Avoid Performance Burnout by Knowing the Risks of Overtraining

Overtraining Deadlift
Written by Lee Bell

As an enthusiast of health and fitness, you find nothing more energizing than a heavy blast in the strength room or a tough running session on the sidewalks. But push too far and your body will begin to fight back.

There’s a fine line between not working hard enough to boost your fitness and performance and working at exactly the right level. You feel it yourself — some days you just know you haven’t worked hard enough to improve. Similarly, pushing too hard can send your body into a state of tiredness, fatigue, irritability and burnout. Unfortunately, more isn’t always better.

Anyone who trains regularly needs to know the risks of overtraining. That way you can avoid the side effects and focus on getting fitter.

What Is Excess Fatigue and Overtraining?

Overtraining is a defined as a significant reduction in strength and/or endurance performance that can take weeks to months from which to fully recover. It’s associated with training too hard, too often and can affect anyone who pushes too hard in sport and exercise.

As a syndrome, side effects of overtraining can be multifactorial; that’s why there are a few signs to watch out for. It would be much easier to diagnose if there was a single diagnosis — but unfortunately there isn’t.

Overtraining has been called underperformance, burnout, staleness and also underperformance syndrome.

We know from hundreds of research papers, reports and anecdotes that overtraining affects about 60 percent athletes at some point in their career. You might not be a competitive athlete, but that doesn’t mean you’re not at risk.

All professional athletes really do is train and compete. The rest of the time they’re either travelling or resting. The rest of us not only train hard, but we also have stressful jobs, work long hours and have families to look after, too. Research shows that physical and psychological stress can speed up the effects of overtraining, making you just as at risk as an athlete — if not more.

How Does Overtraining Even Happen?

When you train in the gym, you give your body with something called a “shock stimulus.” Basically, you’re doing things that force your body to take action and adapt to protect itself.

  • If you lift weights, your body adapts by growing new muscle cells.
  • Take part in mobility or stretching frequently enough, and your body becomes more flexible by desensitizing the reflexes in your tendons.
  • If you go running, your body’s cardiovascular system becomes more efficient and your blood doesn’t accumulate by-products as quickly.

For your body to repair and recover, you have to rest. This means optimal progression is a balance between training load (how often you work out and how frequently) and recovery.

If you choose to skip rest days or your sessions are always intense, you can find yourself getting more and more fatigued. First, you move into a state of overreaching, which means you’ve passed the point that a day or two away from exercise will fix. Overreaching takes a few days to a several weeks to recover from and has no real benefits.

If you continue to fight through the fatigue, you’ll end up in a state that medical professionals call overtraining. This is serious and can take up to 6-7 months from which to fully recover. 

Luckily, overtraining doesn’t just happen overnight. There are numerous symptoms that indicate a high risk of burnout and fatigue. If you listen to your body and look out for these warning signs, you’ll be able to add in some recovery and come back fighting fit and ready to train hard again.

Here are the warning signs to look out for:

Decreased Performance

A drop in performance could be caused by anything — a late night, a bit of a headache or even too much wine the night before your gym session. But with overtraining there’s a significant reduction in strength and performance, even with a good few days’ rest. Your ability to train at high intensity goes down, you accumulate lactic acid faster and your ability to transport and utilize oxygen during exercise reduces, too.

Even though you feel like you’re working hard, you just can’t perform as well as you normally would. And that leaves you not frustrated but more determined to work even harder.

If you find that you’re struggling to lift weights that felt comfortable a few weeks previously or you just can’t manage to finish that 5 km run in your normal time, maybe it’s time to plan some longer recovery.

The Fix: Implement a de-load into your training. Use the same exercises as you normally would do, but reduce the load and volume by half. Either that or just go for a gentle walk on training days for a couple of weeks instead of hitting the gym.

Changes to Resting Heart Rate

Your autonomic nervous system always tells the truth about what’s happening to your body. It’s the branch of your nervous system that controls things such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and so on.

When you’re excessively fatigued or overtraining, chances are your resting heart rate will increase. You’ll also notice that your ability to reach your maximum heart rate decreases too, as does your heart rate recovery. All in all, heart rate dysregulationoccurs.

The Fix: Recording your heart rate each morning gives to give you an indication of when you’re stressed or fatigued. This can be used as a reliable warning that things aren’t quite right, and tell you when it’s time to take a break from training.

Increased Risk of Short-term Illness

If you notice that you suffer from a sore throat or common cold more often when you’re training hard, you might be in a state of overtraining.

Research shows that fatigued gym goers are at a higher risk of upper respiratory tract infections, especially among those who do a lot of cardio.

This is thought to be because during overtraining, your immune system can become suppressed. Your white blood cell count can decrease, but at the same time, inflammatory markers go up. This subsequently affects your ability to fight off acute infection increases.

The Fix: Don’t train on days when you’re feeling ill or a little off. If you‘re getting coughs and colds more regularly than normal, you need to back off on the intensity until you’re feeling better.

Mood Disturbances

Excessive fatigue and overtraining can affect more than just your body. Athletes who suffer from overtraining often report a lack of motivation, energy and the normal get-up-and-go that allows them to work hard on the gym floor.

Mood is very sensitive to stress. Whether that stress is psychological (let’s say because you’re worrying about a presentation you have to give at your new job) or physical (from exercise) is irrelevant. Your body treats all stress the same.

During periods of intense exercise without recovery, you might suffer from a decrease in vigor, while at the same time find that tension, anxiety, confusion and even depression set in — absolute hallmark signs over overtraining.

The Fix: Try using a journal or notes app to record your energy levels and mood on training days. If you see a pattern that your mood is shifting into a more negative lens, add in some rest days.

Decrease in Power and Strength

Remember that weight you lifted last month that felt so easy? Well, now it feels heavier than usual … and you’re wondering what’s gone wrong.

Changes to your central nervous system can lead to a reduction in your ability to generate force. Even the accumulation of inflammation and other cellular changes can contribute towards reduced strength and power output.

This can be frustrating. You were getting stronger and stronger, but all of a sudden you’re feeling weak and lethargic with the free weights.

The Fix: A good way to test for possible overtraining is to use a grip strength tester or use a vertical jump before each workout. If your score is significantly lower than normal, you might benefit from a lighter workout.

About the author

Lee Bell

Lee is a consultant lecturer and personal trainer based in the UK. He presents to other fitness professionals on how to optimize the way they deliver exercise, writes regularly for fitness websites and has published academic research on athletic performance. He is currently researching a PhD in overtraining in strength sports.

Health JournalSubscribe to our Thursday “Healthy Reads!”