Signs of Overtraining Syndrome and How to Avoid It

by Evelyn Valdez

Athletes and professional bodybuilders dedicate huge portions of time to working out. Most will even train two times a day just so they can stay at the peak of their physical fitness. But is there such a thing as too much exercise?

It’s encouraging to know the work you’re putting in is making you stronger, better, and faster. However, pushing ourselves too much without proper rest and recovery can be dangerous for the body and cause your results to plateau. This kind of athletic burnout is what’s known as overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a condition where the body becomes extremely fatigued from too much exercise and not enough rest. It’s a common occurrence in elite athletes since they are constantly being encouraged to push themselves and give more than a hundred percent. 

The truth, however, is it doesn’t matter if you do weight training, cardio, HIIT, or play a particular sport. Putting your body through excessive training with little recovery time can result in serious physical and mental symptoms. 

Signs of overtraining syndrome

The most obvious warning sign of overtraining is extreme exhaustion. If you’re suddenly walking out of your workouts early or noticing a drop in your performance levels, these are good signs you’re pushing your body too far.

The reason overtraining syndrome is so serious is because it negatively impacts your mind and body in many different ways. If left unchecked, these various symptoms can linger for weeks or even months. Symptoms of overtraining can include:

  • Change of mood (irritability, anger, anxiety, depression)

  • Body fatigue 

  • Decreased motivation

  • Frequent injuries

  • Suppressed immune system 

  • Decrease in school performance

  • Sleep disturbances or poor sleep quality

  • Sudden weight loss

  • Decreased appetite

  • Chronic muscle and joint pain

A serious sign of overtraining in young women and female athletes is not menstruating, potentially for months at a time. This condition is called amenorrhea. Women with amenorrhea tend to be estrogen-deficient, which causes health risks like infertility, atrophy of the vagina and breast, and osteoporosis.[1] Eating disorders can often emerge as well, particularly in young athletes, all in an effort to lose weight, get faster, or burn more calories per workout. Not following a proper nutrition plan is spelling for disaster and will only hurt any progress someone is trying to make. 

The behavioral and mental changes created from overtraining syndrome can be even more damaging. Working out too much increases cortisol production, which adds further stress to the body. Mental struggles like anxiety and depression can affect multiple parts of life and these feelings will escalate if ignored. Low self-esteem could also be a reason why someone is overtraining. In some cases, the parent and/or coaches put too much pressure on an athlete to perform, especially for special events or championship games. 

Fortunately, there are many different ways to treat and heal yourself from overtraining syndrome. With enough time and rest, you can get back to feeling stronger and crushing your workouts. 

How to recover from overtraining syndrome

There’s no one cure or medication for overtraining. How recovery is completed and the success of certain treatments partly depends on the individual. It also depends on the severity of your symptoms. Getting adequate rest is the best way to start healing, but there are subsequent treatments that can aid the recovery process.

  1. There should be a total stop to competing and/or training for a certain amount of time. Based on the symptoms and possible injuries, this can range between 4 to 12 weeks. Once the signs of burnout are gone and a person has returned to their normal habits, they can slowly start working out again or return to their sport. 
  2. Low-intensity workouts, like yoga, walking, or swimming, are recommended so you can remain active while giving other overworked muscles a break. There’s less stress being placed on the muscles and joints, but you’re still moving and training your entire body.
  3. Getting a professional massage is great for muscle recovery, especially for those dealing with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Deep tissue massages are considered the best for alleviating pain, kneading out muscle knots, reducing tension, and breaking up muscle scar tissue. 
  4. Muscle balms can help soothe overworked or tense muscles. CBD muscle balms are particularly popular amongst athletes. There’s evidence that suggests CBD reduces inflammation and is ideal for localized pain.[2]
  5. Hot and cold treatments are shown to have tremendous benefits for full-body recovery.[3] It’s even done by players in the NFL, although they have the luxury of using thermaplunge and polarplunge pools. For us, non-professional athletes and average gym-goers,  heating pads, and ice baths will have to do! Alternating between hot and cold therapy provides relief by reducing inflammation, stimulating blood circulation, and loosening tight muscles. Heat wraps and ice packs are useful for smaller areas like the knees, face, hands, and neck. Partial immersion and total immersion in hot or cold water will also target more muscles. Some will switch from an ice bath to taking a hot bath to get the full effect of the treatment.

    If these methods don’t seem to offer any improvement to the various overtraining symptoms, and things are becoming worse, you should speak with your doctor or a specialist in sports medicine. Sometimes an injury might be more serious than anticipated, or your mental state requires more attention. Since total recovery could take anywhere from several weeks to months, a physician may recommend a recovery plan to ensure you continue making progress.

    How to prevent it in the future

    Preventing overtraining is entirely doable. It’s not easy to predict the signs right away since everybody responds differently to training. However, there are plenty of things you can do for your mind and body that allow for enough rest and recovery.

    • Schedule at least 1 to 2 rest days into your weekly workout schedule, especially if you often lift heavy. The muscle groups need this kind of break so they can heal and aren’t being overtrained. 

    • Don’t suddenly increase your training load or training volume if you haven’t properly acclimated to the change. Try increasing your workouts gradually so you’re not stressing out your body or pushing your body too much, too fast.

    • Include rest periods during your workout. These can be anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds or longer depending on your fitness level. 

    • Schedule days for low-impact physical activity to balance the high-intensity of your weekly workout schedule. Try yoga, swimming, or walking. These can help relieve tightness and keep you active without always having to complete strenuous exercises.

    • Keep a training log so you can detail all of your workouts and results. Monitor how much weight you use, the number of reps, and whether or not a particular move or section felt harder than before. 

    • Eating a balanced diet should never be overlooked. If your body isn’t fueled, you won’t have the energy or endurance to get through a workout or properly recover. Protein and carbohydrates are vital to muscle recovery, and so is hydration. You should always be replacing the fluids and electrolytes you lost from sweating. Some soreness and cramping are really because you’re dehydrated.

    • Make adjustments to your training program as needed. You can't expect yourself to perform at one hundred percent all the time. Everyone has their limits, so if you need to take a break or simplify your training sessions, you have to do what's best for your physical and mental health.

    • Monitor your resting heart rate. Thanks to technology, we have watches that can check our heart rate 24/7. If it increases while you're at rest or training at a certain intensity level, you'll know whether your body is able to rest and recover properly or not. 

    • Listen to your body. You know best how you're feeling or if something doesn't feel right. It makes no sense to work out if your physical performance is suffering. You could just end up injuring yourself. Do you feel sick or dizzy? Is the pain you feel worse than the day before? You are one of your first lines of defense against overtraining.

    Be patient if you're healing from overtraining syndrome

    Overtraining does nothing positive for your body. Instead, it leaves you unable to do almost anything for weeks while your body heals itself. Recovery time is going to look different for everyone, but what's important is that you prevent yourself from overtraining in the future. 

    Getting back to peak athletic performance won't happen overnight, so remember to be patient with yourself during the rest and recovery process. It doesn't matter if you're an endurance athlete, weight lifter, or a casual gym member, overtraining syndrome can affect someone at any fitness level. 

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published