Recognizing the Overtraining Syndrome

The same internal drive that athletes demonstrate by training hard and performing well can also get them into trouble. By working too hard over a period of time, they risk an overtraining syndrome that can diminish their performance and make them sick.

Technically, overtraining is an imbalance between exercise and recovery in which the stress of a person’s training program exceeds the body’s limits. Although overtraining is often associated with elite athletes, the condition can affect serious exercisers in any sport. Overtraining is well documented among swimmers, runners, cyclists, gymnasts, weight lifters, tennis players, and team sports participants.

Leading exercise physiologists warn that the problem can be devastating. Many good athletes are destroyed in this country because they are never able to match their training load with their ability to adapt to those stresses. Keep in mind that overtraining for one athlete may be insufficient training for another.

There is no test to diagnose overtraining, but there are plenty of warning signs. The overriding symptom is a state of prolonged fatigue and underperformance, but overtraining signals can fall into the three areas listed below.

Psychological Symptoms

Reduced concentration
Physiological Symptoms

Elevated morning resting pulse rate
Increase in injuries
Chronic muscle soreness
Weight loss
Frequent minor infections
Loss of appetite
Performance Symptoms

Decreased performance
Delayed recovery from training
Intolerance to training

Prevention and treatment of overtraining falls into the “less is more” category. Study found that over a four year period, swimmers who trained every day for three hours improved their times by exactly the same amount as those who swam half the time and half the distance. Double training sessions prepare you for more double training sessions, not for the specific adaptations needed for your event. Many coaches require that their athletes take at least one day off a week.

For those diagnosed with the overtraining syndrome, a gradual approach to recovery works best. Five weeks of rest have been shown to improve both performance and mood, but there is a growing body of evidence indicating that low levels of exercise during that period will speed the recovery process. Total recovery can take 6-12 weeks and should involve proper nutrition, removing as much stress as possible, and active rest.

Don’t make the mistake of returning to normal training levels too soon. Consider cross training (playing another sport) to avoid the temptation of increasing workout intensities before you’re ready.

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