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The Difference Between Pushing Yourself and Overtraining Syndrome

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As a marathon runner, I know what it’s like to push your body to its limits. I know the desire to tack on one extra mile when you’re feeling strong, or to squeeze in one last long run before a big race. I also know what it’s like to narrowly avoid serious burnout and injury due to insufficient fueling and recovery.

If you’re an athlete of any kind, you’ve probably seen warnings of “overtraining.” Some runners ignore the signs of overreaching until their bodies shut down in protest. While you’d be hard-pressed to find me in the weight room, Lifehacker senior health editor Beth Skwarecki points out that a lot of gym-goers say things like, “You can’t strength train two days in a row, or else you’ll be overtraining.” How does overtraining differ from run-of-the-mill fatigue?

The term “overtraining” gets tossed around to mean “tired” and “sore,” when in reality, overtraining syndrome (OTS) is a serious, months-long medical condition—one that’s only been well-documented in endurance athletes. Here’s what you need to understand about stressing your body to the point of true overtraining syndrome, and what you should do if it happens to you.

What causes overtraining syndrome (OTS)

OTS is a response to excessive exercise without adequate rest. Here’s where confusion and misinformation pops up: What exactly counts as “excessive” training, and what is “adequate” recovery? Before getting into more detail, it’s safe to say that you’re not risking serious OTS just by lifting weights two days in a row; even six days per week can be an appropriate weight training frequency for athletes who are prepared for it.

Overreaching versus overtraining

You need to push yourself to see gains, right? There’s a fairly wide threshold for pushing your body in a tactical, advantageous way before it becomes seriously detrimental.

Distinct from overtraining, “overreaching” is the more general term for doing more work than you can handle. It’s common in many sports to practice “functional overreaching,” which is where you purposefully work harder than what you can recover from before—crucially—decreasing your workload after a few days or weeks. When an athlete overreaches for weeks and months at a time, they risk breaking their body down to overtraining. For more specifics, Table 1 in this guide lays out the differences between functional overreaching (good), nonfunctional overreaching (bad), and overtraining syndrome (really bad).

Some more terminology notes: Overtraining syndrome is distinct from Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) and the Female Athlete Triad. RED-S has more of a focus on nutritional intake than current hypotheses about OTS, although the causes and symptoms of these conditions naturally go hand-in-hand.

How to tell if you’re overtraining

If you’ve been consistently training hard and noticing decreased performance, you could be at risk of overtraining.

Signs of OTS (according to HSS and the National Library of Medicine)

  • Unusual muscle soreness after a workout
  • Inability to train or compete at a previously manageable level
  • “Heavy” muscles, even at lower exercise intensities
  • Delays in recovery from training
  • Performance plateaus or declines
  • Mood changes: depression, anger, or confusion
  • Poor-quality sleep
  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Irregular menstrual cycles; missing periods
  • Weight loss; appetite loss
  • Constipation; diarrhea
  • Prolonged general fatigue

If you think you might be suffering from OTS, you should reach out to a sports medicine professional who can set you on track for recovery.

Recovering from overtraining syndrome

Your body needs time to recover and perform like it used to. Your best bet is to identify and prevent overtraining as early as possible. In addition to working with a professional, here are some other training needs to keep in mind:

  • Rest. You may need to step back from your routine, even if that means dropping out of a race or competition.
  • Nutrition. Cutting back on training doesn’t mean you should stop fueling yourself. Evaluate your food habits and consider working with a nutritionist to ensure you’re getting what you need.
  • Change your mindset. What led you to overdoing your training in the first place? It’s crucial that you learn to listen to your body before you step back into the metaphorical (or literal) ring.

If you ignore the signs of overtraining, your body will eventually revolt. Don’t get sidelined permanently. To crush your goals as an athlete, you need to master the balance between pushing yourself and letting yourself recover.


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