How to Identify Overtraining Syndrome – 23 Warning Signs

Use this quick-reference checklist to identify 23 warning signs and symptoms of overtraining.

by Brad Walker | First Published March 17, 2002 | Updated March 15, 2020
One of the biggest challenges to achieving your fitness goals is consistency. If you’re repeatedly getting sick, run down and overtrained it becomes very difficult to stay injury free.

So how do you tell the difference between being just a little tired, and being legitimately run down or overtrained?

And how do you keep the consistency and benefits of regular exercise, without over training and becoming sick or injured?

How to Identify Overtraining Syndrome

What is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining Syndrome is the result of giving your body more work or stress than it can handle. Overtraining occurs when a person experiences stress and physical trauma from exercise faster than their body can repair the damage.

A 2012 Sports Health research article described overtraining syndrome (OTS) as…

“OTS appears to be a maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in perturbations of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes.”

Now this doesn’t happen overnight, or as a result of one or two work-outs. In fact, regular exercise is extremely beneficial to your general health and fitness, but you must remember that it’s exercise that breaks your body down, while it’s the rest and recovery that makes you stronger and healthier. Improvements only occur during the times of rest.

Remember stress can come from a multitude of sources. It’s not just physical stress that causes overtraining. Sure, excessive exercise may lead to overtraining, but don’t forget to consider other stresses, such as family or work commitments. Remember, stress is stress, whether it’s a physical, mental or emotional stress, it still has the same effect on your health and well-being.

How do Muscles and Tendons Adapt to Overtraining

Transcript from video (click to open)

So, a few weeks ago I did a video on overtraining or overuse injuries, chronic injuries in particular. And in that video, I outlined the two fundamental causes of overuse injuries. The causes that are sort of at the root of the obvious answers like; you did too much training; you ran on the concrete when you shouldn’t have; your shoes are worn out. All those obvious answers that you hear about overtraining. And I spoke about these two fundamental issues that lead to overuse injuries and one of them was ignorance and the other one was ego.

So today, I thought I would spend a little bit more time talking about the first one, about ignorance. And I explained it’s very common with new people to the sport, new people who are exercising for sometimes, the first time in their life. They come to a sport, they get all excited about it and they just don’t have the knowledge to help them to train properly and that’s where the ignorance part comes into it. So today, I wanted to talk about something that I call the three-month curse and I see it a lot with new people coming into sports.

One thing that a lot of people don’t understand about training is that muscle adapts very quickly to training. Muscle adapts very quickly to stress and pressure and work. So in other words, when you start training for the first time maybe you decide that you want to do a 10k run or that you’re going to start at the gym. You start out and your muscles adapt very quickly. Once you’ve got over those first couple of weeks where you’re just stiff and sore all the time, your muscles adapt and become stronger very quickly.

But the problem is that your muscles adapt much quicker than things like tendons and ligaments and joints and bones. So, while your muscles can handle the increased workload your tendons and your ligaments can’t.

So, what typically happens is 2 to 3 months into a training program you start to get all these niggly little injuries. Maybe your knee starts to hurt a little bit or your shoulder gets a little bit sore. And what’s happening is that your muscles have adapted to the new stress but your tendons and ligaments and bones haven’t caught up yet. So, while your muscles are able to perform the exercise your tendons and ligaments can’t and this is where overuse, chronic injury comes into play. And this is why I list ignorance as one of the fundamental reasons why people get chronic injuries.

So most people just don’t understand that it takes time for your ligament, your joints and your bones (especially your bones) to adapt to the new training that you’re doing. So now that you know that and if you are starting a new training program or you’ve decided that you’re going to run a 10k or a marathon or you’re going to take up cycling or you’re going to start going to the gym again, just remember that after about 2 or 3 months, give your body a little bit of a break. Let those tendons and ligaments catch up to your muscles and you’ll be much better off for it. Because there’s nothing worse than starting an exercise program; you finally get past all that soreness and stiffness; your feeling good; the muscles are feeling great; you can run further than you were able to run before; you can run faster. You’re starting to lift those heavier weights; you’re starting to do more in the gym; you’re all excited, everything’s great and then all of a sudden you’re hit with an overuse injury. And it’s simply because your joints, your ligaments, tendons, etc. haven’t caught up to your muscles yet.

