After a hip and shoulder surgery before age 25, I decided enough was enough.
If some exercise is good for you, more is better, right? That’s what I thought as a competitive athlete, anyway. I wanted to be the best.
I was out running extra miles while my friends and teammates were hanging out. I was at the REC doing extra strength workouts on weekends. I wanted to be the strongest, most well rounded athlete I could be — and I was.
I was on a path to setting school records. I was strong, I had endurance, and could have competed well in many events. I found my worth in those abilities until, eventually, it crumbled on top of me like a structureless building.
I couldn’t keep a regular menstrual cycle (I was diagnosed with female athlete triad disease in 11th grade); I was tired and cranky; I always had trouble concentrating; I was diagnosed with stress fracture after stress fracture; I looked and felt puffy, was constantly sick, felt alone (because I sacrificed other areas of my life, like friendships, for training), and always seemed to suffer from acute injuries.
A large part of this experience spurred from the fact that I overtrained and didn’t understand the value of rest, and part of it was the fact that I had no idea how to nourish my body for the amount of training I was doing.
As a gymnast, cross country runner, and pole vaulter, being lean was something I strived for. I was usually undereating, which sometimes led to bingeing on poor-quality foods. There wasn’t much in between. My body was fighting me and I didn’t know how to break the cycle.
My overtraining, lack of nourishment, and high stress lifestyle led me down a path I hated:
All of this to say: I’ve been there, and overtraining can be a dark, lonely road.
On the one side, regular physical activity has many positive effects. Today, however, it’s important to recognize there is a point when more activity leads to serious, detrimental acute and long-term effects.
When we talk about overtraining, we aren’t talking about the bit of soreness and fatigue you’re experiencing if you’re new to exercise or have recently started a new training program. That’s expected.
True overtraining is when these symptoms progress and add up overtime leading to more serious issues than general soreness and fatigue, although these are also symptoms of overtraining syndrome.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reports that “Overtraining is an accumulation of training and/or non training stress resulting in long-term decrement in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of maladaptation in which restoration of performance capacity may take several weeks or months.”
It’s important to understand that other factors play a role in overtraining besides the amount and intensity of your training. Ask yourself these questions:
These are all factors that come into play and affect how well you recover from your training. And if they’re not all at the right levels, you can subject yourself to the trauma of overtraining.
Both males and females are at risk for overtraining syndrome (OTS). Catching the signs early is crucial in preventing long term effects. If you or someone you know has these symptoms, it is important to get some help on the path to recovery.
All that said, here are 9 telltale signs you may be experiencing overtraining syndrome:
1. Decreased performance
Despite increased volume and training load, your performance is decreasing. Your lifts, run times, jumps, and explosiveness have decreased and you don’t know why. You may also be experiencing an increased rate of perceived exertion in seemingly easy, lower intensity workouts. Part of this issue could be because overtraining can cause your heart rate to be elevated at rest, which leads to having a tough time getting your heart rate back to “normal” after exercising.
It’s normal to be fatigued for a day, in some cases two days, after an intense training session, however, chronic fatigue is a sign you are not recovering from your training and/or are not properly fueling.
3. Chronic or nagging injuries
Your body is constantly aching. You may be experiencing overuse injuries or pain from old injuries that just don’t seem to heal. Stress fractures and other overuse injuries are very common among athletes in the overtraining state. It’s important to note that chronic pain and injuries also play a large role in moodiness, agitation, and mental health disorders which are common among those in an overtrained state.
4. Poor sleep
Sleep is necessary for recovery, but if you’re suffering from overtraining, you may have difficulty sleeping at night. This is because overtraining affects your stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) which in turn make it difficult for you to wind down and get in a parasympathetic state. You may be noticing all of these symptoms go hand-in-hand. Sleep is necessary for recovery and mood, yet overtraining impairs your ability to sleep and therefore your ability to recover. It’s truly a terrible cycle.
5. Decreased immunity
Overtraining leads to a compromised immune system because you are taxing all of your body’s systems. Your body is trying to recover and adapt, but without adequate rest you are more susceptible to infections, especially upper respiratory infections. If you find you are getting sick more often than usual you may want to back off of your training.
6. Agitation or mood swings
We mentioned these in the injury section, however, it’s important to note that despite joint pain, chronic overtraining leads to hormone imbalances that affect mood, ability to concentrate, and your temper. A lack of ability to train and compete can also play a role in depression and low self esteem if you find your purpose and worth in your training or pursuit of competitive sport.
7. Excessive soreness or body aches
As mentioned, some soreness is normal. If you find you are excessively sore for more than a few days and your body or joints continuously ache, this is a common symptom of overtraining. Any pain that lasts two or more weeks should be considered a notable injury and you should seek medical attention.
8. Food cravings or lack of appetite
When training more, your body wants more food, right? Actually, a sign of overtraining is a lack of appetite; your body needs more nourishment, yet you don’t have an appetite to eat. This is because your
9. Hormone imbalance
For females, this can mean a lack of menstruation or irregular menstruation. When this occurs, it can affect bone density and energy levels. Female athlete triad can be a seriously detrimental condition for young women. In some younger cases, leading to female athlete triad disease. For both men and women, this can affect your sex drive or libido. When you lose this, it typically means you’re at a serious point in the overtraining spectrum, and you should speak with a doctor and get help on the path to recovery.
Overtraining vs. Functional Overreaching
Overtraining is different from functional overreaching. While overtraining is rooted in a combination of heavy training, lack of proper nourishment, high life stress, and improper rest/recovery, functional overreaching is a short term training strategy that many elite athletes use during pre-competition season to peak for an upcoming event.
There’s a fine line when overloading training: This is why proper progression and deloading are necessary components of a solid workout regime. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for more than a few days or a week you should take some time to reflect and make changes to your current program and lifestyle.
Sometimes, less is more when it comes to intensive training. Recovery time is not the villain in this story. Treat rest and recovery with the same respect and value that you treat your training time with. Proper nourishment and stress management are game changers. If you find yourself on this dark, lonely road of overtraining, please reach out for help. You don’t have to walk this road alone.
At Smarter Sweat, we have learned the hard way to value rest and proper nourishment. We make sure to include proper progressions, recovery flows, weekly reflections, and a deload week in each of our programs in hopes that you will feel the value of rest too. You can sign up for updates on our programs here.
By Ashley Pfantz
Ashley is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat, certified personal trainer and professional health and fitness coach. She also owns Pfancy Fitness, an individualized fitness, nourishment, and lifestyle coaching business where she coaches all of her clients remotely.
About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.