Struggling with your exercise routine or feeling a bit washed out and drained? Perhaps your muscles are persistently feeling heavy, stiff, a bit sore, and your exercise program has ceased to be enjoyable. If so, you may be suffering from a condition referred to as Overtraining Syndrome or OTS.
Effective conditioning requires a balance between intense training sessions and periods of rest/recovery. Too much overload and/or not enough recovery can result in both physiological and psychological symptoms that limit performance. In most cases, the condition is often the result of inadequate rest/recovery because of our busy work lives, family, environmental stressors, meal skipping, and poor sleep.
For others, exercise can become addictive because of the adrenaline rush that one experiences given the effects of endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This addiction can easily result in frequent intense training sessions that are not interspersed with adequate recovery periods. This phenomenon, especially when combined with the increasing popularity of intense multi-event endurance competitions and group training programs such as marathon training and circuit races, places individuals at an increased risk of developing OTS.
As is the case with over-doing anything, be it overeating or overtraining, there is always a downside. Every individual has a different endurance capacity and if we ignore the symptoms, it is proven to be detrimental. Here are the most common symptoms of OTS:
- Persistent fatigue and a washed-out feeling
- Decreased performance and inability to maintain the training regimen.
- Increased susceptibility to infections, colds, and headaches.
- Sleep disturbances
- Decreased mental concentration and increased restlessness
- Increased irritability and a feeling of discomfort.
- Altered heart rate
- Loss of appetite or intense sugar cravings
- Bowel movement changes
- Absence of menstruation
The primary treatment is rest and, and in more severe cases, an extended break from training. Improved quality of sleep, appropriate nutrition and hydration, and addressing environmental stressors are essential for full recovery. It is advisable to get basic blood tests done to ensure that underlying health issues are not a cause of the fatigue. Be mindful of your body and take the following precautions:
- Listen to your body and take extra recovery time as indicated.
- Follow the 10% rule; don’t increase training volume and/or intensity by more than 10% at a time, unless supervised by an expert.
- Follow a periodization format; intersperse periods of intense/high-volume training with extended periods of rest/recovery and/or cross-training.
- Recovery/rest between intense workouts is critical because this is when muscle tissue repair and growth occur; usually 24 to 72 hours depending on the intensity and volume of the session.
- Proper nutrition and hydration are important; consulting a sports dietician may be helpful.
- Quality sleep is essential.
- Don’t train a muscle group more than once a week if you are in the intermediate to advanced level (3-day split)
- A recent study showed that when endurance athletes were forced to take time off, their symptoms of depression and mood changes increased. What we often see is either too much work or too little recovery.If you see yourself facing the same issues, then maybe it’s time you sought out psychiatric help to restore the natural ebb and flow of acute stress and recovery.
- A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that doing exercise in outdoor spaces had a large impact on a variety of moods related to restoring willpower and creating a positive recovery state.
- Maintaining a training log can be helpful in identifying periods of over-reaching and the need for extra recovery. Include variables such as your resting heart rate, sleep, weight (for weight loss), mood, workout intensity/duration, and how muscles and joints respond.
With appropriate recovery and using a periodization plan for your long-term training, you will be able to minimize the risk of overtraining and keep your exercise and competitions fun and enjoyable.