I received this question on Facebook. It is a good question and the answer is somewhat complicated.
Before we get into symptoms, first let’s define “overtraining.” Take a look at the section titled “An Unknown Fatigue” in the column Examining Chronic Fatigue. Of course, no athlete wants to experience chronic fatigue.
Before chronic fatigue and overtraining, there is overreaching. Overreaching is a response we want during a normal training process. The body is stressed in such a way that after recovery there is improved performance. A partial list of some of the normal symptoms of overreaching includes:
- Elevated morning heart rate
- Elevated resting heart rate (sitting on your couch)
- High perceived exertion, with an accompanying low heart rate
- Low strength, speed or power output with high perceived exertion or heart rate
- Feeling flat, tired, depressed or grumpy (most often noticed by others)
- Not mentally sharp, feeling “dull”
- Low motivation for training or other activities
- Muscle or joint soreness
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in body temperature
With a few days to a week of recovery training, the symptoms of overreaching disappear and performance improvements can typically be seen within a week or two of recovery. In some cases, such as recovering from an Ironman, a marathon or an ultra-distance cycling event, the symptoms improve over the course of a couple of weeks; but performance improvements do not come for some three to four weeks after the recovery process began.
Overtraining symptoms are often the same as overreaching symptoms, which makes diagnosis of an undesirable response tricky.One major difference is that the symptoms listed above do not improve after a week of recovery and improvement may take several weeks.While there’s not a line of delineation between overreaching and overtraining, additional markers are often present in overtraining:
- Excessive, undesireable, changes in body weight
- Changes in digestion (diarrhea, constipation, nausea)
- Absence of menstruation
- Overall performance degradation (including early onset of lactate accumulation and an inability to complete regular workouts)
- Changes in biochemical markers (such as lower levels of plasma glutamine)
- Changes in hormonal markers (decreases in total and free testosterone, increases in cortisol levels and an unfavorable ratio of testosterone to cortisol)
- Decreased immune system (more or more severe colds, flu and other illnesses)
- Increased injury rates (more frequent and/or more severe injuries)
Again, the above list is far from complete and this is not a full discussion; but hopefully it gives you some take-away ideas.
Key points include:
1. Know what your baseline markers are when you’re healthy.
2. Basic blood tests provide some information.
3. At-home testing for heart rate and normal-for-you body temperature is also easy to get.
4. Keep a training journal so you can track performance and trends.
Hopefully, you are just experiencing overreaching and a bit of rest will get you back to feeling healthy and strong. Keep me posted on what happens.
Rowbottom, D. et al, Monitoring for Overtraining in the Endurance Performer, “The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine, Endurance in Sport, Second Edition” by Shephard & Astrand, an IOC Medical Commission Publication.