How Can You Tell when You’ve Taken it Too Far? Signs of Overtraining in Sport

Whenever we pursue a sport or training program seriously, chances are, we are bound to feel a little sore in specific areas of the body, at some point during our training week. It is vital, however, for novices and more experimented athletes alike, to identify when they may be overtraining. Taking it a step too far, too often, can have various long-term consequences, including grave brain, muscle and metabolic imbalances. Chronic adrenal exhaustion and a deficiency of Oxygen (known as ‘aerobic deficiency syndrome’) can lead to heart disease and other problems. Sometimes, the problem can take years to solve, and often it is simply because we are not listening enough to our bodies.

There are many steps we can take to foster a healthier, more positive relationship to exercise; to achieve our goals without exposing body and mind to excessive punishment. Optimal nutrition (ensuring an adequate supply of protein and fat) is essential, as is sleeping the required number of hours that your body needs to recover, and ensuring that not all your training sessions are high intensity. It is also important to watch out for signs of overtraining. These include:
  • Hitting a plateau: You seem to be training harder than ever before, yet your results are not improving or worse yet, they are worsening. When you push your body too hurt, the result can be lost muscle mass. The body simply cannot produce the testosterone it needs when it is put to such an arduous test. Give it a rest for a few days and return when your body and mind are giving you signs they are ready.
  • Loss of motivation: You have big goals to achieve, yet it’s had to get out of bed because you are so tired, let alone think of hitting the gym or attending a training session or competition. This is perhaps the clearest sign that something in your workout needs to change. Closely related to a loss in motivation, is depression. When you feel like regardless of the effort you invest, you are not achieving your goals, the result can be devastating. The culprit might be an overstimulated parasympathetic nervous system. The latter causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise when we are exposed to physical or mental stress. While these reactions are ideal when the ‘fight or flight’ response is truly needed (for instance, when we are being attacked or in another similarly dangerous situation), they should not be invoked to often or last for too long. When you are over-stressed, you might wake up and find that your heart is already racing. Use a heart monitor to ensure this is not the case. Do so when you are still in bed or during the day, when you are in a relaxed state.
  • Headaches and Thirst: When the body enters into a catabolic (destructive) descent, an excess of stress hormone, cortisol, is produced. We can feel thirsty all the time and develop headaches. The problem can be even more serious, because allowing cortisol to run riot can lead to Type II diabetes.
  • Intense pain in the muscles after a workout: You know what normal wear and tear feels like – very different from intense or chronic muscle pain. Watch out if you are still hurting around three days after your workout. See your doctor if pain persists.
  • Frequent injuries: When you do not give your muscles enough time to heal, the chances are that your injury rate will rise. 
  • Frequent illness: Our immune system suffers when we overtrain. Research has shown that there is an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections in endurance athletes, who do constantly push their limits.  In a fascinating article entitled Overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes, author Laurel T MacKinnon of the School of Human Movement Studies at The University of Queensland in Australia, notes that “persistently elevated stress hormone levels may lead to disturbed sensitivity, alterations in other hormones, such as insulin and pituitary hormones, and changes in muscle metabolism, which may ultimately lead to autonomic dysfunction.” In other words, overtraining sets off specific reactions which together overstress the immune system and lead to reduced performance.