July 3


Overtraining Syndrome – How to beat it

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Although exercise is good for you, there are times when too much of it can have a detrimental effect. This is known as overtraining syndrome (OTS). It obviously tends to affect those that are serious about their fitness. Whether for its own sake or for sports specific purposes.


What are the symptoms of overtraining?

Been in hard training for a while? If you suffer from some of the following symptoms you could be suffering from OTS:

  • A lack of desire to want to train
  • Continuously feeling fatigued and lacking enthusiasm
  • Decreased maximal heart rate
  • Greater susceptibility to illness - particularly Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of anxiousness and stress
  • An increase in resting heart rate
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of appetite

In fact, there are over 90 identified symptoms of overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining Syndrome

How to avoid overtraining syndrome

Time Off

Take a couple of days off from your training if you are experiencing some of the above symptoms. Not wanting to take time off can be a further symptom.

When you exercise, muscle tissue breaks down. It can take 36-48 hours for this to fully repair. It's during this period that your fitness levels actually increase. If you don't allow sufficient recovery between workouts, you run the risk of impairing adaptation.

Rest is as an important element in your training as the CV or resistance sessions. Find out more about the importance of recovery here.

Go Easy

Go easy on high-intensity CV efforts. More endurance athletes suffer from OTS than any other type of sports performer. High-intensity training must only be completed when you are sufficiently conditioned. Even then, use it sparingly in your training programmes. If you are suffering from OTS, you should only return to high-intensity efforts when you feel refreshed and ready.

Training Cycle

Cycle your training in 6-18 week blocks. Following the guidelines below can avoid OTS by building fitness. Exercise scientists believe that these time spans are long enough to ensure your body adapts. It works whether you're aiming for steady-state endurance development or faster-paced training. Longer training periods can actually slow down rates of adaptation. Particularly in the case of high-intensity efforts, they can actually deteriorate your fitness levels.

The right foods

Eating the right foods and consuming sufficient calories will also reduce the risk of overtraining. If you don't consume enough calories then you'll fail to fuel your workouts. You'll fail to provide your body with the vital nutrients it needs. You wouldn't forget to fill your car up with petrol when going on a long journey. The same applies to your body and its food intake.

Glycogen is premium grade muscle fuel. It can only be stored in your muscles and liver in limited quantities. After a workout, it needs to be replenished, or your muscles will be running on a half-full tank. Your next training session would be a struggle. Carbohydrate replaces lost glycogen. Aim for carbohydrate to form 55% of your total caloric intake. Aim for 2g protein per kg of bodyweight each day as a rough guide. Pay close attention to your food intake around the time of your workout too. This will ensure optimum glycogen replacement and muscle protein re-synthesis.

Fitness fanatic

Don't become fanatical about your training. If you forget to enjoy it, then your workout will seem like a punishment rather than the road to fitness and health. Psychologically if you don't enjoy what you are doing, you run the risk of getting stressed. This can break down your immune system and make you more susceptible to overtraining syndrome.

Other activities

Don't be afraid to take some time away from training or do some other activity. You'll not lose much fitness in a week or two even if you did nothing. Your body will repair and regenerate and you'll notice a spring in your step when you do return. Once subject to regular fitness training, your body finds it much easier to adapt to subsequent training. Just ease back into your workouts and your fitness and energy will return. It's often said that a change is as good as a rest. This also applies to the world of the gym and fitness training. If lifting heavy weights has literally got you down, then switching to circuit sessions for while can rejuvenate you.

Holistic approach

Don't think that your training is separate form any other areas of your life. Under ideal conditions, training will act as an antidote to the usual stresses you may face at home, work and personal life. The reality is that stress can take its toll on all aspects of your life. If you are suddenly pressured by an increase in workload, or by impending exams, you should be very mindful of the way this additional stress could affect you and your training. Easing back on your workouts could reduce general stress levels. This will reduce the possibility of developing overtraining syndrome. It'll also increase your energy rather than reduce it.

Rate how you feel each day to avoid Overtraining Syndrome

To avoid the potential for overtraining, you should evaluate how you feel each day. Think in terms of stress, muscle soreness, sleep quality, energy and feelings of vitality. Adjust your training accordingly. If you're not feeling up for it, don't complete it as the high-intensity session you had planned. Perhaps even take the day off. Doing this will provide every opportunity to keep overtraining syndrome at bay.


Exercise physiologists refer to a lesser form of overtraining syndrome as 'overreaching'. This condition should clear up much quicker than OTS. Although its symptoms are broadly similar, overreaching is seen to be the result of a significant increase in training intensity. This could be over a 10 day to 4 week period. It's estimated that as many as 30-100% of all athletes will suffer from overreaching at some stage in their careers.

If you still suffer from the above symptoms after putting some of the advice into place, then you should consult with your doctor.

Use the training pyramid to beat overtraining syndrome

The table provides an overview of the way you should construct your training plan. This will reduce the possibility of OTS. Guidelines to the number of weeks you should stay in each phase have been provided.

Phase 1

6-18 weeks

Wide base

Emphasis on the progressive development of quantity. It could be an increase in the number of kms covered for CV trainers. Or possibly an increase in reps and sets for weight trainers. Circuit-style resistance training is highly suitable during this phase. Weights based exercise class options can also help create a foundation of general strength here.

Phase 2

6-12 weeks

Quality increases

Speed of CV work is upped and more intense training introduced. Perhaps medium-intensity interval training. Weight trainers could use pyramid sets. Alternatively, they could increase the weight they lift while reducing the number of reps

Phase 3

6-8 weeks

Quality increases again

You'll attain peak condition. Sessions that would not have been achievable in Phase 1 are now well within reach. Whatever your trainng goals, you'll reach maximum speed and intensity.

Phase 4

2-4 weeks

Easy training

Rest or period of easy training before returning to Phase 1 to re-build your training, albeit at a 'higher' starting point.

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs.

He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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