Overtraining: What is it, Why does it Happen, Symptoms, How to Detect and Prevent it

Overtraining: What is it, Why does it Happen, Symptoms, How to Detect and Prevent it

In this article, we will deal with overtraining, what is it and how to prevent it, and we will give advice as to how to detect and prevent it, so that we will be able to maintain our performance

What is the Overtraining Syndrome?

There are many hypotheses as to what triggers this situation, but there is an agreement nonetheless:

An excess of training combined with a lack of rest and recovery

Not respecting any of these elements can result in our inability to perform any physical activity due to a high level of tiredness or lack of motivation.

Why does Overtraining Happen?

Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal fatigue is a direct consequence from this lack of organization and chaos. It happens due to continuous intense periods of training which end up affecting the adrenal glands. This inhibits the stress hormones which are necessary to regulate the balance of the social and physiological functioning.


CNS (Central Nervous System) Fatigue

This phenomenon is even more complex than the former and it has even more serious connotations. Why? Because the CNS connects the brain with the rest of the body, which is why overtraining can result in CNS fatigue. If this happens, the neurotransmitting function will be significantly affected.

Symptoms of CNS fatigue
  • Decreased performance
  • Increased heart rate while at rest
  • Hindered reflexes
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Mental slowness
  • Discomfort in any physical effort

Causes of Overtraining

Too much physical exercise

This factor exponentially increases the chances of suffering an overtraining syndrome, specially if we are not experts or if we are not fully adapted to high intensity activities. If we are beginners, we should be even more careful since we do not fully control this capacity. We have to learn to interpret the signs of the body and, regardless of our calendar, we will rest instead of train if it is necessary.

Excess of training

The most serious cases of overtraining can result in Rhabdomyolysis

Nervous System Exhaustion

If we keep into account the implications of this concept, we may understand the theories about what causes it better:

In each movement that we make, the brain switches on a button that produces brain activity. A flow of signals travel from the brain to the muscles, which produces contractile movement. We call this neurotransmitter pathway.

After several intense workouts (specially anaerobic ones), there is a decay or strangulation of the pathway, even though the muscles are perfectly fine. We will be stronger, faster, and more capable to perform the activity due to the overload principle. The endurance athlete will run faster each week; the strength athlete will increase the weight and volume of workouts…


Our brain monitors everything we do, and it keeps a safety margin for intense activities. As soon as we surpass it, the brain will send sings of fatigue and tiredness as an alarm in order to prevent any damage.

Lack of Nutrients

Keeping a high volume of training and intensity without the corresponding calories supply can result in an incomplete recovery since our body needs fuel to perform. At the same time, not providing enough carbohydrates will be counterproductive if the workout demands the glycolytic pathway. Moreover, not meeting the protein requirements will produce a lack of amino acids, which are essential elements for muscle regeneration.

Causes of Overtraining

Now that we know all this information, let’s see if anyone dares to defy their own body?

How to Detect Overtraining?

If you suffer several symptoms from this list…

  • Feeling of exhaustion, tiredness, lack of energy
  • Mild pain, general malaise
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Sudden decrease of the performance
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Hindered immune system (prone to catch colds, throat aches, …)
  • Decrease of the capacity to train, as well as of the intensity
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Lack of motivation to train
  • Loss of appetite
  • Substantial increase of injuries

Detect Overtraining

Symptoms of Overtraining

  • Inability to complete your workout routine

    Some people train until they fail and that is fine. But in this case, we are talking about not being able to lift weights that we normally are able to deal with, or run sprints or walks that we are used to. If you feel weaker, slower, and your resistance is deteriorating even if you train regularly, you may actually be training too much.

  • Loss of muscle mass

    If losing fat is as easy as to burn calories by increasing the load of work, overtraining would not result in an accumulation of fats, but this is not even what is truly relevant in this case. This is about hormones. Sometimes, training too much can result in a loss of muscle mass and fat burning. We may be burning calories more than ever, but there will be a hormone imbalance between testosterone and cortisol. In general, too much cortisol will increase insulin resistance and the accumulation of fat, specially around the abdominal area.

  • You are an anaerobic athlete and you feel restless, nervous, and you cannot sleep

    Anaerobic overtraining increases the sympathetic activity at rest. The symptoms include hyperexcitability, anxiety, and inability to focus (specially during sport performance), even while we are at rest. In general, sleep is perturbed in athletes with anaerobic overtraining, recovery slows down and the heart rate is high at rest as well. To put it briefly, the body is reacting to a chronically stressful situation by increasing the stress levels of the sympathetic system.

  • You are an endurance athlete and you feel too tired, weak, and useless

    Excessive strength training can cause sympathetic overtraining, too much endurance work can cause parasympathetic overtraining, which results in a decrease of testosterone, increased cortisol levels, weakening fatigue (mental and physical), and inability to lose body fat.

