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What is overtraining syndrome and the steps you can take to prevent it

by Joanna Gil July 13, 2020 3 min read

What is overtraining syndrome and the steps you can take to prevent it

Overtraining Syndrome as Defined by the  European College of Sports Science

BURNOUT. I'm sure we've all experienced this at least once in our lives whether in from the emotional state of mind or a direct mental response to over-working. When we experience burnout, it can lead to a wide variety of physical and emotional symptoms which can negatively affect and limit our daily performance; it puts overstress on the physical body and mind. Overtraining syndrome is rare but it's important to understand what it is, how it can develop, and measures we can take to prevent it if we are to safely increase our athletic ability and performance.
The definitions of overtraining syndrome or OTS are arbitrary within the European College of Sports Science. A well-accepted definition is that it is a "maladapted response to exercise when excessive and not matched with appropriate rest, resulting in a systemic inflammatory process that affects various body systems such as immunologic, endocrinologic, as well as neurologic (Meeusen, 2006). "
Other terms used to describe this underperformance physiological state are staleness, failure adaptation, under-recovery, chronic fatigue, overtraining, overreaching, and unexplained underperformance.


How is physical performance increased?

 Performance is increased by increasing training loads ONLY and through dispersed rest and recovery periods. The term for this is training periodization. When overreaching occurs, the training loads surpass what the body can handle at one time and more days or even weeks of recovery are needed before the body is ready to take on more training.


How can overreaching/overtraining lead to OTS?

 When overreaching is extreme and combined with an additional stressor, this can result in OTS. With OTS, the CNS will be affected resulting in a depressed mood, central fatigue, neurohormonal changes, and may possibly end an athletic career. An individual's capacity to handle stress can also determine if they will develop OTS.

Currently, there are many hypotheses on why OTS develops in overtrained athletes around the world. Given that OTS is rare and there is lacking data on its prevalence and incidence rates, the average person should not worry about developing OTS, however, there should be caution on symptoms experienced after increased intense training through a new exercise program that one is not used to, which can lead to functional overreaching or FO (this is not the same as OTS). FO results in temporary performance but which increases again after adequate rest (days to weeks). As for OTS, there are psychologic and neuro endocrinologic symptoms that you don't generally see in NFO/OTS. These symptoms include fatigue, depression, loss of motivation, insomnia, irritability, agitation, restlessness, hypertension, or bradycardia/ tachycardia(Kreher, 2012).


The criteria for clinical diagnosis are as follows:

1) Less than 14 to 21 days of rest required before returning to previous training = NFO

2) Greater than 14 to 21 days of rest = OTS

3) Psychological distress

$) Profile of Mood States Score (especially the vigor score versus the fatigue score)



There are no evidence-based means of preventing OTS. What has been suggested is the observation of training load, performance measures, and mood questionnaires as these can help prevent the progression from FO to NFO/OTS. A study focused on collegiate swimmers showed a decrease from 10% burnout to zero when the training load was decreased in response to a decreased mood state as a result of the Profile of Mood States Questionnaire (Kreher, 2012).

Recommended preventative measures athletes should take to prevent nonfunctional overreaching/ overtraining syndrome:

  • Periodization of training

  • Tapering for competition

  • Adjust training volume and intensity based on performance and mood

  • Ensure adequate calories for training load

  • Ensure adequate hydration

  • Ensure adequate carbohydrate ingestion during exercise

  • Ensure adequate sleep

  • Promoting mental toughness or resilience as a buffer

  • A rest period of greater than 6 hours between exercise bouts

  • Abstinence of training following infection, heat stroke/stress, periods of high stress

  • Avoid extreme environmental conditions

  • Utilize Profile of Mood States (or stress level) and alter training load




     Kreher JB, Schwartz JB. Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide.Sports Health. 2012;4(2):128-138. doi:10.1177/1941738111434406     

     Meeusen R, Duclos M, Gleeson M, et al. Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: ECSS Position Statement Task Force. Eur J Sport Sci. 2006;6(1):1-14



Joanna Gil, BS Nutrition

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