Overtraining Syndrome – Signs, Symptoms and How To Manage or Avoid It
I suffered with Chronic Fatigue for three years after getting glandular fever in my early twenties. Previous to this I was your typical Type A overachiever- studying a science degree and then Physio Masters full time, working part time, training 15+ hours a week for triathlon and socialising. On top of this I severely restricted my caloric intake in an effort to be lean and fast and through a warped body image. Burning the candle at both ends and feeling invincible as I had lived like this for years and had seemingly unlimited energy- my friends called me “Duracell”!
Then I got glandular fever and fought and fought and refused to fully rest. This reluctance to surrender to what my body was telling me lead to me having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years. Each time I started to get a bit better I pushed myself over the edge again. Finally I learnt to respect and listen to my body- I took a big step back from sport and focussed on wellness. Ultimately my body healed through natural therapies, a nourishing diet, rest, mindfulness and following my body’s intuition, but it took a long time and it was a long gradual build up back to training.
I am now back in competitive sport and performing better than ever. I train differently to how I used to and to others around me. I focus on quality sessions and not quantity and I take a lot more rest/recovery than my Type A mind tells me I should. I still slip up and overdo it sometimes, but now I can read my body and quickly correct my mistakes and recover.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is very similar to Overtraining Syndrome. It is a horrible hole to go down and can take years to recover. I have written this blog in an effort to help other athletes and overachievers avoid overtraining.
You can still be a great athlete and perform at your peak without jeopardizing your health.
What is Overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining Syndrome is the result of an imbalance in exertion and recovery, generally over a sustained period of time. It is a maladaptive response to excessive exercise when not matched with appropriate recovery and results in changes to multiple body systems.
A person would be diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome if they saw a sudden decrease in athletic performance and increase in perceived effort and this does not improve with rest.
What are the symptoms?
Some or all of the following symptoms may be experienced. Generally the more advanced the Overtraining Syndrome is the more symptoms that will be experienced and the longer the recovery process.
- Decreased athletic performance
- Increased perceived effort and heart rate to previously “easy level” training
- Ongoing fatigue that doesn’t dissipate with rest
- Lack of motivation
- Change in appetite
- Depression or altered mood
- Increased and /or unexplained Injuries
- Increased resting heart rate
- Decreased accuracy of fine motor skills and/or coordination
- Hormonal changes
- Weight changes
- Increased illness and common colds
What causes it?
Too much stress (physical, emotional and mental) and not enough recovery is the main cause of Overtraining Syndrome.
Other causes are:
- A rapid or sudden increase in training volume and/or intensity. Or a rapid or sudden increase in life load/stress without a reduction in training.
- Insufficient sleep and/or recovery.
- Diet also has a big effect. A poor diet- high in inflammatory foods and low in nutrients will increase stress to the body. Insufficient calories consumed to fuel training and life will leave the body depleted and unable to recover and adapt from training.
How do I avoid it?
Be careful to look at whole life load rather than just your training load. All aspects of life can contribute to fatigue and stress so these must be considered when building a training program. If you have a high life load then you probably won’t be able to log as many hours of training as peers with less life stressors. This may change over time – for example if you are going through a stressful time then it would be wise to reduce your training load over this time.
- Start any new training program gradually – ie: start with just one hard session per week and gradually increase as your body adapts.
- Monitor your tolerance to your training and whole life load. Try to be objective and honest and don’t be influenced by what you think you should be able to do/need to do or what others are doing.
- Monitor your response to training – if a session suddenly feels a lot harder than it should/usually does then take a few days of rest. If this feeling persists see a medical professional.
- Take regular rest days and easy weeks. Taking every fourth week as a reduced mileage and easier effort week is common in many training programs.
- Take at least one easy recovery day after every hard training session. Be honest with yourself about how much recovery your body needs – you may need two or three days to be ready to train hard again.
- Take easy recovery days/weeks after racing as required. This will vary depending on the length of the race and whether it was performed at maximal effort or for training. The longer the race the more recovery will be needed. Generally three days as a minimum increasing up to several weeks for long endurance races. Again, listen to your body.
- Consume a healthy, balanced diet that contains adequate carbohydrate, protein and fat to meet your body’s needs for training and life.
- Reduce foods that increase inflammation and stress in your body such as processed food, refined grains and sugars, fried foods, excess caffeine/stimulants/alcohol, any foods that you have/suspect you have intolerances to.
- Drink plenty of water and replace electrolytes as needed during hot or long/hard training sessions and races.
- Reduce emotional stressors in your life where possible.
- Do something for you regularly that reduces your stress (not a training session!) such as having a massage, doing a yoga class or going to see a movie with a friend.
- Participate in regular meditation. More and more evidence is showing that meditation and mindfulness is an effective way to lower stress and increase physical and emotional health. It may also make you more in tune with your body so you are better able to recognise when you need rest or an imbalance in the body that could become an injury. There are great apps and YouTube clips for at home guided meditations.
- Try to get at least eight hours of sleep per night.
- Monitor your heart rate. Many athletes monitor their waking resting heart rate. If this increases above their normal they will take rest days or see a medical professional until it returns to their normal.
- If you begin to see any signs of overtraining reduce your training, particularly the hard sessions and see a medical professional.
Images courtesy of Brooks www.brooksrunning.com.au
By Lauren Starr, Physiotherapist