For many, visiting the gym and other health and fitness related activities are considered a hobby; something to do as and when you get a spare hour or two. For others, it can become an obsession, engrained into your daily routine, in a similar fashion to that of eating and sleeping. Which side of the fence do you fall on?

How many times do you undertake your chosen health and fitness related activity in any given week? Do you allow yourself adequate rest and recovery in between training sessions? Have you ever felt like you might be doing too much? These are all important questions, which you should allow yourself time to answer honestly.

In the world of health and fitness there is a very fine line between not doing enough and doing too much. With many individuals chasing personal goals and accomplishments, it’s sometimes hard to take your foot off of the gas and evaluate the situation, when in reality this could be just what the doctor ordered.

At this point of the article, it’s important to note the fundamental differences between overtraining and overreaching. Overtraining can negatively impact upon you and your performance levels whilst overreaching can be considered the complete opposite. This will shortly be considered in further detail.

For those of you aching after an intense training session, fear not: this can be considered a normal response to exercise. Confusion often surrounds the topic of overtraining and so the purpose of this article is to try and add some clarity.

Without further ado, let us initially consider the definition of overtraining…

Overtraining Versus Overreaching

“The overtraining syndrome is a condition of fatigue and under-performance, often associated with frequent infections and depression which occurs following hard training and competition. The symptoms do not resolve despite two weeks of adequate rest and there is no other identifiable medical cause”
Budgett, 1998.

The above definition highlights that of overtraining. Regardless of whether you frequently exercise or not, we all can agree that this is not a normal response to exercise. Now let us consider overreaching to clarify any confusion.

All athletes need to train hard to improve and develop. Without placing enhanced stresses and strains through the body, it is likely that you will begin to tread water. Initial hard training causes underperformance; however, if recovery is allowed, then super compensation and enhanced performances will be noted. This is known as overreaching and is considered positive (Budgett, 1990).

Often the signs and symptoms of overtraining and overreaching can present similarly and this can serve to further muddy the water. Ultimately, you know your own body better than anyone else and if these signs and symptoms continue for prolonged periods of time, then a diagnosis of overtraining can often be confirmed.

The main symptoms of overtraining evolve around underperformance in your chosen sporting activity. Sleep patterns are often also disturbed and can result in sleeplessness and nightmares. Other common symptoms include loss of appetite, competitiveness and libido whilst anxiety and irritability can be seen to heighten (Budgett, 1994).

The main signs of overtraining often involve minor infections and other general illnesses. Physiological signs can include a drop in blood pressure and a significant rise in heart rate. These signs and symptoms are by no means a definitive list (Kindermann, 1986).

The Possible Causes Of Overtraining

Although this might appear relatively self explanatory, the exact cause of overtraining is a complex one. There is no one rule fits all explanation for this phenomenon and each individual should be assessed and advised according to their unique signs and symptoms; what’s considered too much for one individual might be considered the bear minimum for another.

Previous research investigations have highlighted several training modes and methods which are more likely to bring about a state of overtraining within an individual. These are as follows: intensive interval training, heavy monotonous training and a sudden and prolonged increment in training (Budgett, 1998). It should also be highlighted that psychological as well as physical stresses can significantly impact upon overtraining and should not be dismissed.

Various research investigations into the possible causes of overtraining have considered many different physiological aspects including that of hormonal changes, amino acids and central fatigue and immunosupression and glutamine to name but a few. However, at this stage, conclusive evidence is lacking and the inability to draw any conclusive cause and effect relationship weakens such research.

Central fatigue and overtraining has also been considered by the British Olympic Medical Centre. During their research investigations they concluded that overtrained athletes produced significantly lower peak power during sprint tests and quadriceps contractions when comparisons were drawn against the control group. A hypothesis concluded central fatigue resulted in an inability to activate fast twitch muscle fibres fully (Koutedakis, 1995).

The Prevention And Treatment Of Overtraining

Morton (1991) stated that the ability to accurately monitor and manipulate training intensity and the spacing of the training were the most important factors in both optimising athlete performance whilst minimising the risk of overtraining.

This is sometimes easier said then done and requires expert input and maintenance throughout your training schedule. Unfortunately, many athletes respond to the initial symptoms of overtraining, that being underperformance, by simply increasing their training sessions in an attempt to rectify this situation (Smith et al, 1997).

This creates a vicious circle whereby the more you do the worse you become, when the real intervention should focus around full rest and removal from that activity.

If the ability to prevent overtraining is missed and a diagnosis is provided, a holistic approach of rest and regeneration strategies should be strongly recommended (Budgett, 1994). One of the hardest things to tell an athlete is to fully rest, but it should be highlighted that training will only worsen the situation.

Over a period of six to twelve weeks, a progressive training programme, gradually looking at bringing about increments in exercise activity and intensity can be sought, although close monitoring of the key signs and symptoms of overtraining should occur throughout the recovery phase.

Final Word

Although the exact cause of overtraining and how it creates the common signs and symptoms are not fully known and understood, it is apparent that physical, psychological and physiological factors all contribute to the inability to recover from exercise.

There is a common tendency to avoid rest and to battle through overtraining, yet it should be noted that fatigue, underperformance and recurrent infections are the only likely outcomes with this course of action.

Before signing off, it’s important to reiterate that the fundamental differences between overreaching and overtraining can sometimes appear clouded. When this is the case, always consider the bigger picture and your approach to exercise as a whole.

Are you training too intensely? Do you allow yourself enough rest and recuperation? Continuous reassessment and revaluation should allow you to make this judgement call and ultimately avoid a diagnosis of overtraining.

With all this in mind, enjoy your training and continue to strive forwards towards those personal goals whilst always remembering: sometimes the best thing to do is absolutely nothing.