It’s admirable to train hard to succeed in your chosen sport. Logging many miles, spending hours at the gym and working hard day after day can certainly help you achieve your athletic goals. But too much training without sufficient recovery can hinder your progress — and even lead to a decline in your performance.
“When an athlete is trying to improve their performance, they have to push their limits,” says Marci A. Goolsby, MD, Medical Director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at HSS, “but sometimes a line is crossed. Repetitive, strenuous training without adequate recovery can lead to overtraining, causing a negative impact on how the athlete feels and performs.”
Here’s an explanation of what overtraining is, the warning signs and symptoms of overtraining, and how to recover if you’re experiencing it.
There are two classifications for too much exercise: overreaching and overtraining.
Overreaching is muscle soreness above and beyond what you typically experience that occurs when you don’t sufficiently recover between workouts. Overreaching usually happens after several consecutive days of hard training and results in feeling run down. Luckily, the effects of overreaching can be easily reversed with rest.
Overtraining occurs when an athlete ignores the signs of overreaching and continues to train. Many athletes believe that weakness or poor performance signals the need for even harder training, so they continue to push themselves. This only breaks down the body further.
Full recovery from overtraining is difficult and can require weeks or months of time off from working out — something that can be especially challenging for someone whose life revolves around their sport.
Healthy sleep, nutrition and mental wellness are critical in preventing overtraining. These must be part of the training regimen just as much as the exercise and rest plan. “Many of us use exercise to manage stress,” says HSS sports psychologist Deborah N. Roche, PhD. “It can be a great way to clear your head and enhance your mood. However, you can have too much of a good thing.”
It may be hard to know when you’re overtraining. “It’s natural and expected to feel fatigued after challenging training sessions,” Dr. Goolsby says. “But feeling like you aren’t recovering between sessions or experiencing overall fatigue and difficulty pushing yourself during workouts can be indicators of overtraining.”
If any of these signs feel familiar, it may be time to make some changes. “It is best to identify these symptoms early on and adjust training to accommodate,” Dr. Goolsby says. “If the symptoms become more severe and prolonged, the recovery takes much longer.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms of overtraining, talk with your coach, athletic trainer or doctor. These sports medicine professionals can work with you to establish personalized guidelines for your recovery. “It is also important for coaches to identify issues their athletes may be having with strenuous training and have an open dialogue about whether training needs to be adjusted, in addition to ensuring good sleep, nutrition and mental health,” Dr. Goolsby says.
Typically, recovery from overtraining includes:
Rest is crucial for recovery from overtraining. You may need to temporarily stop or cut back on your training — even if it means forgoing an upcoming competition.
Examine your eating habits. Have you been depriving your body of the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals it needs for high-quality, high-intensity training? Work with a nutritionist for an eating plan that can provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs for healing.
It can be emotionally challenging to take time off from training. Mental health professionals can help with recovery from overtraining by offering space for you to discuss your feelings. “Getting support and validation for how challenging it can be to take a break can help normalize the experience and help the athlete feel less overwhelmed or discouraged by the break,” Dr. Roche says. “Additionally, mental skills training and other psychology skills can be taught and used during the break. Mindfulness, visualization and other techniques have been shown to be effective in helping athletes prepare and return to sport after injury.”
Your doctor and coach should help you determine when you’re ready to begin training again. Signs that you’re likely ready to resume full training are renewed interest and an ability to train hard with normal responses.
Start low and go slow. Your training volume may be reduced by at least 50 to 60 percent. Increase how much you train by about 10 percent each week.
Even though easing back into training slowly may be difficult, you should apply the same discipline you developed for training to complying with the recommendations of your sports medicine team. “The recovery will be different for every athlete,” Dr. Goolsby says, “It’s important to be aware of symptoms with progression back to activity. Trying to get back into full training too quickly would lead to a prolonged recovery.” The more closely you follow professionals’ guidelines, the sooner you’ll be back in the gym, at the track or on the field.
Regardless of whether you’re noticing some of the symptoms of overtraining or simply hoping to stay safe as you level up your workouts, the best fix for overtraining is to avoid doing it in the first place.
Here are tips to help keep your routine safe and realistic.
Listen to your body. Work closely with your coach or doctor and let them know how you’re feeling.
Visualize your workouts. “Using imagery and visualization can provide the rehearsal you want from training, without overloading your body and risking injury,” Dr. Roche says.
Keep a training log. Record your feelings of well-being as well as how much you’re exercising. “As you increase your training load, noting how you feel each day in a training log can help you recognize the signs of overtraining so you can reduce that load and prevent overtraining,” Dr. Roche says.
Balance training with time for recovery. Adequate rest is not a sign of weakness. You need at least one complete day of rest every week.
If you’re training for a specific activity, alternate hard and easy days. Incorporate cross-training and other forms of active rest into your training. As you increase the amount and intensity of your training, work up gradually.
Acknowledge when you’re overdoing it — and talk to someone about it. If you find yourself becoming obsessed with training, exercising despite injury or pain, or feeling guilty if you go a day without vigorous exercise, talk with someone about your feelings. You want to have a healthy relationship with exercise.
Make sure you’re getting enough calories and nutrients. Your calorie intake should cover what your body needs for training and muscle repair. Work with a nutritionist to evaluate your food habits and make sure you’re getting enough of what you need.
Drink lots of water. Dehydration contributes to muscle fatigue. Ensure adequate fluids with the goal of having light-colored urine. Be cautious with fluids that add to dehydration such as caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.
Do what you can to reduce your stress. Everyone deals with stress differently. When your stress levels exceed your ability to cope, your body will begin to break down. Look for opportunities to rearrange your priorities to reduce the effects of your stressors.
Consider getting help from a mental health professional to work through issues related to your training, job, family, social life, body image, finances, travel, time or anything else that impacts your mental well-being.