What is overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a condition that occurs due to excessive training and/or non-training stress resulting in a short-term decrement in performance capacity. This may also be accompanied by physiological and psychological signs of maladaptation. The incidence of OTS in elite athletes is approximately 30-40%.
The spectrum of OTS can be represented in three stages include:
Stage 1: Functional Overtraining
The first stage of overtraining is the transition from functional to non-functional overreaching. The signs and symptoms experienced during this stage may be very subtle. This may manifest as a minor plateau or regression in training performance.
Stage 2: Sympathetic Overtraining
This stage is a further deterioration of non-adapted stress experienced in stage one as the imbalances worsen. This stage is associated with a variety of more obvious signs and symptoms due to specific hormonal, neurological and mechanical imbalances. The most classic sign of this stage is an increased resting heart rate.
Stage 3: Parasympathetic Overtraining
The end stage of overtraining is a chronic excess stress condition associated with the exhaustion of neurological and hormonal mechanisms. This stage typically involves more severe biochemical, physical or mental-emotional consequences. This is known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).
During this stage athletes’ training and competitive performance continues to worsen, with many athletes’ performance diminishing considerably. This can also be associated with a lack of desire to compete or train, significant injury and extreme exhaustion.
What causes overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome occurs when you fail to sufficiently recover from excessive training stressors such as volume, intensity, environment and inadequate recovery. Research has also suggested other life stressors can contribute to the development of the condition.
Risk factors include:
- Low self-esteem
- Insufficient sleep
- Sudden training increases
- Participation in endurance sports
- Training preparation for an important event
- Excessive parental and coaching pressure to succeed
What are the symptoms of overtraining syndrome?
The symptoms of the condition are due to a combination of changes in hormones, suppression of the immune system, physical fatigue and psychological changes. The key signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic muscle and joint pain
- Increased heart rate at rest
- Frequent illness
- Lack of enthusiasm
- Prolonged recovery time
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty completing usual routines
If overtraining syndrome is not addressed or managed correctly, it can lead to the development of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). For more information, visit our Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) page.
How does overtraining syndrome affect performance?
It can have numerous impacts on your athletic performance.
Potential performance effects can include:
- Decreased strength
- Decreased co-ordination
- Decreased overall athletic performance
- Early fatigue during workouts
- Higher heart rate with less effort
- Easy workouts feel more challenging
- Ongoing muscle soreness, aches and pains
To learn more about optimising your athletic performance, visit our performance section.
How is overtraining syndrome diagnosed?
While there is no test for overtraining syndrome the diagnosis is based on your medical and training history, your reported signs and symptoms and the absence of an alternative explanation for these symptoms. This will be assessed by your medical team.
How can overtraining syndrome be treated?
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, there are a variety of ways to treat the condition.
The primary treatment used is relative rest which will be based on how long you have been experiencing symptoms. The development of a well-balanced training and nutrition plan to support your individual circumstances and goals is also essential before you resume training.
Total recovery can take several weeks or longer and the resumption of training should be individualised based on your signs and symptoms as there is no definitive indicator of recovery. We recommend consulting your doctor and/or physiotherapist who can formulate a recovery plan to get your training back on track.