Usually, you're a fiend for the gym. You throw up weights like they're nothing, cross-train like a pro and feel more fit day by day. But lately, you can't seem to do what you want at the gym -- or you just can't find the motivation to workout as intensely or as often as usual. Light weights feel heavy, slow paces feel too fast, and your body seems to scream "No!" every time you walk into the gym.
You might be suffering from overtraining syndrome, a condition common in athletes and avid exercisers that involves training too often and too intensely without giving your body a chance to recover. Overtraining syndrome manifests in many ways, with symptoms ranging from fatigue to muscle injuries -- learn about eight bad things that can happen when you push yourself to the point of overtraining.
Read more: How to recover from long runs, CrossFit workouts, HIIT and more
What is overtraining syndrome?
Overtraining syndrome occurs when you exercise too much without adequate recovery. Ironically, overtraining syndrome is commonly an unintended product of trying to get more fit: The fitness industry would have us believe that more is better, but that's not always the case.
An intense training program that includes piling on too many workouts without enough rest days or recovery time can put too much stress on your system, leading your well-intentioned workout routine to backfire.
There is a difference, though, between true overtraining syndrome and what the scientific community calls "overreaching." Overreaching means that a particularly intense period of training -- such as a few really tough workouts or a long-distance endurance event -- results in a temporary decrease in performance. When you give your body enough rest, overreaching can actually result in enhanced performance later.
You should also know that overtraining syndrome is a "diagnosis of exclusion." It's a bonafide condition, but doctors look for other conditions first, including sleep deprivation, anemia and inadequate calorie or nutrient intake.
True overtraining syndrome occurs after an extended period of too much physical activity and too little rest -- if you've been working out hard every day for a long time, and are experiencing any of the symptoms below, it may help to talk with a certified fitness professional or your family doctor about your situation.
The simplest thing to do, though, is to just give your body a break. Take time off from the gym, eat a healthy meal (or several), hydrate and get some quality sleep.
Read more: How to tell if you need a rest day (and when to keep going)
Signs of overtraining syndrome
Symptoms of overtraining are "multisystem" and can affect your hormones, immune system, muscles and joints, nervous system and brain. Not everyone experiences every symptom of overtraining; you might experience just one or a combination of a few. Your symptoms may fluctuate over time, too. Overtraining syndrome might first present as fatigue and progress to mood issues or injury, and some symptoms, like headaches, may come and go.
Fatigue is a common sign of overtraining syndrome, and often one of the first to appear. Everyone feels tired at times, but too much exercise without enough rest and recovery can leave you feeling drained, depleted and washed out. You may feel physically tired, mentally tired or both.
It would make sense to think that because overtraining can leave you feeling tired and depleted, you'd actually sleep well. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true: Disturbed sleep is considered a key symptom of overtraining syndrome, and experts suggest monitoring sleep in addition to training load in order to prevent overtraining.
Read more: 5 common health issues that are messing with your sleep
Loss of appetite
Again, you might think that intense, frequent exercise would make you ravenous. But research suggests that loss of appetite is an oft-reported symptom of overtraining. Scientists hypothesize that lack of appetite occurs due to shifts in certain hormones, including cortisol and ghrelin.
Read more: Should you eat before or after your workout? A dietician weighs in
Decrease in fitness abilities
A drop in strength, stamina or endurance -- sudden or gradual -- can indicate overtraining syndrome. Sometimes, athletes notice a decrease in fitness abilities as the first sign when it's not: It's just the first sign that matters to them, and they've worked through all of the other symptoms, such as pain and lack of sleep.
Some examples that indicate a decrease in fitness abilities:
- You can't lift weights as heavy as usual.
- You can't run as fast as usual.
- You seem to deplete soon after starting workouts, or earlier than what's normal for you.
- You feel the need to take much more rest in between sets and rounds of exercises.
According to the American Council on Exercise, a related sign is a change in your perceived exertion of workouts. If everything feels more difficult than you're used to, it could be overtraining syndrome.
Persistent muscle soreness and nagging aches
Despite being the most physically uncomfortable symptom of overtraining, actual pain tends to get ignored. Athletes and people who just love to workout often look past muscle and joint pain, labeling it a normal part of training, until it gets too bad. If you can't remember the last time you didn't feel sore, it's probably a good idea to take some time away from the gym.
Read more: Learn how to tell the difference between soreness and an injury
Decreased immunity is another ironic symptom of people who overtrain because they're trying to get healthy: If you never give your body a break, you might inadvertently suppress your immune system. You may have decreased immunity if you feel like you've recently been more susceptible to colds, coughs, headaches or infections.
Mood swings and irritability
Overtraining can throw off many hormones, which can result in mood issues. Irritability, agitation and depression are all commonly reported symptoms of overtraining. Some athletes experience persistently low moods, while others experience intense mood swings.
Loss of enthusiasm for your sport or routine
Another mental or emotional symptom is a feeling of apathy toward your sport or workout routine. You may find this symptom the most jarring; it can feel scary to lose enthusiasm for something you love. Overtraining syndrome has also been called "staleness," an accurate name based on the way that people feel when they reach that point.
You may interpret this loss of enthusiasm as a lack of motivation or discipline, but it's just one of many ways that your body and brain are trying to tell you to rest.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.