If you’ve ever been involved with training or fitness in any form or capacity, chances are, you’ve experienced some of the signs and symptoms of overtraining.
Overtraining occurs when your body is exposed to more training—or stress, than it can recover from. When experienced in the short-term, also known as overreaching, taking a few additional days or up to two weeks rest typically leads to appropriate recovery and adaptation. When the body is not exposed to the rest it needs, overtraining syndrome can occur, which is a much more serious condition that can take months to recover from.
Because overtraining has a high degree of variability and occurs gradually, it’s easy to overlook. What is one person’s overtraining is another person’s right training, making the “I’ll do what she’s doing” workout plan a not-so-great approach to fitness.
To further confusion, how people respond to overtraining is highly individual, making the signs and symptoms of overtraining hard to recognize.
Symptoms of overtraining can vary depending on what type of training a person is doing. Overtraining from excessive volume (or aerobic training) can look different from overtraining that is the result of high-intensity overload (anaerobic or resistance training). While there is some overlap, each can result in different signs and symptoms of overtraining.
In short, the amount of training that is right for your body is individual to you, and can vary based on your genetics, experience level, and life inputs, including sleep, workload, and overall stress.
That’s right—the stress you experience outside of the gym can affect how your body is able to adapt to the workouts you do. This means, if you haven’t slept in six days thanks to your new bundle of joy, or you worked 84 hours this week, doing a high-intensity workout will probably do more harm than good.The stress you experience outside of the gym affects how your body adapts to your workouts.
Some weeks, you’ll need more rest than others. And that’s perfectly OK. Fluctuations are normal, and the amount of rest you need will change from time to time.
As a result, it’s important to know the symptoms of overtraining, and always be on the lookout for ways in which your body is telling you it needs more rest.
6 Signs You’re Overtraining
Overtraining Symptom #1: You experience excessive muscle soreness, aches, and pains
Pain—to include excessive muscle soreness, persistent aches, and sudden twinges is one of the most common indicators your body hasn’t had enough time to recover from the training it’s been exposed to.
This can happen in the short-term, for example—by exposing your body to too much volume or intensity in a single workout, or it can occur long-term after a period of overtraining.
If you experience muscle soreness that inhibits your ability to move properly (example: you are unable to lower yourself down appropriately to the toilet seat), or chronic muscle soreness that is accompanied by stiffness and tightness, your body needs more rest. Furthermore, if you start to experience a pain or a twing that won’t resolve, especially in the lower back, knee, ankle or foot, taking additional time off to stretch, ice, and foam roll can save you a whole lot of time and headache by preventing a serious injury from occurring.
Overtraining Symptom #2: You feel tired and sluggish during the day
Feeling overly drained, tired or sluggish for an extended period of time—especially in the presence of adequate sleep, is a common symptom of overtraining. While the direct cause of this fatigue is not fully understood, research suggests it has a lot to do with the physiological responses that occur when there’s a change in the balance of anabolism (building things) to catabolism (breaking things down).
In other words, fatigue occurs when the body is unable to keep up with what is being broken down.
When combined with a triggering stressful event, studies show there is a direct link between chronic overtraining and adrenal insufficiency.6 The adrenal glands are responsible for managing the stress response, and when the adrenal function is impaired, it can lead to fatigue, unrefreshing sleep, scattered thinking, blood sugar dysregulation, and a general inability to manage stress—to name a few.
If caught early and appropriate rest is taken, adrenal insufficiency can be resolved in a matter of months. Unfortunately, if rest is not taken and the condition progresses, full recovery can take years.
Overtraining Symptom #3: You start to dread your workouts
Loss of interest, enthusiasm, and motivation for performing workouts you genuinely enjoy doing is often a sign of overtraining. If this “dread” happens in the short-term—say, on a random Thursday when you’re also feeling more tired than normal, taking a day or two off to rest and recharge can significantly increase both energy, and motivation.
Unfortunately, because the media glorifies dedication and “pushing through the pain,” taking a day off is often met with shame, guilt, and disgust. As a result, many people perceive that their level of self-discipline is intertwined with their self-worth as a human being.
The good news is—your self-worth as a human being has nothing to do with the number of workouts you do, or you’re ability to follow prescribed workouts perfectly.
Furthermore, you are not a “good” or “bad” person based on the workouts you do or don’t do. Recognizing these truths will eliminate guilt, and allow you to come back to your workouts recovered, and mentally and physically stronger.
