted to explore, now is the time. Also, don't be afraid to ask for professional help if you feel unable to manage the stresses in life. Treat your body and your mind well to encourage a total recovery.

As you gradually return to training, take one day off between workouts. Cross train to see how your muscles respond and to get a better idea of which areas of your body still need more rest and which are ready to resume training. A session or two with a personal trainer is a great way to identify these areas and design an appropriate return to the gym or field and minimise your chances of overtraining again in the future.

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