The In's and Out's of Overtraining Syndrome

March 5, 2021

We spoke with Alicja Konieczek about her experience with Overtraining Syndrome.

Even the pros struggle. They get tired and drained. Sometimes burnt out. But how does one get tired of doing what they love? Today we would like to explore something not talked about enough, Overtraining (OT) Syndrome and its prevalence in sports.

Below we will talk about what OT syndrome is.

How it happens.

Finding a return to health.

Methods of prevention.

And the personal experience of our friend Alicja.

Alicja Konieczek

Alicja is an elite athlete for On Running and a Chaski Coach. Recently she brought this topic to the forefront of our mind because of her own experience with OT syndrome.

Many of us have found the COVID pandemic to be more stressful than we ever could have predicted. This led to a slow and steady change in balance for Alicja. Eventually, this imbalance of stress and rest peaked.

“After a bad tempo run, I took a day off and then suddenly, for ten consecutive days felt terrible. I slept for 12 hours every night and even took 1-2 hour naps. My appetite was gone and replaced with nausea. No matter the time of day or how much I slept I was always tired. When trying to train, my HR would go up to 180+ BPM in the first minute of running and refused to decrease no matter how slow I went. Muscles and joints throbbed, and I began feeling depressed finding it impossible to be motivated for anything.”

What exactly is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining syndrome has been traditionally defined as a diminished athletic performance from increased volume or intensity of training. Traditional definitions aside OT syndrome is the result of pushing too hard too quickly (or for too long) without adequate recovery. It’s our bodies’ way of telling us to pull off the throttle and to slow down -- way down.

While the basic concept of overtraining as an imbalance appears simple, its complexity and lack of a single-test diagnosis also contributes to the lack of consensus among athletes, coaches, health practitioners, and scientists on its definition. Thus making it difficult to prevent and treat. Though OT is used in reverence to those engaged in exercise it is nearly identical to burnout which affects over 23% of American professions on a consistent basis.

OT syndrome can look differently for everyone. Everyone experiences different variations and with different timing, however, below are some of the symptoms, specifically for runners:

  • Waking up tired with fatigue continuing throughout the day
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Bodyweight fluctuation (lost or gain)
  • No motivation for everyday tasks
  • Impairment of any human performance including the enjoyment of sport
  • Elevated heart rate in the morning and during any physical activity
  • Loss of menstruation cycle
  • Depression
  • Inability to turn over during longer runs
  • Feeling bad at the beginning of a workout
  • Mood changes

How does it get to this point?

OT syndrome is the result of an imbalance. Every kind of training is made up of two parts: the workout (the practice of pushing past current boundaries which in exercise is the breaking down of muscle) and recovery (or the rest which is the foundation for growth). The imbalance that leads to OT syndrome can come from either of these two variables: too much stress or too little recovery.

For runners, it often begins with too many changes in training at once (i.e. mileage, workouts, attitude, weights). Though it can also develop from a lack of rest between workouts or recovery days not taken seriously. For those experiencing burn out this lack of balance also applies.

Returning to “healthy”.

If you’re reading and find yourself experiencing these symptoms and lacking the performance you desire this is the section you’re most excited for. “How do I get back to feeling fit and powerful?”

While the solution isn’t glamorous, it is effective and vital if one wants to regain their energy, motivation, and ability to continue improving.

First and foremost one needs to reverse the imbalance. For the next few weeks try the following.

Start by not attempting to “work out” for the next few weeks (and by “work out” we mean harder, faster running, if you’re able to jog and continue to improve that’s fine; though some serious cases require absolute rest from all exercise). Rest extensively: naps and at least 8 hours at night. Increase your caloric intake (protein especially) to aid your body in rebuilding. Hydrate religiously and lastly aim to reduce any other stressors in your life.

A great practice to reduce stress is mindfulness, which may mean more traditional meditation or could just be a walk in nature which the Japanese have termed shinrin-yoku, which translates to ‘forest bathing’ or ‘absorbing the forest atmosphere.’

Lastly, you should consult your doctor who may suggest an antidepressant, adrenal support, or iron supplement to aid your recovery.

Luckily for Alicja, after several weeks of intense rest and recovery, she’s finally on the upswing.

“Finally, I am in the process of recovery. I feel better, no muscle or joint pain, and I have an appetite now, though my HR is still elevated.  Workouts are currently still on hold for now but I’m hoping to get back soon.”

Prevention is the best medicine.

Successful athletes all understand the importance of listening to their bodies. Understanding how you feel and interpreting those signals is the first step to prevention. Ultimately you are the first line of defence for your health.

In line with listening to your body, there are other methods for self-tracking such as monitoring your resting and workout HRs. If you have access to blood tests, these can be super powerful in checking hormone levels like cortisol (stress hormone), nutrition, and other indicators. One should always take recovery seriously and avoid adding too many things back into your training regimen at once.

Last but not least, is your support system. Having a good coach that knows your limits can be a life-altering advantage. Your friends, teammates, significant other, or roommates can even offer insights you may be blind to because of your proximity to the problem. If they warn you’re doing too much, consider that and talk to your coach or reevaluate your training.

Pride can be the worst detriment to our success. Lacking the ability to reach out for help when we need it will not make us look stronger and will only ensure failure that much more quickly. No one who has accomplished anything of value has done it completely alone. Know your strengths but also know your weaknesses and find ways to support those areas.

The most important lesson Alicja took away is that, like with so many things in running, it’s all about patience -- and not being afraid to ask for help.

“I’ve learned that you cannot rush it through fitness. Everything takes time. You have to take a good after-season break and SLOWLY get back into it. Also, good insurance and a support team are super important.

I feel that people misunderstand the prevalence of this syndrome because people fear talking about it and sharing their experience. It seems like this is a trend in sports, we are too scared to admit we are struggling and need help and that only ensures we can't get the help we need and it makes it harder for others later. If we could all just be more vulnerable and support others in their vulnerability there is nothing humans can't accomplish.

Editor’s Note - We are NOT medical doctors and are not qualified to diagnose medical conditions or give out medical advice. If you’re worried that you might be suffering from Overtraining Syndrome, please consult a professional.

If you enjoyed this you may want to check out our other post called "All The Little Things: With Intense Training Comes Intense Recovery"

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