Overtraining Symptom #4: You’ve hit a plateau or experience a decrease in performance
Hitting a plateau is one of the most frustrating symptoms of overtraining. Unfortunately, the common response to lack of progression or growth is to workout harder, and more often. This can drive people deeper into overtraining, which can progress into becoming weaker, slower, and having less overall stamina.
Of course, failing to hit a new personal record in the gym or out on the track does not mean the body is overtrained. However, when progression is stalled for an extended period of time, and other symptoms of overtraining are present—it’s likely the body needs more rest.
Overtraining Symptom #5: You appetite changes or diminishes
Changes in appetite, specifically, a decrease in overall hunger or desire to eat, is a common symptom of overtraining that many people overlook.
Stress causes an increase in hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can inhibit appetite. Other symptoms of overtraining, including tiredness, lack of motivation, and anxiety can also lead to lack of appetite and undereating, making the issue sometimes hard to resolve.
It’s important to note—other changes to appetite, including an increase in hunger or cravings for carbohydrates can also mean the body is overtrained. In both situations, the solution is to supply the body with all the nutrients and resources it needs to recover from workouts, build muscle, and become stronger. Focus on nutrient-dense foods, lots of protein, and plenty of carbohydrates, and if you’re hungry—eat.
Overtraining Symptom #6: The thought of taking more rest terrifies you
If you’re terrified taking more rest will lead to regression, weight gain, and turning into an apathetic sloth, it’s very likely your body is being exposed to more training than it can handle.
Experiencing symptoms of overtraining such as fatigue, increased hunger, and lack of progress can make people anxious and fearful of conditions becoming worse. In addition, many people end up associating their identity with whatever activity they are doing, and put a significant amount of weight in their ability to perform in a workout.
As a result, the ability to appropriately listen to the body is clouded by fear of losing control, comfort, and personal identity.
The truth is, rest is one of the most important aspects of a workout program because it allows the body to adapt to the training it has been exposed to. In other words, training doesn’t make you stronger—your rest does.
Yes, of course—there must be exposure to adequate intensity and frequency of training to initiate the adaptation process. But without appropriate rest, the body will continue to exist in a catabolic or destructive state, and the symptoms of overtraining will ensue.
Undoing the Damages of Overtraining
So, what should you do if you’re suffering from multiple symptoms of overtraining? As you might have already guessed, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on how long the issue has been perpetuated, the length of time you’ll need to spend focusing on rest and restorative activities will vary.
Here’s some simple guidelines to follow that will serve as a good place to start:
Take time off
And yes—I mean stop working out. I know that’s easier said than done, but consider it time that will allow you to become stronger. Take at least 4-7 days off, and then do a light workout to see if your symptoms have resided. If they haven’t, take another week off. If your symptoms still persist after two weeks off, consider working with a professional to help you understand the severity of your symptoms and get you on a plan that will help you recover appropriately.
Ease back into it
If your symptoms have subsided after your dedicated time off, get on a plan that gradually allows you to interact with training again. Do light, restorative workouts like walking or swimming for 2-4 weeks to see how your body responds, and use myofasical release tools like the foam roller or massage stick to help relieve soreness and tightness. If things improve, introduce training that is reduced by 1/2 or 1/3 in both volume and intensity when compared to what you used to do.
Shift your mindset
Get rid of the Pinterest and Instagram accounts you follow packed full of fitspo designed to make you feel like whatever you are right now isn’t good enough. Long-term happiness doesn’t come from what your body “is”—it comes from what your body does. Focus on making your body more capable of experiencing all that life has to offer, and dedicate time to new activities outside of training or workouts that bring you joy. Listen to Episode #027 of The Paleo Women Podcast to help cultivate a sense of self-worth, and making changes from a place of self-love.
Sleep and eat like a pro
Supply your body with the nutrients it needs to recover, repair, and build. Focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods, and getting to bed earlier. If you’re experiencing trouble sleeping, check out 5 Reasons You Can’t Sleep at Night to help get your sleep on an normal cycle again.
Listen to your body
Use your experience with overtraining as feedback for what not to do in the future. Be intentional with the amount of rest you schedule into your training, and have accountability. If symptoms of overtraining start to come back, take an additional few days off to allow your body to recover. Read How to Know When to Take a Rest Day (or Week) for helpful tips on how and when to schedule in rest days.
Have any experiences with the symptoms of overtraining you’d like to share? Post them below!