  • Pain and/or injuries in the joints, bones, and muscles

    One of the main causes of injuries among sportspeople is an overload or an excessive use of a muscle or joint. Performing repetitive movements that involve the same muscle groups which do not have a proper rest or recovery can result in an overload injury. Each time the muscles make an effort, there are injuries in the fibers, which means that there are less and less healthy fibers that are capable of responding to the physical effort, and the chances of suffering an injury is higher if the exercise requires the same intensity for less fibers. The best way to avoid this situation is to exercise different areas depending on the day and the effort, and vary the intensity as well.

  • Weakened Immune System

    There are many factors that can compromise your immune system like changes in the diet (specially the consumption of sugar), a lack of vitamin D / sunlight, bad sleep habits, or mental stress, but overtraining can also affect the immune system. While a moderate resistance workout is beneficial for our immune responses, a more intense and “stressful” exercise can have a negative impact even though it should not last long. A symptom of overtraining can be less resistance to viral infections.

  • You feel down hours and days after a workout

    One of the main benefits of doing exercise is the feeling of wellness after a workout. Your mind is clear, you are energized, happy, and in a good mood. But, what if instead of feeling energized and enriched after a workout, you feel incomplete or uncomfortable? Exercise increases the mood overall but if it is having a negative impact on your mood, you may be suffering the overtraining syndrome.

Being “Addicted to Training”

It is somehow related with the overtraining syndrome, but this is more psychological than physical. So, a person can suffer overtraining because he or she is addicted to training. But, how can I know if I am truly obsessed with training?, if we experience any of the following points, it would be quite convenient to stop and reflect on the situation:

  • 1st: You experience Overtraining Symptoms
  • 2nd: You push yourself to train, even if you do not feel good
  • 3rd: You do not practice sport for fun
  • 4th: You must overcome the previous workout
  • 5th: You experience stress and anxiety if you miss a workout
  • 6th: You would rather do exercise than being with your friends
  • 7th: You think that will gain weight if you do not train
  • 8th: You think that you cannot relax or else you will not burn calories

Addiction to Sport

This type of behavior can trigger serious diseases like bulimia, anorexia, and other mental disorders. One of them is called Orthorexia which involves being strict with what we eat.

When Sport Stops Being Healthy…

This is another disorder which involves a certain “alteration” in the brain like some pathologies, since this people crave doing exercise and training even without limits. Moreover, they also feel the need to maintain a low weight and fat percentage, so they restrict the supply of calories because they think that if the do not their physical composition will change… but the truth is that they are only putting their health at serious risk.

Their arguments tend to be that the work they do is never enough and they can always do more and more, sometimes they even worship their idols to the point that they think that if they match their workouts, they will achieve the same performance. They do not stop training in spite of the injuries or the pain!

They have to deal with:
  • Symptoms of an overtraining syndrome
  • Muscle tension
  • Inflammation
  • Fractures due to stress
  • Chronic injuries like tendinitis

Their behavior is similar to that of drug addicts. The athlete is never satisfied with their exercise, but he or she always needs it. It is an obligation. We mentioned that exercise encourages a feeling of “wellness”, for them, they will need more time to reach this feeling. If they cannot train, they feel guilt, as if we were talking about abstinence.

Difference between Fatigue and Overtraining

Another interesting point is that we need to know how to distinguish between being tired and suffering overtraining. We all have experienced a lack of strength or pain after a hard leg workout… or maybe after performing a new activity that we are not used to, like a football match, and even if we practice sport, we will wake up the following day feeling as if we have run a marathon. Well, these are cases of temporary fatigue, since we will be completely recovered after a day or less.

Overtraining is a consequence of “bad habits”, because we do not follow any guideline about the activity we are performing and we do not pay attention to the signals that our body is sending to us until it is too late…

Difference between Fatigue and Overtraining

But we should also learn the difference between an overtraining syndrome and the symptoms of pathologies like anemia, some kind of infection, or even a lack of energy (carbohydrates…)

How to Avoid the Symptoms of Overtraining?

Plan the Workouts

This is one of the most important points when it comes to preventing an overtraining syndrome. We have to be aware of our capacities and we should not go further than what our body is capable of. It is true that we need to produce an alteration of the homeostasis through physical stress if we want to progress. This obviously produces the need of leaving a time to assimilate the effort, that is, a recovery period. This is achieved by planning the training days and the ones for rest or active recovery.

All the time we spend resting and recovering results in an improved physical capacity and performance. It is part of any workout program, and it results in developing adaptations that make us stronger and faster. The time we train produces an stimulus. During the rest our faculties are shaped.


This concept is more related to the athletic field and it can be somehow unknown for other types of sportspeople. It simply means periodization, dosing the intensity, which involves creating a smart and efficient program in order to avoid any overtraining process. It is vital to perform this strategy in strength workouts, since they have a direct impact on the CNS, and it will help us avoid chronic fatigue and improve our ability to assimilate the workouts and our performance.

You can take 1 discharge week every 5-6 weeks of intense training

During this discharge week, we can perform smooth activities and carry out an active recovery, like walking, stretching, relaxing, going to a physiotherapist…
If you reach an overtraining state, it will take days, weeks, and even months to recover depending on how serious it is. So, having a discharge week or even just a break every now and then may take longer than what we would like


Everyone should pay attention to this factor since it is extremely important. Basically, when we sleep we let our body rest, and we activate the machinery that is in charge regenerating the whole system. Sleep encourages restorative functions through the endocrine system when it comes to strength training. There is a release of hormones like the growth hormone or testosterone in this phase.

