Overreaching and Overtraining
Written by Melissa Hurley

The general definition of overtraining is “a syndrome occurring in athletes who train too frequently/in excess OR who may not allow for adequate recovery from intensive exercise. As a result of this inadequate recovery, performance is impaired (1)”. Overtraining is a balance between training and recovery, exercise and exercise capacity, stress and stress tolerance. Stress is the accumulation of training and non-training stress factors. Are you overtraining or possibly even under recovered?

Successful training must involve overload but also must avoid the combination of excessive overload plus inadequate recovery. This is where the balance of exercise and rest become so crucial to prevent ‘OverTraining Syndrome’. Athletes can experience short term performance decrement, without severe psychological, or lasting other negative symptoms, which is defined as Functional Overreaching (FOR). FOR will eventually lead to an improvement in performance after recovery.

This is exactly where all athletes want to be – making gains without detriment.

When athletes do not sufficiently respect the balance between training and recovery, Non-Functional Overreaching (NFOR) can occur. NFOR is characterized by training fatigue and a reduction in maximal performance capacity that can last a few days and up to two weeks.The distinction between NFOR and the Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is very difficult and will depend on the clinical outcome and exclusion diagnosis. The athlete will often show the same clinical, hormonal and other signs and symptoms.

The most commonly referenced cause of overtraining is “cumulative microtrauma.” Cellular damage from an overreaching episode that gets worse and worse over time (stress is additive), not only of the athlete, but also of several biological, neurochemical, and hormonal regulation mechanisms. It is generally thought that symptoms of OTS, such as fatigue, performance decline, and mood disturbances, are more severe than those of NFOR. However, there is no scientific evidence to either confirm or refute this suggestion.  Neither are beneficial and cause hindrance, avoidance of both is highly recommended.

One approach to understanding the aetiology of OTS involves the exclusion of organic diseases or infections and factors such as dietary caloric restriction (negative energy balance) and insufficient carbohydrate and/or protein intake, iron deficiency, magnesium deficiency, allergies, etc. together with identification of initiating events or triggers.  Currently several markers are used for detection of OTS; hormones, performance tests, psychological tests, biochemical and immune markers, are used, but none of them meets all criteria to make its use generally accepted.

Ideally a ‘checklist’ should be created to help physicians and sport scientists to decide on the diagnosis of OTS, and to exclude other possible causes of underperformance. It would also be extremely helpful for athletes to have a tool to gauge their overreaching and help avoid overtraining. There are some signs and symptoms that have been linked to both, however nothing is concrete yet and involve being in tune with your body.

Poor sport performance is the main symptom of overtraining; other non-specific symptoms may include other oldies but goodies such as: decreased motor coordination, decreased force production, altered immune, hormonal and autonomic activity, and emotional, mood, and sleep disturbances. These are not always the easiest signs and symptoms to identify personally.

While overtraining may seem scary, you don’t just feel great one day and then wake up the next overtrained. As stated above, overreaching comes before overtraining syndrome; it is a process. I think it’s also important to note that overtraining stress equals the sum of the training and the non-training stress factors. Although training is the major contributor to overtraining syndrome, occupational, educational, and social stressors are accumulative and play a significant role (2). That’s why someone who’s only training only three days per week can indeed be overtrained.

I believe the body is an amazing work of art and machinery that can take a lot. Life can be overwhelming if we continue to add and add to our plate; training, work, family activities, etc.  Yes, overtraining is real and possible, but I think its important to go back to the beginning paragraph defining overtraining: “a syndrome occurring in athletes who train too frequently/in excess OR who may not allow for adequate recovery from intensive exercise.”

Are you overtraining or not getting adequate recovery?


  1. Fry, A., Kraemer, W., Ramsey, L. (1998). Pituitary-adrenal-gonadal responses to high-intensity resistance exercise overtraining. Journal of Applied Physiology, 85 (6), 2352-2359.

  2. Lehmann, M., Foster, C., Keul, J. (1993). Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 25 (7), 854-862.
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