I was asked by a magazine today to briefly describe overtraining. That’s a timely question as this is the time of year when endurance athletes are likely to experience this. While most athletes seem to think they’ve been overtrained, few really have. It’s a much more serious condition than most athletes realize. It doesn’t mean you were just tired after a hard workout, as most seem to believe. I’ve only known one athlete who was definitely overtrained. He was a pro triathlete and it essentially ended his career. That’s how serious a condition it is. Anyway, here’s how I answered the question for the magazine…
The symptoms of the overtraining syndrome are difficult to define since there can be many but they are seldom the same in any two overtrained athletes. Physiologically, the only ones that are common are poor performance and fatigue. But since these can occur even when an athlete is not overtrained, overtraining remains a bit of mystery in sports science. The level of fatigue may be the better indicator.
Every athlete experiences fatigue since physical stress is necessary to produce improved fitness. This is referred to as overreaching and is a necessary part of any training program. When an athlete ignores the fatigue of overreaching and continues to train with high stress and without rest or recovery then the possibility of overtraining greatly increases. For younger athletes this has been shown to require in excess of six weeks of such dedicated and exhaustive training. Older athletes and those who are relatively new to the sport may produce overtraining in fewer than six weeks.
While overreaching an athlete can shed the fatigue by resting or training very easily for a few days. After that he or she can return to high-stress training. But once the overtraining syndrome has occurred the fatigue will not go away easily. The athlete can become listless, grumpy, and unmotivated. These psychological symptoms are more common symptoms and are usually best identified by spouses and close friends. The overtrained athlete may continue in this state for weeks or months. The fatigue is with them as a constant companion.
The symptoms are much like chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease or mononucleosis. In fact, an athlete who experiences such deep and lingering fatigue should see a physician to be tested for these and other similar medical conditions. The best way to avoid overtraining is to monitor fatigue and rest frequently.