So keep that in the back of your mind when you’re starting out a new program. Schedule in some extra rest around that 2 to 3 month period. Maybe get a massage or some physio or osteo. Get those joints worked on, keep them in tip-top shape and you’ll be able to push forward with your training program without any problems.

So anyway, thanks again for listening. Glad I can share this sort of information with you. Take care and I’ll see you on the next video. Bye for now.

23 Warning Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome

At this point in time there are no tests that can be performed to determine whether you are over trained. You can’t go to your local doctor or even a sports medicine laboratory and ask for a test for overtraining. However, there are a number of signs and symptoms that you should be on the lookout for. These should act as a warning bell, which will give you advanced notice of possible dangers to come.

Suffering from any one or two of the following signs or symptoms doesn’t automatically mean you are overtrained. However, if you recognize a number, say 5 or 6 of the following signs and symptoms, then it may be time to take a close look at the volume and intensity of your work load.

To make it easier for you to recognize them I’ve grouped them into physical or psychological signs and symptoms. Generally the most common signs and symptoms to look for are a total loss of motivation in all areas of your life (work or career, health and fitness etc.), plus a feeling of exhaustion. If these two warning signs are present, plus a couple of the other listed below, then it may be time to take a short rest before things get out of hand.

Physical Signs & Symptoms

  • Elevated resting pulse / heart rate
  • Frequent minor infections
  • Increased susceptibility to colds and flu’s
  • Increases in minor injuries
  • Chronic muscle soreness or joint pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Insatiable thirst or dehydration
  • Intolerance to exercise
  • Decreased performance
  • Delayed recovery from exercise

Psychological Signs & Symptoms

  • Fatigued, tired, drained, lack of energy
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Apathy or no motivation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Inability to relax
  • Twitchy, fidgety or jittery

How to Prevent Overtraining

As with most things, prevention is by far better than cure, so lets start by taking a quick look at a few things you can do to prevent overtraining.

  • Only make small and gradual increases to your exercise program over a period of time;
  • Eat a well balanced, nutritious diet;
  • Ensuring adequate relaxation and sleep;
  • Be prepared to modify your training to suit environmental conditions. For example, on a very hot day, going to the pool instead of out in the sun;
  • Monitor other stresses on your life and make adjustments to suit;
  • Avoid monotonous training, by varying your exercise as much as possible;
  • Don’t exercise during an illness; and
  • Most of all be flexible and have some fun with what you do.

The 2 fundamental causes of ALL overuse injuries

Transcript from video (click to open)
So, I wanted to talk briefly today about chronic injuries or overuse injuries. And I’ve been increasing the training that I’ve been doing over the last couple of months. I’ve had quite a big increase in the mileage that I’ve been doing, doing a lot of miles on the bike, a lot of running. I’ve been training with a new squad so I’ve increased my training quite a lot over the last couple of months. And it’s always a cautious time and you know, you need to be very careful or very mindful about overtraining and particularly overuse injuries when you’re in a big build up phase like that. And you know, I was talking to some of the other guys in the squad and they were talking about, you know, different injuries that they had and you know, one of the guys said, you never seem to get injured you know, and you never have any problems with injuries.

And you know, it got me thinking. When you ask the question; what causes overtraining or overuse injuries, chronic injuries, you know, there’s the obvious answers like; increasing your mileage too quickly or you are running on concrete and hard surfaces or running in old shoes or you know, there’s the obvious answers that people give when talking about chronic injuries but you know, I like to think sort of a little more deeply than that. And so, I came up with two reasons why I think people get overuse injuries.

And you know, no matter what the cause whether it’s too much mileage or running in worn-out shoes and whatever, I think there are two fundamental reasons why people get overuse injuries. Because really no one should ever get an overuse injury, really. There’s no excuse for getting an overuse injury. So what did I come up with? I came up with two reasons why I think people get overuse injuries and the first one is ignorance.

