Exhausted athlete

Overtraining symptoms – unexplained underperformance

Overtraining is progressive; you don’t just wake up one day and find you are seriously overtrained. If you notice a decrease in your performance despite training as normal it is likely you are in the stages of non functional overreaching or overtraining. Hormones play a key role in performance, once you reach non functional over reaching the body suppresses insulin production and produces excessive cortisol – decreasing its ability to resist insulin and burn fat.

Excessive fatigue, muscle soreness & prolonged recovery

Sore muscles are expected after a good workout aren’t they? Surely you should be tired after a few days heavy training? Well yes, but lingering fatigue and muscle soreness that lasts a few days longer than normal is a sign of overtraining. Where your body would normally be able to repair and recover this isn’t possible as essential resources are exhausted.

Poor sleep quality


Have you ever found it difficult to sleep following a hard training week? Do you wake in the night when you have things on your mind? Most people would think the more stress placed upon the body the deeper the individual would sleep. However, the parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for getting the body in to the required state for sleep. As overtraining reduces parasympathetic activity the body is often unable relax, disrupting the natural sleep rhythm.

Feelings of tiredness and fatigue


Increased need for sleep is your body’s most basic way of telling you it needs more rest. During sleep the body is able to recover and repair from stressors it has been under.

Suppressed parasympathetic activity in the ANS causes you to feel sluggish and tired, sometimes to the extent you feel unwell. If the body is unable to fully recover during normal hours of sleep you may be overtrained.

Decreased appetite

The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for the body’s rest and digest functions. Therefore the digestion system effectively shuts down (or reduces to bare minimal activity) if you are overtrained. A reduced ability to digest food causes a decreased appetite. This has a knock on effect on increasing overtraining risk too as poor nutrition means your body is not receiving the nutrition (energy) it requires to fuel workouts and recovery.

Frequent infections (colds, tract infections, etc.)

Why when they work hard to stay healthy are athletes often more susceptible to illness than others? Do colds and bugs always follow your big events? High levels of stress suppress the immune system. Therefore as the training load (volume and intensity) increases in overreached/overtrained bodies so the immune system weakens. This increases the likelihood of catching an infection and limits the body’s ability to recover from an illness.

Loss of training and/or competitive drive

Working out depletes vital energy stores, such as glucose and glycogen in the liver and muscles. Normally the parasympathetic branch regulates the rebuilding of these energy stores, however if overtrained individuals cannot replenish energy levels at the required right. The lack of energy causes individuals to feel unmotivated and lethargic.

Mood disturbance; particularly increased anxiety and irritation

Bad temperament, anxiety, irritation and even depression are often associated with overtraining. This is because the parasympathetic branch of the ANS is not only responsible for rest and digest actions but also mental calmness and cognitive concentration. Whilst parasympathetic activity is low people are likely to be irritable, moody and despondent.

Decreased concentration ability


Ever feel you can’t think straight in highly stressful situations? You really can’t! When stressed your body is governed by the sympathetic branch of the ANS in preparation for fight or flight, suppressing the parasympathetic. This limits your ability to concentrate and think rationally. Continued or excessive cumulative stress from workouts can cause exactly the same bodily reaction as a mentally stressful situation, suppressing parasympathetic branch activity and so your ability to focus and think things through.

This is particularly common in power and strength athletes following a high intensity interval training programme.

Elevated resting heart rate


This is a common test used by athletes to identify overtraining and/or the need for recovery. Whilst it is true that your heart beat at rest can indicate your current state of readiness to workout and your need for recovery it is really rather difficult to measure accurately. What is more, by the time your heart beat is elevated enough that you notice in a morning check it is too late; you are already overreaching and need to recover. Why not monitor your heart rate variability with ithlete instead and catch yourself before it gets this far?

Increased perceived exertion

Why is it getting harder rather than easier to do your normal workouts? Does even the lightest workout feel like a huge challenge now? This is another sign of overtraining. Hormone exhaustion and the inability to rebuild energy reserves are caused by overtraining and contribute to the feelings of fatigue. Furthermore during bouts of overtraining athletes often suffer from adrenaline desensitisation, meaning the body has to produce more adrenaline for the individual to feel the normal effects. Therefore levels of adrenaline released during any given workout no longer have the same effect.

Any one of these symptoms alone doesn’t guarantee you are overtraining, however if you notice more than one it is a good sign your body isn’t getting the rest and recovery time it needs.

How do I prevent overtraining?