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Signs you’re overtraining and how to recover

What are the pitfalls of too much training? Learn about the signs of overtraining, how to recover, and the roles of anabolic and catabolic hormones in recovery.

When exercising intensely you put your body under stress [1]. The stress you put on your body can be a good thing and can allow you to become fitter and stronger. But only if the stress comes in moderation.

Stress in the context of sport is thought of differently to everyday stress, but cortisol (the stress hormone) is still responsible. And it’s not the only hormone to consider when figuring out whether you’re sabotaging your performance through overtraining.

For endurance athletes, adrenal (hormonal) health is a critical consideration when deciding what training to do, when to increase that training, and most importantly – when to cut back.

In this blog we discuss:

What is overtraining?

Overtraining occurs when an athlete continues to train despite experiencing negative symptoms. There can be negative stigmas in the sporting world associated with rest, but pushing your body past its limits can lead to a break down in the body – known as overtraining.

Overtraining is one of the top reasons that athletes will not reach optimal performance. And you may be having symptoms of overtraining without realising.

Signs you may be overtraining

  • Lack of progression - Despite increasing the quality and/or quantity of your training, your progression may slow or reverse. If you’re working harder in sessions that have felt easier in the past, it may be a sign of overtraining. 
  • Injuries and niggles - Consistently getting injuries or persistent niggles that don’t clear or keep reappearing. 
  • Muscle fatigue and slow recovery - Struggling to recover from your sessions and feeling fatigued or low in energy regularly. 
  • Mood swings and sensitivity - Finding yourself regularly irritable and moody. 
  • Loss of motivation - Simply no longer enjoying your training, seeing it as a ‘chore’, and fearing your hard sessions (as well as a loss of focus and determination). 
  • Weight loss or gain - Overtraining increases the likelihood of rapid and hard-to-explain weight fluctuations.
  • Cravings - It’s common to find yourself craving sugar and processed foods to help give you an energy boost not produced by your adrenal system.
  • Tiredness -  You may experience constant, or periods of, extreme tiredness. A decreased ability to achieve a deep sleep phase is often indicated by increased movement during sleep.
  • Illness - Upper respiratory infections are a very common indicator of overtraining [2].
  • Loss of libido: Overtraining causes a reduction in anabolic hormones, which can result in reduced sex drive.
  • Blood deficiencies - Aside from checking your hormones, blood tests can also reveal markers such as a drop in ferritin (a protein that stores iron), B12, and magnesium.

If you are experiencing symptoms and think it may be down to overtraining, it may be worth checking with a blood test, such as our Ultimate Performance Blood Test.

Blood tests use key indicators (biomarkers) to see whether your muscles are recovering properly, or whether a deficiency is to blame for unwanted symptoms.

Most performance-related blood tests will test biomarkers including:

What are anabolic and catabolic hormones?

Hormones in the body play a critical role in recovery. Hormones can be split into anabolic and catabolic hormones.

Anabolic hormones are any hormones that stimulate growth.

Anabolic hormones include [3]:

  • Testosterone
  • Growth hormone
  • Insulin

As anabolic hormones stimulate growth and repair, they are vital in helping your body to recover properly. If your body is not producing the right levels of anabolic hormones, you could be overtraining.

There is also a chance that if you are taking anabolic steroids, that your hormones will take a hit and harm your health. For example, males who take anabolic steroids quite often have low levels of testosterone [4].

You can read more about the effects of steroids on the body in our blog.

Catabolic hormones however, do the opposite of anabolic hormones.

Catabolic hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone) can:

  • Break down muscle
  • Supress the immune system
  • Enhance fat storage (at the expense of protein and muscle)

Putting stress on the body is necessary for muscle-building, but having long-term high cortisol levels can negatively impact your training and lead to fatigue and failure to make progress.

To  avoid overtraining, you will want your body to be under enough stress to trigger progression and muscle hypertrophy (increase and growth of muscle cells), but not too much that it impairs the recovery process.

How to avoid overtraining

1. Have a plan

A sensible, structured, and balanced training plan that gives you sustainable progression is important. A good plan will see you do different types of training throughout the year. It should make balance, rest, and recovery a priority during more intense sessions and ensure you have lighter weeks.

2. Be ready to adapt

Listen to your body and listen to its warning signs. If you start to feel the signs of overtraining (of if you’re testing and your biomarkers are indicating overtraining), be prepared to step off your plan, bring it down a notch, and take extra rest or recovery sessions.

3. Mix the hard with the easy

Alternate hard and easy sessions to ensure your body rebuilds at a steady level – and make sure you include at least one full rest day each week, and at least one active rest day (with something of lower intensity, such as yoga). Include cutback weeks every three to four weeks, and reduce the intensity and volume of training.

