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Overtraining: what it is and how to recognize it

Overtraining can be caused by a number of factors.

Overtraining can be caused by a number of factors.

You may have heard training partners talk of overtraining or getting burnt-out, but how can you know if you’re overtraining? What are the symptoms and how can it be avoided?

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, a fitness instructor in St. John’s, N.L., describes overtraining as a point where an athlete is no longer positively adapting to and recovering from the stresses of exercise. They will hit a plateau and cease seeing improvements or or even begin to see detrimental effects from increasing efforts.

There are a few ways to recognize overtraining, but it’s a complicated subject which can still be a bit mystifying and affects different athletes in different ways. One runner doing the same workouts and running the same times as another may thrive while a training partner suffers. It can be dependent on outside factors away from workouts, but there are still some symptoms to look for in your life that may point to overtraining.

Kawamoto says that, generally, if you’re experiencing symptoms from overtraining you’ll notice strength and fitness loss, possible mood changes and immunity issues resulting in frequent or serious illness.


The first thing to look at when considering if you’ve been overtraining is your workouts. As the term suggests, it’s often a matter of just doing too much. Too quickly increasing the intensity or volume of workouts is a major cause of overtraining, but it’s not the only factor. Monotony and repeating the same workouts over and over again can lead to some symptoms of overtraining or exacerbate the problem.

“Having an appropriate, periodized running program from a reputable coach is a good start,” says Kawamoto. “The coach should vary the intensity and volume of your workouts over the weeks, months and years in a fashion that promotes positive adaptation from the stresses of training. Just randomly throwing workouts together is not a smart idea because you may do too much too soon and negatively affect your body’s recovery ability. Also, you will not progress as fast as a runner who has a structured training program.”

Other outside stresses can also cause problems in your training. Changes in diet or hydration, work or family stresses and sleep schedules can all cause changes in your body that may make you more susceptible to overtraining.

Kawamoto also says that “minimizing life stress, improving nutritional and sleep habits are of significant importance in determining how you recover between workouts.”

If you think you may have a problem of overtraining, step back and rest. Recovering can take a couple weeks to a few months, but taking the time to recover will be more beneficial than trying to power through it. In long-term training it’s important to look at the big picture. Missing a few workouts is far less of a loss than spending months getting nowhere. Find something to calm you down and get a full night or sleep each day. Reading before bed or meditation are good choices, but you can find what works best for you. Low intensity exercise, such as walking, are also great ways to keep moving.

“Pushing your body during workouts is what makes you stronger and fitter,” says Kawamoto about safe training. “However, pushing your body excessively can be quite harmful. […] I like my clients and athletes to push themselves to a point that they feel they can still recover from relatively quickly.”

To avoid overtraining, you shouldn’t feel nauseated or dizzy at the end of workouts, but healthy fatigue is normal and is what promotes positive adaptations.

“Knowing this level of fatigue requires experience and knowledge. Also, it takes practice pushing yourself to a safe level of exhaustion.”

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, CEP is a strength and conditioning
specialist in St. John’s, N.L. who specializes in strength training
runners. Find out more at StrongerRunner.com.