It can begin with a simple idea that doing one more training session can help improve your performance. Perhaps one more interval, or one more mile, and this leads you down a rabbit hole of constant doubt if what you’re doing is enough. Working hard is an excellent attribute to possess, but when overworking (and therefore under recovering) becomes the problem, you can start to run into issues.
Overtraining is defined as excessive exercise, combined with under-recovery that results in changes in multiple systems: neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic, and mood changes.1 The under-recovery side is a key ingredient to the formula. Many athletes exercise, a lot. Look at ultra-endurance athletes, they exercise a lot, but not all elite/ultra athletes are overtrained. This is because they recover properly. When you mix a lot of exercise with not a lot of rest, your body begins to walk the fine line of chronic fatigue.
So are you overtrained? Well, it depends. Overtraining can be hard to self-diagnose. You can find yourself tired from periods of deep fatigue due to an intense training block, and more than likely the goal of the block was to feel this way. Or perhaps you find yourself moving sluggishly from the moment you get out of bed (and your bad sleeping patterns didn’t help that!) and you are not even training that hard. So what is going on?
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining
While reading each of these common symptoms can make all of us begin to question if we’re overtrained, it is important to note that if you have one or two of these symptoms it does not necessarily mean you are in fact, overtrained. If you do find yourself nodding in agreement to many of these symptoms, then perhaps it is important for you to take an honest self-check to see if you are falling into a state of overtraining (under-recovering.)
Have you noticed that you’ve felt a bit down lately? Are your normal routines and interactions starting to agitate you or make you feel stressed? Are your training partners’ jokes no longer funny? These fluctuations in your attitude and mood can be a big red flag.
Monitoring your day-to-day mood / how you feel is one of the most significant indicators of potential overtraining. If you’re working with a coach in person, it can be easy to spot for them that you are not your “normal self.” If you are not meeting up with others and you train solo, perhaps it is a good idea to start keeping track of how you feel each morning. Many different training logs have these daily metric features built in to make it easy for you to record your day-to-day emotions. These emotions can range from not only your current mood but your motivation levels too.
How does this fatigue differ from say normal fatigue from working out? Have you begun to notice that every session becomes harder and harder to complete regardless of the workout? Even easy days begin to feel hard. Depending on how deep you’ve dug yourself into the overtraining hole, you may feel fatigued when you wake up, go up and down your house stairs etc. Everyday activities can start to feel like a mountain to climb when your body is begging for a break. It is important to check in with routine blood work to ensure that your own blood levels are normal and that there is no other underlying cause for chronic fatigue. Consult your doctor if you are concerned.
3. Sleep Patterns
Do you typically sleep like a rock but lately struggle to either fall or stay asleep? Sleep is another key indicator of under-recovering. Not only is it stressful to not sleep, but knowing that sleep is crucial for your body to recover makes this symptom even more stressful! Chronic stress leads to increased hormone levels, especially cortisol, which can impact your sleeping patterns.
4. Stress Levels
Stress on a system (example: effects of training on your body) help to build the system back stronger by breaking it down, and then recovering from this stress. The key: recovery. Not all stress was created equal though as many of us know. We have both physical training stress and more than likely, mental stress. Mental stress can include a plethora of life situations: family, job, friends, etc. Your body does not file training stress and mental stress into separate filing cabinets. Stress is stress. This is important to remember as many times we like to think that during periods of heavy mental stress that adding heavy physical stress will help us out.
This is where the Psychobiological Model comes in. The overall idea is that endurance exercise is not limited by physiological barriers, but psychological barriers. Performing a workout while carrying a heavy load of excess mental fatigue reduces your performance. If you have ever had trouble completing a workout as prescribed after a stressful day at work, but were properly fueled and off your feet, then you have experienced this phenomenon.
There are two different types of stresses: eustress (positive) and destress (negative). Your body responds positively and adapts to eustress. On the other hand, the body goes into protection mode when it encounters destress. Your body has a limiting cap on just how much stress it can handle. Taking your daily stress levels into account is critical when evaluating your fatigue levels.
5. Injury or Illness
Have you noticed that you are getting sick more often than usual? Or that your body is experiencing more frequent injury flare-ups? Illness and injury are two big flags when it comes to overtraining. Your body is no longer able to keep up with the turnover of repair from workouts and you have skipped the most important step to training: proper recovery. When your body is lacking sleep and necessary nutrients to repair itself you put yourself at risk for riding a fine line between health and illness. Once you cross that line, you begin to experience a cascade of effects due to improper sleep, nutrient intake, and muscle repair. Your immune system becomes compromised making you more susceptible to illness
6. Heart Rate Changes
For many of you who track your heart rate, you may start to see a lower heart rate for a given power or pace later on in training blocks when entering a deep fatigue stage.
Your body is controlled by two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic, SNS and PNS respectively. When your body encounters more stress than it is accustomed to, your SNS and PNS respond. For the heart, this chronic stress response causes your heart to respond slower to changes (it’s slower to increase during an effort and slower to decrease during recovery) and reduces how fast your heart can beat at max effort2.
Even without a heart rate monitor, you can track your heart rate response to fatigue. You’ll get the most useful information out of RHR (resting heart rate) by taking your measurement in the same position at roughly the same time of day, ideally first thing in the morning before even getting out of bed. Your resting heart rate is a great sign of aerobic fitness and an indicator of fatigue. As your fitness improves your RHR will decrease. During periods of extra fatigue, you’ll notice your RHR is higher than normal.
Overtrained? Now What?
Initially, your workouts may start going poorly and you think the solution is to train harder and more often. Unfortunately, this remedy of working harder to be better only makes your workouts go even worse. The reality of the situation: you need to rest.
This won’t be easy, especially if you find yourself becoming anxious at the thought of taking a break. Exercise is a vital part to many of our routines: it brings balance, stress relief, and a rush of endorphins. Unfortunately, this same activity that brings you balance and joy is currently making you exhausted, stressed, and sick. As hard as it is, you need to pump the brakes and take some recovery. If you are forced into deciding between an extra 30 minutes of sleep or an easy ride, pick sleep. If you are also deciding between extra sleep or trudging through your key workout…pick sleep. Sleep is key!
It is important to reassure yourself that dialing back your training is the best course of action in the long run. None of us are immune to life stress. The most important part is to recognize the symptoms of overtraining (under-recovery) and to adjust your training accordingly.
Hard training is all about digging a hole. Most of us can dig ourselves into a workout fatigue hole we cannot possibly climb out of, but the best athletes have the ability to dig the deepest hole that they are able to climb out of.
It is crucial to track how you feel during your normal/average training blocks in order to have a reference point for when you hit periods of chronic fatigue. This can help you to easily distinguish between what feels normal, and what feels off.
Jeff Hoobler is an elite strength and endurance coach with over 30 years of experience coaching athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions in a variety of sports. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is a USAC Cycling coach, MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, professional bike fitter, and Foundations Training Instructor. In addition to coaching, Jeff is a competitive racer on the road, mountain bike, and cyclocross.