Causes and prevention of overtraining

In a previous blog we have defined overtraining in line with a consensus document by a group of world experts led by Professor Romain Meeusen from the Free University in Brussels. We have also seen what the symptoms are and that these symptoms are highly individual. We also discussed one of the theories of how overtraining develops, namely, the body is in a state of arousal for some time which causes stress hormones to be elevated and causes the hypothalamus in our brain to send many signals. After a while, as a protection mechanisms, the body becomes less sensitive to these continuous stress signals. Once this happens it is believed that the overtraining syndrome develops.

Overtraining is often believed to be the result of too much training. However, there is much more to it than that. Exercise can be a great stressor to the body and mind, but there are many other stressors in our lives: our work, home environment, family, team mates, pressures to perform, new sponsors, etc. It is the sum of all stresses (including training) that the body has to cope with. When the body and mind are unable to cope with all the stresses, “overtraining” symptoms will develop and performance will suffer. (I have used the term body and mind here, because “body” is often thought of as muscle and “mind” the brain).

Consider the example of the following athlete. Our example athlete is performing identical training to the previous years and was always able to cope with this very well. However, this year, because of stresses with family, the overall stress load became too much and performance has been deteriorating in combination with significant mood disturbances. The athlete did not recognise the impact of the family stresses and responded to the lack of performance improvement by training harder. This made symptoms worse, not better. Overtraining should be seen as a balance between ALL stresses on one side and the ability to cope with these stresses on the other side.

If we want to prevent overtraining, we need to manage ALL stresses. Some stresses may be out of our control but we can adjust training and make this lighter for a while and should also try to manage the other stresses the best we can. We must also enable the body to cope with these stresses better by building in more recovery time and use relaxation techniques to recover from other stresses, perhaps work with a sports psychologist.

The main lesson to learn for coaches and self-coached athletes is to pay attention to the sum of all stresses and find solutions in improving recovery. At the same it is important to make sure we are not dealing with a situation of undertraining. When undertraining, improving recovery will have little or no effect.

Therefore, especially at the elite level, careful monitoring must be in place of the stresses (training and other stresses) as well as the symptoms of overtraining.


Halson & Jeukendrup Sports Med. 2004;34(14):967-81

Meeusen et al MSSE 2013 45(1):186-205

#overtraining #prevention #training #performance #underperformance


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