You want to push yourself when you train but avoid burnout. Here’s how to strike the right balance.
You’ve been crushing your workouts for weeks—lifting heavier than ever and even adding a session on your rest day because you felt so good. But then, your performance starts to slip. You’re sluggish in your workouts and plateauing in your lifts.
Instead of reaching new heights in your training by pushing so hard, you might actually be hurting your progress. Here’s how to recognize the signs of overtraining and how to get back on track if you’ve been overdoing it.
What is Overtraining?
Overtraining is not easily defined or diagnosed. It affects multiple physiological systems and presents differently from person to person. The National Academy of Sports Medicine describes overtraining syndrome as “a condition in which an athlete experiences fatigue, declining performance, and burnout.”
It’s beneficial to challenge yourself during workouts and systematically increase the stress on your body following the principle of progressive overload. But doing too much too soon or failing to recover effectively from your workouts could lead to overtraining.
“Effective training is about progressive overload, but overtraining is what happens when that overload exceeds recovery,” says Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Kristina Centenari. “Without a balance of rest and recovery, the accumulation of training will lead to overtraining.”
The effects of overtraining go far beyond your workouts. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms of overtraining, it could be a sign you need to shift your focus to recovery.
6 Symptoms of Overtraining
1. Decreased Performance
Struggling in your workouts even though you’ve been training hard is the primary sign of overtraining. You may hit plateaus in your lifts, not be able to lift as heavy or run as fast, or feel like your typical workout requires much more energy than usual. Pay attention to your rate of perceived exertion. If it feels like you’re working really hard even on “easy” days, consider taking a step back.
If you’re a Tonal member, don’t assume a decrease or plateau in Strength Score means your performance has declined. “Strength Score itself is such a robust measurement based on an algorithm,” says Christian Hartford, Senior Performance Manager of Applied Sports Science at Tonal. He explains that a drop in your score could have lots of other causes besides overtraining. Instead, he recommends focusing on how difficult your workouts feel. Additionally, he says to look for trends in your performance. One bad workout might be the result of stress or a poor night’s sleep, but if you’re struggling for a week or more, overtraining may be to blame.
2. Excessive Soreness and Fatigue
It’s normal to experience localized muscle soreness in the areas you worked during training, but if your whole body is feeling more sore or stiff than usual, it could be a sign of overtraining. Compared to regular soreness, overtraining will make it harder to warm up for a workout and prevent you from lifting with your full range of motion, according to Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning coach.
3. Difficulty Sleeping
Overtraining can affect your sleep quality and may make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep. “Waking up a lot and feeling wired is a sign of overtraining, as well as completely zonking and sleeping through [your] alarm,” says Centenari.
4. Mood Changes
Feeling irritable, agitated, or restless? Moodiness may also be a sign of overtraining. During periods of overtraining, the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol spike. When these levels are chronically high, they may affect your mood. You also might feel a loss of motivation or desire to exercise.
5. Weakened Immune System
While regular exercise keeps you healthy in the long run, bouts of excessive training can weaken your immune system according to this review of studies. One study showed that marathon runners saw an increased rate of upper-respiratory infections in the three days following the race. Centenari learned this the hard way when she came down with Covid-19 a week after running the New York City Marathon. “I didn’t rest properly afterward,” she says.
6. Increased Resting Heart Rate
Athletes typically have a lower resting heart rate as exercise helps the heart work more efficiently, but overtraining can have the opposite effect. If you regularly measure your resting heart rate first thing in the morning, or track your resting heart rate with a smartwatch or other fitness tracker, and start seeing it ticking up, you may be pushing it too hard in your workouts.
How to Prevent Overtraining
Clay likes to think of overtraining as “under-recovering.” He explains that while stress on your body during a workout isn’t necessarily bad—the right amount of stress is what drives adaptation. But if you fail to recover from that stress, your training will suffer. Therefore, if you’re experiencing signs of overtraining, it’s essential to create a more sustainable balance between work and recovery.
Reduce Training Stress
When you accrue less fatigue during your workouts, you’ll have less stress to recover from. “It could be going from training five days to four days per week, or it could be going from 60-minute workouts to 45-minute workouts,” says Clay.
Another option is varying the stimulus of your workout to change the type of stress you’re putting on your body. If high-intensity interval training workouts are wiping you out, try switching to strength-focused training for a while. “If you’re doing the same thing too much, you can certainly put yourself into a state of overtraining,” says Jenna Moore, a certified strength and conditioning coach and Programming Specialist at Tonal. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to vary your training modalities and your training phases.”
You’re less likely to suffer from overtraining if you follow a structured program that matches your ability level. On Tonal, these programs include built-in rest days, balanced training, and active recovery moves. “It’s super important to take those days—even if you want to get after it—to give your body a chance to repair,” says Centenari. These programs challenge you just enough to help you reach your goals without risking overtraining.
“Recovery doesn’t have to be completely sedentary,” says Centenari. “You should have a little bit of movement, whether you’re taking a day off to walk or do mobility.” Active recovery, such as doing easy yoga, low-impact bodyweight exercises, or lifting a reduced weight, can speed up healing. If you’re experiencing muscle stiffness, Clay recommends low-intensity stretching to facilitate blood flow and drive nutrients to sore muscles.
Monitor Your Nutrition
Nutrition is one of the first factors Clay considers when addressing overtraining. “What are you eating throughout the day? Are you eating enough protein? Are you eating enough to fuel the demands of your daily life?” he says.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day, but very active people may require more for muscle growth and repair. According to a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, an intake of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight is best for building muscle. Along with protein, Clay says to make sure you’re taking in enough carbohydrates to match your activity level, along with healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, and olive oil.
Improve Sleep Quality
Muscle recovery occurs during deep sleep, but you can’t control how much time you spend in each phase of sleep. Instead, try to spend more overall time in bed which will result in better sleep quality. To improve your sleep, Dr. Meeta Singh, a physician and psychiatrist who specializes in the science of sleep, offers tips such as creating a bedtime routine, keeping your bedroom cool and dark, and avoiding blue light and stimulants like caffeine close to bedtime. Additionally, Clay suggests eating your last meal of the day at least three hours before you go to bed, and ideally making it a light meal so your body has time to digest before sleep.