What is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a medical condition believed to result from the build-up of physiological, psychological and/or immunological stress.  

When these stressors accumulate, they can prevent you from recovering from exercise, which can, in turn, lead to underperformance both in training and competition, as well as in everyday life.(1)

Some of the most common indicators of overtraining syndrome are: 

  • chronic fatigue and achiness
  • decreases in performance
  • changes in mood and behavior
  • difficulty sleeping
  • a heightened proclivity for injury.  

In addition to occurring as a result of improper training, these symptoms may also arise from mental stress, poor nutrition, and the lack of adequate recovery periods.  In most cases, it can ultimately take months to fully recover from OTS.    

What Causes Overtraining Syndrome?

While there are a number of different theories, scientists still aren’t exactly sure what the underlying causes of overtraining syndrome are, which makes diagnosing it more difficult.  With that being said, there are a couple of well-supported hypotheses out there.

For example, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research argues that tissue trauma may be the primary culprit behind OTS.(2) The researchers hypothesize that excessive training and/or competition can lead to the reoccurrence of trauma in your muscles and connective tissue.  

This repetitive trauma, in turn, is believed to lead to an inflammatory response in your body where cytokines molecules are released.(3) While cytokines have been linked to a number of different overtraining symptoms, no study has clearly demonstrated elevated cytokine levels in athletes with OTS.  

The other leading hypothesis is that OTS actually has more to do with sociopsychological factors.  Things like poor living conditions, volatile relationships, and a bad home and/or work life can all cause psychological stress, which in turn, can have a negative impact on both your performance and recovery.  

While the mechanisms of action are still unclear, what is clear, is that athletes with overtraining syndrome often display multiple signs of poor mental health, including delayed mental function, increased anger, and lowered self-esteem.(4)

Who’s Most Likely to Experience Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining syndrome is most likely to occur in athletes at the elite level.  It’s much rarer in amateur/youth athletes and is especially uncommon amongst average gym-goers.  

Even amongst elite athletes, the occurrence of OTS can vary significantly.  Overtraining syndrome is most likely to occur in endurance athletes like cyclists, swimmers, and runners; it’s far less common amongst athletes in strength-based sports.    

While the word overtraining certainly gets thrown around a lot in the weight lifting world, the chances are you probably don’t have overtraining syndrome.  The reality is that OTS is the final step in a progression. While not impossible, it is very rare for anyone who isn’t training like an elite athlete — we’re talking many hours of training per day — to have overtraining syndrome.  

So if You’re Not Overtrained, What’s Wrong?

While you may not have OTS, it doesn’t mean that nothing is wrong if you’re experiencing symptoms.  Non-functional overreaching (NFO) is a condition that’s a precursor to overtraining syndrome and unlike OTS, it is far more common.  

While overreaching can be a good thing — it’s actually how you get bigger and stronger — it can also become non-functional when your body isn’t given the time it needs to rest and recover.  

In such instances, instead of making progressive improvements, you’ll notice a plateau and eventual decline in your performance in the gym and/or during competition.  Plateaus, and especially drops in performance, can be a pretty clear sign of NFO.     

Factors that can lead to non-functional overreaching include:

  • Increases in training volume without enough recovery time
  • Too many competitions in too short of a time period
  • Psychological and emotional factors in your personal life
  • Poor nutritional habits

If gone untreated, non-functional overreaching can eventually turn into overtraining syndrome, which can take months to fully recover from.  However, there are several things you can do to make sure that you’re allowing your body to fully recover from your training. 

What Can You Do To Make Sure You’re Recovering?

On top of paying attention to your mental state, one way to make sure that you’re not having issues with non-functional overreaching is by tracking your training progress.  If you’re not making steady progress over the course of your training, it could be a sign that something is off.   

In other words,  if things like the number of total reps and/or amount of weight you’re lifting aren’t going up over time, and especially if they’re going down, it’s a clear sign that something in your training routine needs to be adjusted.  

Ultimately, the clues you get from keeping an eye on your mental and physical performance can help you determine what tactics will be most beneficial for you during the recovery process.  

