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Are You at Risk for Overtraining Syndrome?

By Careen Joscelyn, RN, MSN, CPT, GFI

Man in crouching position on a road preparing to run with mountains in the background

You're excited. You have decided to fulfill your bucket list dream of running a marathon and you found a free training plan online. After a few weeks, you begin to feel extremely tired, irritable, your legs feel heavy, and your performance appears to be declining despite best efforts. You start to question if you are capable of running a marathon.

If you feel this way, then you are not alone. Each year, more and more people begin new exercise routines and/or train for sporting events. Some of these events, such as marathons, require high volumes of weekly training.

If these plans or programs are not tapered appropriately or designed specifically for your current level of fitness and needs, then they can lead to injury and/or a condition known as Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). Let’s explore this condition and determine ways to prevent it and what to do, if you think you may be exhibiting signs of it.

What is Overtraining Syndrome?

Although “more is better” can be attributed to certain aspects of fitness, there can be a point where more becomes too much, especially if too soon. Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is a condition that derives from frequent intense exercise without adequate recovery and fueling. Without an intervention, OTS can lead to injuries and decreased performance.

What are the signs and symptoms?

OTS has many documented symptoms, but it typically presents with the following:

  • Decreased appetite

  • Irritability and restlessness

  • Decreased performance

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Chronic infections and/or injuries

  • Depression

  • Imbalances in metabolic processes

  • Disturbances in sleep

  • Changes in resting heart rate

  • Menstrual changes

  • Lingering feeling of heaviness and soreness in muscles

Preventing Overtraining Syndrome

Now that we know about OTS, let’s talk about preventative measures to avoid its occurrence. Whether you are new to fitness or training for an event, the following recommendations could help prevent injury:

Young woman running amongst trees wearing black sports bra, black running shorts with pink trim, and grey hoodie with pink trim

  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness - If you are beginning a fitness program or new regimen, it is better to start low with a lower intensity and duration. You can gradually build on the duration, increasing by a maximum of 10% weekly. This principle can be applied to any cardio training program, regardless of experience.

For example, if you are walking a total of 50 minutes a week and would like to progress your workout by increasing the duration, then multiply 50 minutes x .10 (10%) = 5 minutes + 50 minutes = 55 total minutes for the following week.

Another example - if you are running a total of 30 miles a week and would like to increase your volume for the following week, then multiply 30 miles x .10 (10%) = 3 miles + 30 miles = 33 miles.

Young man wearing grey t-shirt performing preacher curl with barbell in a gym

  • Strength Training - Progression in muscular strength refers to overloading the muscle. This is done by gradually increasing the resistance by approximately 5%.

For example, if the goal is 12 repetitions and you are able to complete them, without fatiguing the muscle, then increase the resistance by 5%. You can work with a fitness trainer to find the appropriate starting weight and assistance with resistance progressions.

Smiling young man wearing light blue shirt and khakis on a hammock

  • Rest/Recovery Days - Another preventative measure is to include rest/recovery days into your program. Rest days are essential because they give the body a chance to recover and heal from the stress imposed on it.

This is also when growth and repair occurs and is important for both cardiorespiratory fitness and strength training. It is advised that strength training should be performed on two-three non-consecutive days with a minimum of 24-72 hours in between each training session, to allow for recovery and growth. More recovery time may be required for vigorous training sessions and if you personally require more time.

Young woman sleeping in her bed

Young woman wearing bicycle helmet while riding bike on a trail

  • Cross training - Adding cross training to your program, can help prevent overtraining by allowing the body to train the same muscle group but at a lower impact, thus reducing excessive wear and tear on the body. For example, incorporating cycling or walking into a running program allows the athlete to perform activities in the aerobic zone without the higher impact of running.

Young woman drinking water from a sports water bottle

  • Hydration - When training, hydration is important for peak performance. According to Fink and Mikesky (2021), dehydration and a lack of fluids can raise core body temperatures, increase heart rate and perceived effort levels, cause dizziness, and fatigue. There are specific hydration needs for pre-exercise, during, and post-exercise. Work with a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist to determine fluid needs and types for you.

Salmon, cheese, almonds, strawberries, blueberries, avocados, eggs, brazilian nut, on wooden serving tray

  • Fuel - Consuming a diet with the appropriate balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, is essential in helping the body repair, rebuild, and for optimal performance (Fink & Mikesky, 2021). Work with a registered dietitian to obtain a plan for your specific fitness goals and needs.


OTS is typically treated with rest. However, that determination should be prescribed by a healthcare professional after a complete physical and evaluation. The amount of rest required may vary based on severity of symptoms. Please refer to your medical provider for treatment.


Regardless if you are a novice exerciser or experienced marathoner, any one can experience overtraining syndrome if too much is imposed on the body without adequate rest and fuel. Due to the internet, there is increased access to free training plans and exercise videos. However, these are not tailored to your specific needs and current level of fitness.

Work with trainers, coaches, and dietitians to find the right balance, and to help evaluate your program to ensure that you are progressing appropriately and have recovery and cross-training days. Most importantly, listen to your body, if you need more rest, take it. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will.

If you feel that you may be experiencing overtraining syndrome, talk to your provider, coaches, and trainers. Your body may need some time off to rest and heal itself.


Charleston, J. and Grandner, M.A. (2020). Sleep and Athletic Performance: Impacts on Physical Performance, Mental Performance, Injury Risk and Recovery, and Mental Health.

Fink, H.H. & Mikesky, A.E. (2021). What is sports nutrition? Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Pgs. 4-6.

Fink, H.H. & Mikesky, A.E. (2021). What is the role of prexercise hydration? Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition, Sixth Edition. Pgs. 222-224

Roy, B. (2015). Overreaching/Overtraining More is Not Always Better. Journal’

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Sometimes I fall into this and end up injuring myself from overtraining, then I get discouraged and stop exercising for a time. This is really helpful info to keep in mind to prevent injury, listen to your body, and feel good about rest days.

Replying to

Thank you! I’m sorry to hear that this has happened to you. It is so easy to do. I think we tend to feel guilty for taking a rest day, but it really is restorative. As I have gotten older I really appreciate these days more and more.


Very insightful article! Careen is so smart!

Replying to

Thank you so much!

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