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Overtraining & The Signs Of Burnout

Overtraining is a decreased capacity for work that slowly develops from an imbalance between stress and rest


The overtrained athlete experiences declining performance and a nagging exhaustion that no longer responds to a few days rest. These are the best indicators of overtraining and is also known as “Staling”.

When faced with the onset of this condition, athletes are just as likely to increase their training load instead of taking time off. It is a natural reaction to a decline in fitness or performance. It’s quite rare that an athlete will take it upon themselves to rest when things aren’t going well.

Poor performance and exhaustion don’t always result from overtraining, sometimes it can be brought on from ‘overliving’. This is where the stress of training is magnified by the busy lives we lead outside of training and racing. Trying to fit too much into the day. For a working class athlete you are dealing with a full time job, raising children, maintaining the house, keeping a social life and other real life responsibilities. These all take a toll on physical and psychological energy. Combine this with a high training workload and the result is often the kind of decreased performance and chronic exhaustion that overtraining causes.

When and athlete is faced with this dilemma, training is the stress that must be reduced, no matter how low the athlete thinks their workload already is. Calling in sick for work is probably not an option, nor can the kids be told to fend for themselves. The grass still needs to be mown and the washing still needs to be done.  At such times, the only option is to train less and relax more.

Overtraining that is is a result strictly from training and not from lifestyle stress is produced by one or more of 3 common training excesses:

  1. Workouts are too long (excess duration)
  2. Exertion is too high too often (excess intensity)
  3. Too many workouts are done in too little time( excess frequency)

Probably the most common cause in working class athletes is excess intensity. Either the athlete starts anaerobic endurance too soon in the season and tries to keep it going for several months or they space the hard workouts too close together. Depending on your sport, most endurance sports events are about 90% aerobic and 10% anaerobic. That’s roughly the same mix necessary for optimal training. An excess emphasis on anaerobic effort week after week without adequate recovery ultimately leads to overtraining.

Overtraining Indicators

When overtraining is imminent, the body issues warnings.

Physical Overtraining Warnings:

Reduced performance, constant fatigue, weight change, increased thirst, morning HR change, muscle soreness, swollen lymph glands, diarrhea, injury, infection, amenorrhea, decreased exercise HR, slow healing of cuts and abrasions.

Behavioral Overtraining Warnings:

Apathy, lethargy, depression, poor concentration, changes in sleep pattern, irritability, decreased libido, clumsiness, sluggishness, craving for sugar.


The indicators of overtraining are not the same for all athletes, or are they consistent for any one athlete. Any single indicator, such as lethargy, is not a reliable predictor of overtraining when taken by itself. Some unique mix of indicators is almost always present in an overtrained athlete.

Many elite athletes have blood chemistry testing done in the preparation or early base phases of their training. This establishes a healthy baseline for later comparison should their training start becoming overwhelming. When they aren’t responding normally to training during other periods of the season, they have blood taken and tested again to see if there are significant differences such as changes in serum iron (a common cause of lagging power and endurance). Blood testing may also help rule out health related issues that may be affecting the athletes performance. A Dr will interpret the results of the blood test.

Such testing may help serious athletes of all abilities determine the cause of poor performance and perhaps even issues like poor nutrition. But regardless of the cause, if the condition is suspected to be overtraining, the first stage of treatment is rest.

Stages of Overtraining

To become overtrained you must pass through 3 overlapping and indistinct stages. The first stage is Overload. A normal part of the process of increasing the training workload in order to cause adaption. If the load is appropriate, it results in over compensation. It’s typical to have short term fatigue when experiencing overload. At this stage fatigue easily decreases with 2-3 days rest, depending on the athlete. It’s also common during this stage to feel you are invincible. That feeling often leads to the next stage.

The second stage is Overreaching. Overreaching is where the workload may rise slightly for a period of 2 weeks or more. Extending your build phase without a rest weeks is another common cause of overreaching. After 2 or more weeks of this, performance begins to decline. This may be apparent in workouts at this time, as high motivation is allowing you to maintain race day performance. Fatigue lasts longer than in the overload stage, but with a few consecutive days rest, it is still reversible. What often happens though is the athlete decides to increase the training workload or skips rest days in order to improve what appears to be a drop in performance. This brings on the third stage.

The third stage is a full blown overtraining syndrome. Fatigue is now chronic. You wake up tired and remain tired all day, yet you struggle to get to sleep at night. Your body is exhausted. Neither decreased training or even a few days rest make any difference. You’re overtrained.

The Geography of Overtraining

The challenge for the serious athlete is the trip to the ‘peak of fitness’ passes through the ‘valley of fatigue’ and dangerously close to the edge of ‘overtraining’. Excessively increasing the training load causes a decline in fitness as marked by performance, pushing you to the edge.

The idea is to go to the edge infrequently, once every 4 weeks or so and then REST. Since it takes about 3 weeks of increasing the training load to overtrain, you need to allow for recovery after no more than 21 days. Athletes of about age 40 or older and novices may need to recover more frequently, perhaps after only 2 weeks of increased training. To go beyond occasional overreaching is to fall over the edge and start the downward spiral to overtraining.

When you enter the valley of fatigue, overtraining indicators appear. You will continually experience excessive fatigue and even poor sleep quality as well as muscle soreness and other indicators as mentioned above. The athlete that has just gone over the edge is often confused about what is wrong., since the overtraining indicators may be few in number and not very severe. When you suspect a hint of overtraining there is only one course of action to take, REST. Take 2 full days of complete rest, meaning 2 days of zero training. Then try a very light easy workout. If still fatigued, take another 2 days off and repeat the easy workout. It could take 5 – 8 weeks of this to fully recover from overtraining. All the while, a great deal of fitness is lost.

Read a first hand account of trying High Intensity Interval Training for the first time.

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