Over-training syndrome is a state of constant fatigue due to excessive training demands. Without adequate recovery periods in a training program, the body struggles to cope. This affects sleep patterns, hormonal regulation, muscle and nerve function… the list is long and nasty.
Over-training syndrome doesn’t just affect elite athletes. It can affect anyone pushing their training beyond their body’s ability to recover. And that’s the problem – everyone’s ability to recover is different. So it’s hard to know where your limit lies.
There’s a great deal of frustration with the paradox of over-training syndrome and the performance mindset.
You need to push your limits and train hard to improve, but not too hard or past the ill-defined limits of recovery. It also becomes very difficult to differentiate between over-training symptoms and typical training symptoms. Is it normal fatigue and over-training fatigue? Expected muscle soreness post-training or something else?
How can you tell if you’ve got over-training syndrome?
The list of symptoms of over-training syndrome are not too different from normal training symptoms. Muscle soreness and fatigue could just be part of normal training. So it’s simpler to monitor for other symptoms that are easier to spot. Symptoms of over-training include:
- Loss of appetite
- Poor sleep quality, regardless of volume, and waking up tired
- Widespread joint soreness
- Sudden drop in performance without obvious cause
The concept of “under-recovering”
The concept of over-training is hard to rationalise in performance sports. If you want to improve, you need to train harder, more often and/or for longer periods. But that’s the same thinking that leads to over-training.
So what if we phrased it as “under-recovering”?
Shifting from 5 training days per week to 6 days might seem like a minor increase. But that extra day has halved the available recovery days. For many, a single recovery day may be sufficient each week. But for some, that may move them over the threshold and towards over-training syndrome.
Using elite-level training programs
“To be elite, you have to train elite, right?”
Yes, and no. It’s true that without training hard and frequently, you’ll never make it to the elite ranks. But it’s not as simple as anyone training hard and getting results.
The elites have a number of unique qualities. And one of the most important is an ability to recover fast. Elite marathoners can run 40k in the morning and do an interval session in the evening. Without an ability to recover quickly, that training approach would lead to injury or excessive fatigue.
The performance mindset, that burning desire to achieve more, must be tempered with an understanding of the individual’s physiology and recovery needs.
Periodised programs, scheduled recovery weeks and regular attention to recovery (eg. nutrition/hydration, active recovery, techniques such as massage) all assist in reducing the chances of over-training.
The focus of prevention must be on recovery. Understanding your ability to recover and which recovery methods work best for you are vital.
Programming, the schedule of your training sessions, must include adequate time between high intensity sessions. This gives the body a chance to rebuild and make the most of the session. It’s different for everyone so it’s important to figure out your ideal time. Be wary of group or team programs with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Periodised training is more widespread now. It’s a week-by-week or monthly change in volume and/or intensity, allocating some weeks are high volume and others as easy or low volume weeks. One of the primary reasons for this format is to minimise the risk of over-training. By comparison, the classic program with its incremental build (every week is slightly bigger than the last) is more prone to over-training issues.
Recovery sessions can also assist in restoring normal movement and function. These might be easier sessions, alternative sports (eg. A swim session in a running program has been shown to improve recovery) or a different type of movement (eg. Yoga).
Nutrition and hydration are vital to enable the body to rebuild after a session. Training overloads and breaks down muscle, bone and connective tissue. Your nutrition and hydration provide the materials for the body to effectively rebuild it stronger than before.
If nutrition and hydration provide the materials for the builders, sleep provides their working time.
Sleep volume, quality and consistency are needed to ensure that training gains are optimised.
Recovery techniques are also helpful, although they can’t replace the above methods. Compression tights, massage, ice baths and meditation can all improve muscle soreness. Importantly there’s no clear evidence of an affect on performance (there is research for and against performance changes with these methods).