What is overtraining?

There’s a fine line between “overload” and “overtraining.” Overload occurs when you train at higher levels than your normal daily physical activity levels. It’s necessary to improve your physical performance. Overtraining happens when the stress from exercise and training workloads is greater than your body’s ability to recover. Full recovery from overtraining can take anywhere from days to months.

Overtraining 101

You can break overtraining into 3 levels, usually based on how long you’ve had symptoms.

Functional overreaching (FOR) is the lowest level, where you start to see initially small and short-term performance decreases. If proper recovery periods are built into your program, FOR can lead to “supercompensation,” where you might see short-term performance improvements. Supercompensation is a good thing, but it’s difficult to achieve without a well-programmed, periodized workout plan supervised by a strength and conditioning professional.

Nonfunctional overreaching (NFOR) is the next level. There might be other physiological (e.g. decreased hormone levels) and mental signs and symptoms, but these don’t affect everybody. Recovery from NFOR can take a few weeks to a couple months.

Overtraining syndrome (OTS) is similar to NFOR, but recovery takes several months. The only way to tell the difference between NFOR and OTS is how long it takes to recover. OTS requires a formal diagnosis from a medical provider so other medical issues can be ruled out.

Signs and symptoms

  • Decline in physical performance
  • Excessive and constant fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Change in appetite
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Burnout*

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes NFOR/OTS, or where to draw the line between FOR and NFOR/OTS. There’s a delicate balance of physical stress, mental and emotional stress, and proper nutrition that promotes functional overreaching and recovery. If levels of physical, mental, and emotional stress are too high, without adequate nutrition, rest, and positive mental and emotional support, that balance is tipped and NFOR/OTS can set in.

The overlap between overtraining and burnout

Burnout, when you lose your drive to perform, is typically the result of chronic stress or a loss of purpose. It can occur when you feel there’s no light at the end of a tunnel, or a loss of meaning or purpose. It’s not a medical condition, but what the International Classification of Diseases calls an “occupational phenomenon.” Burnout causes you to feel exhausted. It can also make you feel distanced from your job or training—often with negative feelings—and cause you to be less productive.

If you’re an athlete, burnout can cause you to feel less accomplished than usual and not value your participation. Even though burnout, by definition, is specific to work, the same symptoms can come from overtraining. Like burnout, overtraining syndrome can cause fatigue, irritability, and other mental and physical symptoms.

Symptomatically, burnout is also very similar to depression, and it can be hard to tell the difference. To be safe, see a mental health provider to be evaluated. All branches of the military provide mental health resources that can be accessed without affecting your medical record unless absolutely necessary, so the chances it affects your career are pretty low.

What to do about burnout

Burnout is a complicated condition, especially when it’s part of overtraining syndrome. Just as you should see a doctor or other appropriate medical provider when you have physical symptoms of overtraining syndrome, you should seek out a mental health provider if you think you’re experiencing burnout. Mental health providers can provide coping skills and stress-management techniques to help control and reduce burnout symptoms. They can also help you identify the true cause of your burnout. If everything else in life is going well for you, and you’re simply overtrained, that can simplify burnout treatment. Once you know the source of the problem, you can start your physical rest and recovery process knowing it will help with the mental symptoms as well.

How to prevent overtraining

The exact causes of NFOR/OTS are unknown, so preventing it can be difficult. Experts recommend close monitoring of your training, nutrition, sleep, and stress to help identify when FOR/NFOR might be setting in—and to head off OTS. For example, if you start to see a lack of progress in your training, and your stress levels are high, change your training program a bit and add in a period of active recovery or passive rest.

Sleep is an essential component of recovery, so getting enough also can help prevent NFOR/OTS. Sleep helps facilitate muscle repair, and acts as a reset button for mental performance.

Proper performance nutrition is also a key component of preventing NFOR/OTS because it helps facilitate recovery and muscle regeneration. For more information about nutrition needs, see HPRC’s Warfighter Nutrition Guide.

References

Alvar, B. A., Sell, K., & Deuster, P. A. (Eds.). (2017). NSCA's Essentials of Tactical Strength and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Cardoos, N. (2015). Overtraining syndrome. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 14(3), 157–158. doi:10.1249/jsr.0000000000000145

Jensen, A. E., Arrington, L. J., Turcotte, L. P., & Kelly, K. R. (2019). Hormonal balance and nutritional intake in elite tactical athletes. Steroids, 152. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2019.108504

Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Nieman, D., . . . Urhausen, A. (2013). Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 45(1), 186–205. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318279a10a

Melchers, M. C., Plieger, T., Meermann, R., & Reuter, M. (2015). Differentiating burnout from depression: Personality matters! Frontiers in Psychiatry, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2015.00113

Vrijkotte, S., Roelands, B., Pattyn, N., & Meeusen, R. (2019). The overtraining syndrome in soldiers: Insights from the sports domain. Military Medicine, 184(5–6), e192-e200. doi:10.1093/milmed/usy274

World Health Organization. (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved 08 December 2019 from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/