It's that time of year when the risk of overtraining increases for many athletes due to the warmer weather and the rapidly approaching race season. This is not something to be taken lightly. I've seen overtraining end a pro athlete's career. It's not a pretty sight when an otherwise powerful and dedicated athlete has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, let alone doing any training.
The symptoms of the overtraining syndrome are difficult to define since there can be many and they are seldom exactly 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.
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 several weeks of such dedicated and exhaustive training. Older athletes and those who are relatively new to the sport may produce overtraining in fewer than three 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 usually best identified by a spouse and close friends. The overtrained athlete may continue in this state for weeks or months. The relentless 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.
Excessive training, which is common among serious athletes, has the potential to produce overtraining. Frequent recovery for a few days is necessary to prevent it. How often and how long the recovery period should last is an individual matter which can only be determined through trial and error. If unsure of how often and much you should rest I would recommend erring on the side of too much rather than too little. I'd rather see an athlete undertrained but motivated than highly trained but unenthusiastic about life in general and competition in particular.