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Overtraining Syndrome: The Deep Dive Behind Fatigue & Decreased Performance of Runners & Triathletes


After years of working with endurance athletes (and being one myself), I’ve come to realize that many, if not almost all, fit a certain mold. They have similar personalities: intense, ambitious, and determined. They all have similar workout routines with overlapping seasons providing little to no recovery time. And unfortunately, some of them may suffer from a similar ailment: overtraining and the even more significant, Overtraining Syndrome.


Yup, believe it or not, Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is real, and it can prove to be a significant detriment to your performance and health if not taken care of. Now, I have a feeling some of you might be asking yourselves “C’mon, can my intense workout schedule really be hindering my health?” In one, simple word – YES! It may sound counterintuitive but working out too much and too often for too long throughout the year will worsen your performance. And that intense training can bring on Overtraining Syndrome.


Why does this happen? And how can you know if you’re guilty of it? Let’s read on together and allow ol’ Dr. Rob to provide some guidance, shall we?


First a Little Background – Why Does Overtraining Syndrome exist?


Overtraining Syndrome occurs when an athlete ignores the signs for burnout (aka: overtraining) and continues to work their bodies even harder. Repetitive, strenuous exercise without adequate recovery can lead to overtraining, which in turn will cause a negative impact on how you feel and perform. It happens more than you think. Many athletes believe that weakness or poor performance signals the need for even harder training or adding something, so they continue to push themselves instead of pulling back and reflecting on what they are doing. Unfortunately, this only breaks down the body further. And so, the vicious cycle begins.


Some people, including myself, believe there is a significant link between Overtraining Syndrome and emotional factors. Think about it - the emotional demands of competition, desire to win, fear of failure, and unrealistic goals can all cause athletes a great amount of stress. Because of this, overtraining is typically accompanied by a loss of competitive desire or enthusiasm for training. Furthermore, OTS and clinical depression have remarkably similar signs and symptoms, brain structures, impact of neurotransmitters in the brain, endocrine pathways, and immune responses (Armstrong and VanHeest, 2002). This suggests that they have similar origins.


Is Overtraining Syndrome Really that Dangerous?


I’m sad to report, but a full recovery from overtraining is difficult and can require weeks or sometimes even months of time off from working out. Or at least doing something completely different from what you have been doing all this time. And trust me, this can be especially challenging for someone whose life revolves around their sport. So the best way to handle it is to obviously prevent it.


If you get to the point of suffering from Overtraining Syndrome, taking a break from training simply isn’t enough. That’s why it’s so important to detect OTS as soon as possible. If you hope to reverse its effects, you must make several big changes. This will entail reducing the amount of time you exercise, the intensity of your training, and allowing more recovery time between sessions.


How Do I Know If I’m Suffering from Overtraining Syndrome?


It’s sometimes hard to know when you’re guilty of overtraining, as it’s only natural to feel fatigued after challenging training sessions. Heck, it’s been ingrained into our brains from childhood that good workout should leave us feeling tired and achy. But if you’re feeling like you aren’t recovering between sessions, experiencing overall fatigue (even when not training), not feeling rested after a full nights sleep, and are having difficulty pushing yourself during workouts, then these can be indicators of overtraining.

I tell my clients to look for signs of OTS in three different buckets of their life: (1) training (2) health and (3) lifestyle.


Training:

These are sometimes the hardest ones to interpret, as many athletes mistaken these signs as “an awesome workout”. They include unusual muscle soreness after a workout (which persists with continued training), inability to train or compete at a previously manageable level, declines in performance, and delays in recovery from exercising.


Health:

Signs that overtraining is affecting one’s health include increased occurrences of illness, increased blood pressure and resting heart rate, appetite loss, and reproductive issues. A good doctor, athletic trainer or physical therapist will be able to help with pointing out OTS by observing these signs (more on that below).


Lifestyle-related:

I find that these indicators are actually the easiest for you to spot (that is, if you are paying attention to your quality of life!). These signs of Overtraining Syndrome include prolonged general fatigue, poor quality of sleep, trouble concentrating, and not feeling joy from things that were once enjoyable.


If any of these symptoms feel familiar, it may be time to make some changes. Again, it’s best to identify these symptoms early on and adjust training to accommodate. Remember, the longer the symptoms remain, the longer it will take to recover


Is There Any Way to Spot Overtraining Syndrome?


As I mentioned before, it takes a skilled medical professional, athletic trainer, or physical therapist to spot the signs of OTS in their clients and help them recover correctly. One test that I sometimes do (and you can too if need be) is to perform an orthostatic heart rate test. This is used to quickly determine the variability in your heart rate which is diminished in those with OTS along with a decreased ability to adequately adapt heart rate changes. The test involves resting for 10 minutes, recording your heart rate for a minute, standing up, and then noting your beats per minute at various intervals (15 seconds, 90 seconds, and 120 seconds).


Well-rested athletes will show a consistent heart rate between measurements, but athletes on the verge of overtraining often have a marked increase (10 beats per minute or more) at the 120-second measurement.


How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

So you admit you’re suffering from Overtraining Syndrome. What now? I definitely suggest seeking the help of a trained Doctor of Physical Therapy to help you. After helping hundreds of clients with this issue and other endurance athlete related issues, I’ll be able to evaluate you and help determine inefficiencies, potential areas for concern, and reduce overall risk for injury.


I’ll also be able to help you structure your training, so you learn to incorporate the right amount of rest and work to help keep you below injury and overtraining thresholds. If need be, you can also be referred to a sports nutritionist or a doctor is specializes in this area like Dr. Amy West who is also a renowned CrossFit Athlete and has worked at the CrossFit Games on the Medical team.


So, there you have it folks! If you suspect that you are developing the effects of over-training, please seek help from a healthcare professional. As a trained Doctor of Physical Therapy, I will be able to guide you back to a healthy workout routine quickly and efficiently. Always feel free to reach out with any questions you may have; we would love to hear your goals and assist in any way to make sure you achieve them. Please give us a call at 516-387-0053. If you would like to read more of our blog posts, please CLICK HERE. If you would like to follow us along as we present more information about different topics related to endurance athletics, please give us a follow on our Instagram.


References: "Overtraining vs. Overreaching & Prevention" by William Lemoin

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