Our resident sports scientist and running coach @John1_Feeney shares his wisdom on overtraining…

The recent London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games were a fantastic example of commitment and dedication. Many of the athletes taking part reached the pinnacle of their sport in a relatively short period of time and by a young age. There are two views on how this may be achieved which may or may not be in conflict. One states that with enough hard work, around 10,000 hours (or 10 years) of focused practice (Ericsson et al, 1993; Gladwell, 2008; Ross, 2006), anyone can be good at anything. The other suggests that everyone has some special talent or genetic disposition, and that it is just a matter of finding it with the required amount of effort. However, to be successful in sport it would seem that a combination of both views is important (Jones, 2006) and so it is important to ensure that training is structured in a way to optimise performance.

Any training programme is defined by the volume, intensity and frequency of each activity session.

These three variables combine to determine the magnitude of the body’s adaptive response. It is generally accepted that adaptive training gains are maximised to a threshold point, beyond which, additional training will not further increase functional capacity (Hawley, 2008). Unfortunately, there are many anecdotal stories of athletes suffering from ‘burn-out’ which, in some cases, is attributed to overtraining. Overtraining results from the poor management of stresses acting on an athlete (physical, psychological and emotional) which ultimately results in a reduction in performance (Cross & Lyle, 2007). Athletes often find themselves treading a fine line between intensive training and inadequate recovery which could, if left unchecked, result in overtraining.

So, how do we work hard enough to accumulate sufficient hours to master a technique/skill, maximise our effort and still gain a sense of enjoyment and well being?

Training load & performance

All athletes must train hard in order to improve. The relationship between training load and performance is individual. Novice and recreational athletes will tend to have smaller training loads but will benefit from large improvements in performance. Conversely, more experienced athletes will require higher training loads in order to cause small increases in performance.

Initially, hard training (the application of stress on the body) will result in fatigue which is proportional to the stress applied to the body and activate physiological repair mechanisms within the body. If adequate recovery is allowed, fatigue will disappear and adaptation will occur (Fisher & Gooderick, 2011).


Recovery should be the ‘bedrock’ of any training programme. Some athletes may decide to skip a rest day as the result of missed training, stressful competition or excessively prolonged and/or intense exercise. If training continues in a fatigued state, the body will be subjected to high levels of stress which leads to further fatigue, overreaching (short term excessive training), possible overtraining and underperformance. Athletes then tend to find themselves in a vicious circle where they increase training in reaction to their underperformance rather than increase the recovery period (Fisher & Gooderick, 2011 & Budgett, 1998). It should be noted that overreaching sometimes used by elite level athletes in order to bring about high levels of adaptation. They are implemented under the supervision of experienced coaches in order to prevent the progression to overtraining.

It is important to structure your training to ensure that you factor in sufficient recovery periods in order to allow your body to adapt. This periodisation should be long-term as well as short-term and be proportional to the training load. As an example, intense exercise often results in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) which is characterised by disruption to muscle function at a cellular level. Without sufficient recovery there may be a negative impact on training performance due to the reduced number of functioning motor unit within the muscle (Fisher & Gooderick, 2011). This could also have an impact on technique and economy of movement.

Recovery should be sufficient to dissipate fatigue and promote adaptation but not result in detraining effects. Additional recovery strategies may be used to compliment the rest periods and are often used in response to a particular acute stress on the body. Such strategies may include cold water immersion, massage, stretching, compression garments, music and antioxidant supplementation.

Ideas for planning the recovery

1. Include active recovery

Light aerobic activity

Include non-competitive activities that are different to normal training to provide psychological recovery

Swimming is an ideal recovery session due to the reduced impact on the body and the healing properties of the water.

2. Nutrition and hydration

Although this is a huge topic on its own, there should be adequate focus on re-fuelling after training and competition.

3. Sleep

Identify your sleep requirements and ensure that you achieve this amount daily.

Signs and symptoms of overtraining

As explained, overtraining in athletes results from long-term stress or exhaustion due to a pro-longed imbalance between training (together with other external factors) and recovery. However, overtraining for one athlete may be insufficient training for another athlete. As individuals, athletes tolerate different levels of training, competition and stress at different times (Budgett, 1998). Some of the signs of overtraining may include an unexplained decrease in performance, changes in mood state, excessive fatigue, the need for additional sleep, frequent infections, continued muscle soreness and loss of training/competitive drive.

Many athletes measure their maximal heart rate. Although this is non-specific, studies have shown decreases in maximal heart rate in overreached athletes (Achten & Jeukendrup, 2003).

It’s important to remember that your training philosophy should never compromise quality for quantity. If you feel too tired to undertake a session at the appropriate intensity, take a rest rather than complete the session sub-optimally.

Managing overreaching/overtraining

The important thing to mention is that athletes suffering from overtraining and underperformance tend to recover more quickly. However, according to Budgett (1998), the management of an athlete presenting with overtraining symptoms is similar to that for any individual with chronic fatigue. As you might expect, rest and regeneration strategies are central to recovery. However, athletes often get itchy feet and may not want to completely rest. If this is the case, low aerobic active recovery may be more appropriate. These sessions should only take place a couple of times a week but would increase in intensity/volume over a 6-12 week period.

Cross-training is an ideal way to avoid the psychological and physiological stress of the athlete’s individual sport. It is often necessary. As the additional volume becomes acceptable, training intensity can be increased. Other techniques such as massage, counselling and nutrition may also be incorporated in the recovery strategy. These include rest and relaxation.

Putting it into practice

The success of the Kenyan endurance runners is often cited to be the fact that they are able to sleep after each training session and completely recover from the training session. It is more difficult for athletes who have a full-time job and other commitments to recover quickly after training. As it’s difficult to predict which athletes will fall into an over-trained state during a period of training, it is prudent to build in a full recovery period. There are a number of different ways to optimise periodisation of training but a cyclical approach seems most appropriate. As an example, some athletes work on a four week cycle. This means that training volumes/intensity gradually increase for the first three weeks before a recovery phase in the fourth week. This recovery phase reduces fatigue and allows adaptations to take place.

Always a pleasure to have John’s advice on the site and a few key points to take from this – don’t underestimate the importance of rest and active recovery, look for signs of overtraining and don’t be afraid to cross-train to give the body a break from running.


Achten, J. & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2003). Heart rate monitoring: applications and limitations. Sports Medicine, 33(7), 517-38

Budgett, R. (1998). Fatigue and underperformance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 32(2), 107-110

Cross. N. & Lyle. J. (2007). The coaching process: Principles and practice for sport, Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd, UK

Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, R. T. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406

Fisher, H. & Gooderick, J. (2011). Recovery in performance sport: A review of selected macro and micro strategies. UK Strength & Conditioning Association

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. Little Brown & Company, Hachette Book Group, New York.

Jones, A. M. (2006). The physiology of the world record holder for the women’s marathon. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 1(2), 101-116

Hawley, J. A. (2008). Specificity of training adaptation: time for a rethink? Journal of Physiology, 586(1), 1-2

Ross, P. E. (2006). The expert mind. Scientific American, 295(2), 64-71


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