Training Principles: Overtraining


You have been rocking your workouts and adding extra training sessions to your week, just because you are feeling so damn great!  You almost feel invincible!  Now is the time to find out what you are capable of and push even further, harder and faster, right?

You have been doing all of your training sessions but you felt slower on your last couple of runs/rides.  Easy pace didn't feel easy and your heart rate is too high.  You couldn't get your speed up to target pace during your last couple of interval sessions.  You are training so hard but your performance is stale or getting worse.  Now is the time to push further, harder and faster, right?

You are beyond stressed out at work and home life is just as crazy right now.  You can't get to bed before midnight but you still have to get up early and do it all again tomorrow. You feel like you are burning the candle at both ends and man, now your throat is a bit sore. You missed your key workouts last week because of 'life' and exhaustion.  Now is the time to make up those workouts and push yourself to squeeze even more in, right?


Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?  If you are human and training for an event to reach your goals, then I'll bet you can relate to at least one of them, in some way.  These are all examples of straddling the fine line between Overload and Overreaching, the gateway to Overtraining.  And when you find yourself on this fine line, you are in a very serious position.  Push beyond the limits of your body's adaptive capabilities and you risk diving into the serious condition known as Overtraining.  One thing is for certain, when you cross that line and don't back off to give your body the recovery time it needs to adapt, then your body will just go ahead and do it for you. 

Overload is a good thing. Challenging our body bit by bit over weeks and months and years, is how a good training plan works. Coupled with adequate recovery, progressive overload is the way that we adapt, grow stronger and nail those PRs.  And, ultimately, adaptation is the goal of any results based training plan.  

Overreaching is different.  This is the delicate place between overload and overtraining.  Overreaching can be a very good thing or a very bad thing.  Peak weeks, breakthrough workouts and setting PR's are all examples of Overreaching. These training sessions have a high risk/reward ratio.  Respond with adequate recovery between these sessions and the rewards are massive.  Failure to adhere to an optimal recovery plan between these sessions, however, and the risk is also massive.  Cross that line and enter the land of overtraining.


Also referred to as staleness or overstress. Overtraining is caused by a loss in the body’s adaptive capabilities. This can occur after chronic high-volume training or ‘too much too soon’, when the work/rest ratio is not sufficient to allow for adaptation. Remember, it is not just 'training' that contributes to 'too much too soon', but the accumulation of all sources of stress in our lives.  Stress is stress in the body and too much too soon may come from home, work, illness, poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, injury etc.  Failing to create the optimal balance between total stress and recovery sets the stage for Overtraining.

Some fatigue is a normal part of every training plan and you are not going to launch into Overtraining at the first sign of mild aches pains and fatigue.  There are normal signs of fatigue following a progressive overload training session- sleepy or tired for the rest of the day or the next day after a big endurance run or ride, tired or tight after a speed or hill work session, moderate muscle soreness for 24-48 hours after a breakthrough workout at the gym.  

How do you know if you are getting close to the line? The first sign that you are straddling the line between Overload and Overtraining is an increase in the duration, intensity or frequency of these normal training symptoms.  You shouldn't be bagged or sore for a week after your hard workouts.  And your symptoms should get better, not worse as the days go on.  Additional signs that you may be pushing your body's limits include frequent illness (why am getting sick so often?), injury (why do I keep getting these injuries?), excessive fatigue (why am I always so tired?), irritability (why am I emotional?), change in sleep (why can't I sleep?  or why am I sleeping for 10 hours and still tired when I wake up?) and the big one- decreasing performance.

Once you cross the line into Overtraining land it can be a long journey home.  

True Overtraining Syndrome is a comprehensive disruption of the body's systems and can require months to rebound from. Hormonal, neurological, musculoskeletal, mental/emotional imbalances need time to return to homeostasis.  The fatigue associated with overtraining is very different than that resulting from a hard workout and the body does not bounce back from this state with days or weeks of recovery. Once overtraining status has taken hold it can take months or even years to dissipate. Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome include:

  • Inability to sleep or excessive sleep 

  • Loss of energy/lethargy/apathy  

  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite

  • Weight loss or gain 

  • Chronic muscle soreness  

  • Chronic fatigue 

  • Frequent illness, injury, poor healing time

  • Declining performance 

  • Increased resting heart rate 

  • Irritability 

  • Depression 

  • Anxiety

Everyone experiences different warning signs that they are pushing beyond their limits- but you can be sure they are always there. Overtraining does not happen overnight. That is the good news. When we listen to our body's feedback and respond to the early signs of breakdown, we will have plenty of time to modify our stress/recovery balance. But that is the trick. We must listen and we must respond by adding more recovery time and decreasing stress, in order to support our body and to allow it to adapt and grow stronger.  

Keep a journal of your training, note how you are feeling and respond to these changes and you will stay well ahead of any risk of Overtraining.  Identify and remove any unnecessary stressors that you can control, in your life.  Check your Ego at the door, and give your body the respect it deserves- it is an amazing machine, but you must work within your limits of adaptation.  Patience, persistence AND flexibility are the keys to reaching your fitness and performance goals feeling strong, healthy and stoked!

If you want support with your training and recovery so that you can rock your goals feeling healthy and stoked this year, I'd love to help!  Check out my Online Training Plans and let me know if you have any questions:). 

Happy Trails!