So, we see this a lot with new athletes, people who decide they’re going to run a marathon or they’re going to run a 10K or they’re going to do an epic bike race or whatever it is or they are going to start working out at the gym and they start working out and they just do too much or they do the wrong thing and that’s basically just down to ignorance. They don’t know any better. They don’t know that, you shouldn’t run X distance or X hard two days in a row or they just don’t know how to rest properly. They don’t know that they are overdoing it. They don’t know how to structure up a training program properly. So yeah, just basically comes down to ignorance.

So that’s the first reason I think. The second reason that people get overuse injuries is ego. Simply ego. And especially in group situations, you know, you have this group competitiveness during training, which I’ve never really understood. I don’t understand why people want to compete during training, but these group sessions bring out the competitive nature of people and you know, people push harder than they know that they should.

So they’re not ignorant, they know that they shouldn’t run as hard as they’re trying to run. They know they shouldn’t lift that weight that they’re trying to lift but for whatever reason, their ego gets in the way and they try and bench press more than the guy next to them or they try and outrun some guy on the track or whatever and they end up getting injured.

So next time you have one of those niggly overuse type injuries and you’re thinking what can I do to minimize it or get rid of it? Think about is it actually ignorance that has caused this injury or is it ego? And if it’s ignorance then go to a coach, go to an expert, go to someone who can help you design your training or design your program for you. But if it is ego ask yourself why are you pushing yourself more than you know you really need to?

So anyway, that’s it for me this time. See you all next time. Take care. Bye for now.

How to Recover from Overtraining

Okay, you feel run down and totally exhausted. You’ve got no motivation to do anything. You can’t get rid of that niggling knee injury. You’re irritable, depressed and have totally lost your appetite. Sounds like you’re over trained. What do you do now?

  • Your first priority is to put your feet up and take a 3 to 5 day rest (depending on how severe the overtraining is). During this time forget about exercise, your body needs a rest so give it one. A physical rest, as well as a mental rest. There’s no point in beating yourself up mentally over losing a few days training.
  • Try to get as much sleep and relaxation as possible. Go to bed early and catch a nap whenever you can.
  • Make sure you increase your intake of highly nutritious foods and take an extra dose of vitamins and minerals.
  • After the initial 3 to 5 days rest you can gradually get back into your normal exercise routine, but start off slowly. Most research states that it’s okay to start off with the same intensity and time of exercise but cut back on the frequency. So if you would normally exercise 5 or 6 times a week, cut that back to only 2 or 3 times a week for the next week or two. After that you should be right to resume your normal exercise regimen.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a rest, like the one outlined above, whether you’re feeling run down or not. It will give both your mind and body a chance to fully recover from any problems that may be building up without you even knowing it. It will also freshen you up, give you a renewed motivation and help you to look forward to your exercise again. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a good rest.

To Stretch or not to Stretch

Stretching is a great recovery tool, and you should be using stretching during your normal exercise routine both to assist in recovery and to prevent injury.

While the recommendations on this page are a good place to start, you'll get a lot more benefit when you add the right stretches to your training program. With the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility you'll...

  • The Stretching Handbook, DVD & CD-ROMDo away with stiff, tight muscles and joints;
  • Improve your freedom of movement;
  • Get rid of injuries, aches and pains;
  • Improve your sporting performance; and
  • Take your flexibility to the next level.

You'll get 135 clear photographs and 44 video demonstrations of unique stretches for every major muscle groups in your body. Plus, the DVD includes 3 customized sets of stretches (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core. And the Handbook will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly and safely. Plus, you'll also learn the 7 critical rules for safe stretching; the benefits of flexibility; and how to stretch properly.

If you want to improve your flexibility and loosen up stiff, tight muscles fast, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility for yourself.

Research and References

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.

Finally, an amazingly effective way to loosen up stiff muscles fast, even if you feel like your muscles are made of rock!
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