When we sleep, our body repairs all the stress that has been caused while we are sleep. We can see it like this: wakefulness involves catabolism, while rest produces anabolism

If there is any doubt: when anabolism “overcomes” catabolism, muscle growth takes place, that is, there is a negative nitrogen balance. The opposite would produce muscle breakdown. This is why by increasing anabolism, or the time we rest, the catabolism will drop, which will increase the recovery, growth, and improve the physical performance specially.

Sleep and Hormones

Restricting the time we sleep dramatically affects our organism by altering a certain amount of hormones that are important for growth and recovery:
  • Cortisol: We release much more cortisol. This hormone is necessary, but an excess will have catabolic connotations, since it is also known as the “stress hormone”. If it stays a long time in our organism, it will produce undesirable effects: accumulation of abdominal fat, breakdown of muscle tissue for energy processes, …; sleeping very little increase the amount of cortisol that is released by the body.
  • Testosterone: Its levels drop. The higher the testosterone levels, the more muscle gain. A lack of sleep lowers the testosterone levels.
  • Growth Hormone: Its production is limited. The body releases great amounts of this hormone which helps to build and maintain muscles. This is why limiting your recovery time will also limit your ability to produce this hormone.
  • Insulin: It hinders the ability of the body to absorb nutrients for the cells. Sleeping less results in an increased resistance to insulin, which pushes our body to release more insulin to compensate for this lack, which also increases the possibilities of storing extra fat, diabetes, risk of heart attack… In the same way, the ability of the cells to absorb nutrients drastically worsens.
Make sure that you are sleeping the time that your body needs in order to avoid all these counterproductive factors for your muscle growth, sport performance, but specially, for your health. Another factor that is also relevant to improve our quality of sleep is the diet!


Do you know how many calories do we need daily? Or how many proteins should you consume everyday? Perhaps you still do not know how much fat should you include in your diet? Or what about the importance of carbohydrates? Reviewing all these points will help you to compensate or adjust values that you thought were fine, but which were actually not enough.


As soon as these points are fixed, we can consider using some type of supplement that will help us to meet the requirements of nutrients and micronutrients.

  • Protein: helps to meet the daily requirements.
  • Carbohydrates: we can use them during intense workouts for a fat glucose absorption and to maintain the intensity of the activity. You can take them with mineral salts and electrolytes to improve the hydration.
  • Essential Omega 3 Fatty Acids: they are essential nutrients that perform important physiological tasks in the organism, and which have benefits for health.

How to Treat an Overtraining Syndrome

If you feel like you are overtraining your body, you should:

  • Taking a break and recovering: reduce the intensity or amount of exercise and give your body a break for a few days.
  • Hydrate yourself: drink plenty of liquids and make changes to your diet if necessary.
  • Sport massage: this can help you relax mentally and physically.
  • Vary your workout routines: work different areas of your body depending on the day and the effort, and change the intensity of the workout.
  • Stretch before training: this will help you prevent and avoid injuries.
  • Eat more proteins: it is very useful to consume 1g of protein per kilo of body weight, since proteins help the muscles to recover.
  • Satisfy your caloric needs: not eating enough calories will result in disorders that can worsen the symptoms of overtraining.
  • Rest for a whole month at least once a year in the most serious cases

Overtraining and Athletes

After explaining all this stuff, you may be asking yourself: why do athletes not suffer overtraining? It is true that when they prepare for a competition, like the Olympic Games, a professional athlete spends a lot of time training.

How can they train so many hours at such intensity? We cannot and should not compare ourselves to them. Some of the factors why they have reached such position are genetic predisposition, absolute dedication, personal trainers and doctors…, there is a lot of people surrounding and supporting them, and we need to be humble and deal with what we have, instead of blindly worshipping this people, we should be smart and dose our activity.

Athlete and Overtraining

Athletes have an ability to sacrifice that is out of this world

No Brain, No Gain

The Principle of Individual Differences establishes that since each person is “unique”, each one will experience a different behavior in regard to a training program. Some of these differences are genetics, physical condition and shape, experience, injuries, sex, … which are variables that condition the subject and which can cause an overtraining state.

While a more experienced athlete is capable of coping with a high volume of training and intensity, beginners will have to adjust to their own abilities, and advance progressively to be able to “digest” or assimilate the training, since their nervous system is still not used to such activity.

Practice sport to stay in shape and to obtain all its benefits for health, follow a healthy and balanced diet and try to respect the recovery periods

Overtraining Review

Causes - 99%

Symptoms - 98%

Fatigue vs Overtraining - 100%

Conclusion - 99%


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About Javier Colomer
Javier Colomer
"Knowledge Makes Stronger", Javier Colomer's motto, sets out his clearest statement of intentions expressing his knowledge and fitness experience.
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