Personal trainers who work with athletes or those involved in intense exercise programs need to be aware of a condition called overtraining syndrome. This is a real phenomenon and is different than feelings muscle soreness (DOMS) which happens a day or two after exercise. I feel this overtraining syndrome may be underdiagnosed in both fitness trainers and in the general population who works out regularly. So what is over-training syndrome? Let's cover what it is, how to recognize it and minimize your risk of getting it.
What Is Over-Training Syndrome?
Over-training syndrome is a condition that occurs when you exercise intensely for a long time (weeks to months) without giving yourself enough rest. Any type of physical activity that you do long enough has the potential to cause overtraining. While some say overtraining occurs only in people preparing for intense exercise events – like training for a marathon – it can also happen to those who do traditional exercise programs in fitness centers.
For example, you could get over training from doing too many :
- Zumba classes
- Indoor cycling classes
- Bootcamp classes
or just working out on your own in the gym every day. If you do the activity long enough and too intensely for your body to handle -and don't get enough rest, you are at risk for overtraining syndrome.
Signs Of Overtraining Syndrome
The diagnosis of over-training is usually made when you have several of the symptoms associated with it. The more symptoms you have, the more likely it is for you to be over-training. Here are 5 common signs of overtraining which are usually reported:
- Increased resting heart rate
- More frequent colds/flu
- Inability to sleep
- Mood changes
- Decreased exercise performance
If I thought you might be overtraining, these would be 5 things I would ask you about. The more of these you had, the more I'd start to think you were over-training
Notice #1 and #2 in the list above. Increased resting heart rate and getting sick more often. This suggests that over-exercising is associated with disturbances in both the nervous system and immune system.
Finding your resting heart rate, can be difficult to figure out – unless you used a wearable device (apple watch/fitbit.) that gave you this information. You don't need a device to figure this out, however. You can easily determine what your resting heart rate is by taking it yourself. Here's a quick video to show you how:
The only thing I'd add to this video is when you take your resting hart rate start with “1” not zero. Also, I prefer to take RHR for 60 seconds and not 10 seconds as this video says.
Other Signs Of Over Training
While the 5 signs mentioned above are common, over-training can also be associated with other things too. Here are some additional signs to be on the lookout for:
- Loss of coordination
- Loss of muscle strength
- Loss of muscle and cardiovascular endurance
- Reduced appetite
- Constant fatigue
- Elevated blood pressure
Some of these symptoms can be vague and may even be signs of other things. This is what makes over-training sometimes difficult to diagnose.
Is It Over Training Or Rhabdo?
In the list above, notice #6 is rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo). Rhabdomyolysis is a medical condition where your muscle fibers die, releasing toxins into the blood which can be harmful. Many things can cause rhabdo including too much exercise.
To be frank, rhabdo is scary. Many people with rhabdo end up in the hospital. But how do you know if you have over training or rhabdo? While I agree if you have muscle fiber death, you are definitely over-training, I don't really consider rhabdo a classic sign of overtraining syndrome. It's a fine line but here's how I would tell them apart:
- Overtraining usually takes weeks to months to develop
- Rhabdo often happens after only 1 workout
So, while rhabdo would technically be a sign of over-exercising, if you started to develop muscle pain, swelling, and fatigue after just 1 workout, I'd suspect rhabdo and not overtraining syndrome.
I'm the author of the first book on rhabdo and exercise. I lecture and write extensively about this condition. For more info see these:
- My rhabdo book
- Is it rhabdo or DOMS
- Can you have a mild case of rhabdo
- Video: Rhabdo: Not once but twice!
- Can you die from rhabdo?
- Rhabdo from spinning classes
- Video: Rhabdo from group exercise class
- Why rhabdo is happening in fitness centers
- Rhabdo and personal training
- Video: 3 things about rhabdo most people don't know
How To Recover From Overtraining Syndrome
Overtraining does not happen overnight. It takes several weeks to months to get this condition. Because of this it also does not go away quickly either. In the past, I've met people who have told me it's taken them up to a year to fully recover from this condition. That is not to say it will take you a year.
Recovery from over-exercising is probably different for most people. It likely varies by how bad of a case you had and what you do to help yourself recover. To help you recover from overtraining, here are some things I'd suggest
- Reduce your exercise intensity and the time you exercise
- Start tracking your resting heart rate
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Start tracking how many hours of sleep you are getting
Two ways you will know are the road to recovery is when you start to notice your resting heart rate lowering and you don't get sick as much anymore.
About exercise, while I'd usually don't say to avoid exercise, if you had a bad case, I would not be opposed to taking a week or so off. Generally, though, cut back your exercise intensity and length of time you exercise to about 40% of what you usually do. For example, if you worked out an hour a day 7 days a week, reduce it to no more than 40 minutes a day 3 days a week.
This is a general recommendation. There are no official “return to exercise guidelines” when it comes to overtraining.
Eating more fruits and vegetables is my personal recommendation. We know these foods contain antioxidants that can protect us from free radicals. But they can also help strengthen our immune systems. Fruits and vegetables can also help improve our microbiome – the bacteria living inside of us. Those bacteria do many things including helping keep our immune systems strong.
Can You Recover From Overtraining?
Yes, you can. It takes time but if you dedicate yourself to sensible exercise, good nutrition and getting enough sleep, most people make full recoveries from overtraining syndrome.