Sleep 

When it comes to performing at your best, perhaps nothing is more important than getting enough sleep.  Multiple studies have demonstrated that sleep loss can negatively impact both your physical and mental performance. (5)(6)

Reductions in the quantity and quality of your sleep can also impinge on your body’s ability to respond to exercise, which in turn, can lead to underperformance and poor recovery.(7) Long story short, getting enough sleep is one of the best (and easiest) ways to make sure your body is able to recover from exercise-induced stress.            

Proper Nutrition

In addition to sleep, your nutrition also plays a central role in your ability to recover and perform at your best.  Without an adequate supply of macronutrients, your body simply won’t be able to respond to and recover from your training.  

More particularly, a healthy supply of dietary protein is absolutely crucial when it comes to recovering from your workout.  Exercise breaks down muscle tissues and without enough protein in your daily diet, your body won’t be able to rebuild and recover from your training.   

The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that between 10% – 35% of your total daily calories should come from protein. For athletes and those trying to build muscle, the upper end of that range may be the most beneficial.  

Carbohydrates are also an important part of your diet.  The NIH recommends that between 45% and 65% of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates.  But all carbs are not the same.  

Simple sugars may give you a rapid spike in energy, however, that’s quickly followed by a crash, which can leave you feeling tired and lethargic.  Complex carbs, on the other hand, give you a sustained energy supply with no crash, making them ideal both for your workout and your recovery.

Dietary fat — the last of the 3 macronutrients — also plays a crucial part in your diet.  Although it’s often demonized, your body needs an adequate supply of fat in order to function.  According to the NIH, between 20% – 35% of your total calories should be coming from healthy fat sources; saturated and trans fats should be kept at a minimum.  

Fat plays an important role in everything from supporting your brain and nervous system to helping your body absorb other nutrients like vitamins and minerals — vitamins and minerals play an important role in your immune system and without enough of them, you’re at an increased risk for a number of different health conditions.   

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy can also be a helpful tool when it comes to recovery.  According to most studies, immersing your entire body in an ice bath is far more effective than simply applying an ice pack to a particular part of your body. (8)(9)

In addition to reducing post-workout inflammation and pain, cold therapy has also been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, which can ultimately last for days after intense training if gone untreated.  However, research suggests that as little as 15 minutes in a 50°F – 60°F ice bath can improve recovery and performance in subsequent training sessions. (10)

Massage Therapy

On top of cold therapy, getting a massage can also aid in your recovery.  While the findings on massage therapy are variable, it mainly has to do with the fact that you can’t use a placebo to measure the outcomes — think about it: how can you trick a control group into thinking they’re getting massaged when really, they’re not.  

With that being said, it’s effectiveness is generally accepted by athletes and athletic trainers across most sports.  On top of preventing the onset of delayed muscle soreness, massage therapy is also believed to decrease several markers of inflammation.  It’s also been found to reduce diastolic blood pressure as well.   

Compression

Compression garments like tights, socks, and arm sleeves may also be a useful tool when it comes to promoting recovery.  While research shows that they may not be all that effective during training/competition when it comes to improving your performance — some research does show that upper-body garments can improve throwing precision —  numerous studies have demonstrated that wearing compression garments after exercise may help to decrease DOMS and hasten recovery. (11)(12)

Yoga 

Yoga can also help you to recuperate faster from an intense workout or competition.  Several studies have found that it helps to alleviate stress and promote relaxation, which in addition to improving your mental state, can also improve your physical well-being.(13)(14)

Wrap Up

Overtraining syndrome is a condition that’s believed to be caused by the build-up of stress, although research has yet to identify the exact mechanisms of action behind it.  

While it’s a term that’s liberally thrown around on the internet, the fact of the matter is that OTS is a pretty rare condition outside of top-level endurance-based sports like running and swimming.      

In reality, most average gym goers and youth athletes who are suffering from symptoms like achiness and fatigue are more likely dealing with non-functional overreaching.  WHile NFO can eventually turn into OTS if gone unchecked, there are several things you can do to make sure you’re fully recovering from your training.  

On top of getting your sleep schedule and diet dialed in, tools like massages, cold therapy, compression garments, and yoga, can also help you to expedite the recovery process.