If you are taking part in competitions or races, it is best to schedule longer periods of rest after completion to help let your body repair.

A heart rate monitor or activity tracker can help you understand how your body is performing and can give you a warning sign as to whether you’re overdoing it. You should aim to stay below your recommended maximum heart rate.

Your maximal heart rate (HRmax) can be measured using the formula [5]:

  • HRmax = 220 – Age

So, if you are a healthy 32-year-old, your maximal recommended heart rate would be: 220 – 32 = 188 bpm.

4. Accept outside influences will impact your training

Look at all the external forces around your training – work and social life pressures, emotional upheaval, and relationship stress can massively impact on your ability to recover.

Ensuring you have a healthy balance between training and other life commitments will give your body the time to rest. If you are stressed, high-intensity training can heighten your cortisol levels further and do more harm than good.

You can measure your stress levels with our Stress Cortisol Saliva Tests (4), to see if your levels may be impacting your training and recovery.

If you are struggling with stress, lower intensity exercise may be the way forward, and your training may need to be scaled back for a time. You can read about ways to de-stress in our 10 top ways to de-stress blog.

5. Fuel your recovery

A balanced diet full of macronutrients and micronutrients from varied healthy sources will help keep your body ticking over.

Vitamins and minerals to monitor when training include:

  • Iron
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • B vitamins
  • Zinc

To help you enhance your training with your diet, check out out top tips for sports nutrition.

6. Sleep yourself fit

Anabolic hormones are released during your deep sleep cycles [6] and there’s a direct link between regular poor sleep and increased risk of overtraining in athletes.

A lack of sleep can also cause symptoms such as:

  • Low immunity
  • Weight gain
  • Poor mental health

These, in turn, can negatively impact your training and recovery. To make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep, try having a warm bath, reading a book, and putting your phone away.

We have more advice on how to get a better night’s sleep in our ways to improve your sleep blog.

7. Get blood tested

Having regular blood tests that test for biomarkers such as cortisol and creatine kinase, can give you a good indicator of whether you are overtraining or not.

When you train creatine kinase (CK), a muscle enzyme, signifies muscle cell damage and can indicate if muscle damage is not being repaired. Alongside raised cortisol levels, CRP-H’s, and low testosterone – can indicate overtraining.

Measuring these biomarkers is an essential way to uncover whether you may need to reduce training to help reach your optimal performance goals.

All these biomarkers are included in our Ultimate Sports Performance Blood Test.

How do I recover from overtraining?

If you have symptoms of overtraining and have received confirmation of overtraining (through a blood test or from a medical professional), you may be wondering how to recover.

The only way to recover from overtraining is rest. It may be best to take at least four to six weeks out of your training programme, if not longer. This doesn’t mean you have to stay away from all exercise though.

Activities you can still do when recovering from overtraining include:

  • Walking
  • Light jogging
  • Yoga
  • Pilates

Getting a sports massage may also help to relax your muscles. Once you’re feeling better, it may be worth getting a repeat blood test, such as our Ultimate Performance Blood Test, to confirm that what you’re feeling is also true on the inside.

If you have recovered from overtraining, then remember to take it steady and follow our tips above on how to avoid overtraining – taking a few weeks (or months) off due to overtraining can hinder your performance more than taking it steady can – there’s a reason slow and steady win the race.


References

  1. Hill, E., Zack, E., Battaglini, C., Viru, M., Viru, A. and Hackney, A., 2008. Exercise and circulating Cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 31(7), pp.587-591.
  2. Kreher, J. and Schwartz, J., 2012. Overtraining Syndrome. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 4(2), pp.128-138.
  3. Demling R. H. 2005. The role of anabolic hormones for wound healing in catabolic states. Journal of burns and wounds4, e2.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2022. What are the side effects of anabolic steroid misuse? | National Institute on Drug Abuse. [online] Available at: <https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/steroids-other-appearance-performance-enhancing-drugs-apeds/what-are-side-effects-anabolic-steroid-misuse#:~:text=Steroid%20use%20disrupts%20the%20normal,the%20testicles%20(testicular%20atrophy).> [Accessed 1 April 2022].
  5. GELLISH, R., GOSLIN, B., OLSON, R., McDONALD, A., RUSSI, G. and MOUDGIL, V., 2007. Longitudinal Modeling of the Relationship between Age and Maximal Heart Rate. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(5), pp.822-829.
  6. Ritsche, K., Nindl, B. and Wideman, L., 2014. Exercise-Induced growth hormone during acute sleep deprivation. Physiological Reports, 2(10), p.e12166.