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Fitness Focus Copy-and-Share: Overtraining

Thompson, Dixie L. Ph.D., FACSM

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181b46b9b
DEPARTMENTS: Fitness Focus Copy-and-Share

This copy-and-share column provides practical information about overtraining.

Dixie L. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, is the director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health and department head for the Department of Exercise, Sport, and Leisure Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

There are many wonderful reasons to exercise. For example, exercise can improve our health, help us relax, and give us ways to engage in competition. Participation in regular exercise causes the body to adapt and become even better able to handle the stress of subsequent exercise bouts. That adaptation process is crucial to the success of athletes and provides us with many health benefits. However, an important training concept that is sometimes forgotten is that the body needs adequate time to recover between exercise bouts. Overtraining can result when exercise bouts are too long and/or too intense without adequate time for the body to recover.

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After a strenuous workout, it is natural to feel tired. But in a well-designed workout program, feelings of tiredness are dissipated by rest. For an athlete who is overtrained, the body is unable to fully recover from exercise bouts, and negative side effects result. An early sign of impending overtraining is often chronic tiredness.

The symptoms of overtraining vary in severity and may be different among individuals. Both physical and psychological symptoms can result from overtraining. A person's nutritional status, psychological outlook, and type of exercise routine can influence how overtraining manifests itself. Some of the most commonly reported symptoms are:

  • excessive fatigue
  • decreases in performance
  • psychological staleness, depression, and/or irritability
  • changes in resting heart rate and blood pressure (could be higher or lower)
  • increased susceptibility to infections
  • weight loss

If your fatigue or other symptoms are not relieved by a few days' rest, it is wise to consult your physician. He or she can perform tests to determine if there are other underlying causes for your symptoms.

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Recovering from overtraining can be a difficult process. Recovery requires rest and can be difficult to fully achieve. Therefore, the best approach is to avoid overtraining. Some tips to keep in mind include:

  • Vary the intensity and volume of workouts. Days with long vigorous workouts should be followed by days with lighter exercise or maybe even complete rest.
  • When increasing the volume and/or intensity of your workout routine, do so gradually. Making incremental changes in your workout routine gives the body time to adapt.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Finding the optimal amount of sleep and developing a routine to achieve that sleep is critical for optimal performance.
  • Eat a healthy diet adequate in calories and containing plenty of water. The body must have the right balance and amount of nutrients to recover and adapt from exercise bouts.
  • Listen to your body, and if you are extremely tired, take a break. Sometimes taking a day off is the best thing you can do for your exercise routine!
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