Most athletes consider the need to work hard to be the most important factor in improving performance but, in fact, taking breaks in training is equally important. Physiological improvement only occurs during the recovery period after intense training. Athletes who are training for a competition or event often try to exercise harder and longer than normal with the aim of improving their performance, but without adequate rest and recovery, performance actually sufferers. Proper conditioning, and the success that comes in its wake, requires the right balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload, too little recovery, or a combination of both can lead to what is known as Overtraining Syndrome.

A Brief Definition

Overtraining Syndrome, also known as Burnout or Staleness by athletes and coaches, is considered a neuro-endocrine disorder by medical professionals. The term refers to the state when an athlete is stressed to a point where rest is no longer sufficient to provide recovery, explains Rice University. Unlike fluctuations in daily performance or post-exercise tiredness, Overtraining Syndrome lasts beyond an athlete’s recovery period. Moreover, the condition is made worse by everyday stresses in personal and work life.

Common Symptoms

The principle symptom of Overtraining Syndrome is fatigue accompanied by a lack of energy, both during workouts and at rest. Additionally, an athlete may suffer from psychological symptoms such as bad moods, irritation, altered sleep patterns, depression, loss of competitive desire, lack of enthusiasm for the sport, and sometimes appetite and weight loss. Sports Medicine cites insomnia and a compulsive desire to exercise as additional psychological symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome. Physical effects include enduring muscle pain, susceptibility to viral infections, and an increased frequency of injuries and headaches.

Rice University names two forms of the syndrome: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic form is more common in sports involving sprinting activities, while the parasympathetic is more commonly experienced by endurance sports athletes. While decreased performance and increased fatigue are standard in both forms, various physiological measurements distinguish the two. For example, athletes suffering from the parasympathetic form often experience a lower heart rate, rendering it more difficult to sustain workouts at their usual level.

The Importance of Measurement and Monitoring

One way athletes can measure for Overtraining Syndrome recommended by Sports Medicine is to monitor their resting heart rate. If an athlete’s heart rate is not consistent, this is a good indication that he or she has not completely recovered from the previous workout. In this case, the athlete should rest for a longer period, or even consider reducing training session lengths. Keeping a training log that tracks daily physical and emotional states can be a really useful tool for monitoring potential symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome.

Adequate rest is the only treatment for Overtraining Syndrome. This is because a lack of required rest and recovery leads first to a training plateau, followed by a drop in athletic performance and a decreased mood state. These are the result of some common physiological effects of Overtraining Syndrome: a decrease in testosterone, an altered immune status, an increase in muscular breakdown, and sometimes an increase in cortisol levels, the hormone responsible for stress.

For athletes to avoid the various negative effects of Overtraining Syndrome, they must accurately measure training intensity levels and workout routines, as well as diligently track rest and recovery periods. Doing these things will not only minimize the likelihood of falling into Overtraining Syndrome, but also increase the efficiencies that lend to improved athletic performance.