#25 – Are You Overtraining? Part 1: The Signs and Symptoms

In the first ten episodes — the “Foundations” series – we discussed the Stress Recovery Adaptation cycle, a simple yet powerful model that describes how organisms, including ourselves, adapt to stressors in their environment. It also helps us understand howwe go about creating the change we want in our bodies. There must be a stress, that stress must be specific to the desired adaptation (i.e. you have to pick up heavy weights to get stronger), and recovery must be sufficient or else the organism gets injured or dies. The SRA cycle is the heart of any systematic, intelligent approach to programming.


While the model is simple, real life, unfortunately, is not. Despite our best intentions, the Stress and Recovery factors don’t always balance, and when one or the other gets out of whack, overtraining can occur. The word “overtraining” has been a hot topic in training circles for a while now, and it’s definition is still debated. Is overtraining really over-“training” (too much stress) or is merely “under-recovery”?


As Coach D breaks it down, we really don’t know. The difference between the two is a fine line. There are a few possibilities. Endurance athletes experiencing overuse injuries such as stress fractures, for instance, could be experiencing breakdown in connective tissue from the sheer amount of joint impact. We know that training stress transiently increases cortisol levels, but those levels taper off after the training bout and return to normal. An athlete on the verge of overtraining may have chronically elevated cortisol levels from constant training stress. Recovery can mitigate these issues, but they are primarily stress-related problems.


Of course, recovery is very important too. As the saying goes, one doesn’t get strong from lifting weights, one gets strong recoveringfrom lifting weights. As training intensity, duration, and volume ramps up over time, recovery becomes more and more important. Athletes need adequate calories, the right balance of macronutrients, good hydration, manageable levels of psychological stress, and plenty of sleep to keep the recovery side of the equation in check. Recovery resources are also finite, so one can simply outrun his ability to recover from training. Thus, a strength trainee stalling in her progression due to undereating protein would be a recovery issue. Her body cannot build the muscle mass necessary to continue adapting to the stress of the weights without protein. A runner suffering knee pain above a certain amount of mileage, on the other hand, would be a stress issue. His nutrition and sleep may be perfect, but the knee joints don’t respond as quickly or robustly to the recovery resources compared to muscle tissue. Consequently, they have a limit to the amount of stress they can take. This would be a stress issue. In both cases, stress and recovery play a role, but one factor is the primary influence.


While the causes of overtraining are not clear cut, we do know what overtraining looks like. Some signs and symptoms are:

  1. Decreased athletic performance. Your training is consistent, but your times are going up, your reps are going down, overall strength is going down, mobility is compromised, workouts are generally getting more and more difficult.
  2. Elevated heart rate, beyond what you normally experience during workouts.
  3. Chronic fatigueand generally feeling flat in the gym.
  4. Mood swings. Your ability to handle normal everyday events is compromised.
  5. Poor sleep or restlessness. You start waking up during the night, your overall sleep hours decrease, or you don’t feel fully rested after sleep.
  6. Loss of appetite
  7. Chronic/nagging injuries. Don’t mistake these with injuries due to form errors or form critique (which can occur when training gets heavy or difficult), but if your technique is on point and you’re experiencing nagging injuries it could be a sign of overtraining.
  8. Nutrient or metabolic imbalance. If you notice flareups of IBS, diverticulitis, anemia from low iron levels
  9. Too much stress.Chronic lack of desire to train, depression symptoms, even when things are going well in training and life.


Just because you are experiencing some of these symptoms, doesn’t mean you are suffering from overtraining! We all experience some or all of these problems during our training career. Overtraining is rarer than you think. If you notice these problems occurring chronically, even when all signs point to things going well (programming is good, compliance is good, training is advancing, etc.), then that might be a tip off that you are overtraining.


Check in next week for Part 2, where Coach D will walk you through how to deal with overtraining and get your training back on track.


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