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NMU 105 – Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome: And How to Avoid It

Nutrition / Natural Medicine Update No 105 (September 19, 2018)

with Dr. James Meschino


Topic: Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome: And How to Avoid It

Source: Sports and Exercise Nutrition (fourth edition): 235


In this Lifestyle Medicine Update, I want to address the subject of overtraining syndrome. I highly encourage my patients to have a regular and structured exercise routine that incrementally increases their fitness level for strength, endurance, and flexibility.  I hold myself to the same standard. However, it’s important to find a balance between pushing yourself hard enough to reach the next level of fitness and, at the same time, allowing sufficient recovery along the way by scheduling periods of lighter activity known as the unloading phase of training.  If you push yourself too hard or push yourself too hard, too often, you can overtax your energy reserves, oversecrete the stress hormone cortisol, and develop overtraining syndrome (and sometimes not even realize that’s it happening).

Let me spell out the six key symptoms of overtraining syndrome so that you are aware of them. The symptoms are highly individualized but include:

1. Unexplained, persistent poor performance – you go the gym or go for a run and you feel like there is nothing left in the tank. Your strength is declining, which forces you to lift lighter weights than usual, you find yourself running or cycling slower than usual, your legs feel like lead, you end up doing fewer repetitions of an exercise because you just can’t find the energy to go all out as would in a more peak performance state. So, unexplained, persistent poor performance is a major symptom or sign of overtraining syndrome.

2. Disturbed mood states, characterized by general fatigue, depression, and irritability. You find yourself more irritable than usual and everything you do feels like more of an effort than usual. You probably know that feeling – your battery is drained.

3. Some physical signs, such as elevated resting pulse, painful muscles that feel inflamed, and increased susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal disturbances, if you’re prone to them.

4. Insomnia- or sleep disturbances that are out of the ordinary for you

5. Weight Loss – but not healthy-looking weight loss, especially loss of muscle tissue due to high cortisol levels from overtraining. High cortisol levels break down muscle tissue, making you weaker, but it also weakens your immune system making you more prone to upper respiratory and other infections, and it increases muscle inflammation and soreness.

6. Overuse injuries- pull a muscle, develop a tendonitis, develop plantar fasciitis or shin splints or tennis elbow or golfers elbow etc.

So overtraining syndrome is not just about fatigue but also includes

  • Increased risk of infection
  • Injuries
  • Persistent muscle soreness
  • General malaise
  • Loss of interest in sustaining high-level training or a more intensive workout routine or workout effort.

So, how do you prevent overtraining syndrome?

The key is to keep pushing yourself towards increasing your strength and cardiorespiratory fitness levels, but every 3 weeks or so you should schedule a week of lighter activity (the unloading phase), whereby you lift lighter weights, do fewer repetitions, jog or cycle more slowly and not push yourself to near muscular failure with each exercise you do. The week of the unloading phase helps your body recharge itself and prevents a weakening of your immune system and allows your muscles to repair themselves and grow stronger in the next round of more intensive effort.

Using this type of periodization of training (intense effort followed by an unloading phase) also helps prevent mental staleness and mental fatigue, which can decrease your compliance with exercise over your lifetime. Remember that, according to Statistics Canada (and other authorities), physical activity has been shown to lower the risk for many chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, depression, stress, and anxiety. In fact, regular physical activity can reduce the risk for certain conditions by as much as 50%. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that to achieve health benefits, adults 18 and over should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week, made up of time periods lasting at least 10 minutes in length.

Just make sure that along the way you do your best to avoid overtraining syndrome so that you don’t become unmotivated, weaken your immune system and start losing strength and endurance, instead of gaining more of both. I have included the references for this information in the text below.


1. Overtraining Syndrome: Sports and Exercise Nutrition (fourth edition):235

  • William D. McArdle
  • Frank I. Katch
  • Victor L. Katch
  • Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott & Wilkins (2013)

2. Statistics Canada:

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