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Warning Signs of Exercise Burnout & Overtraining

Defining Exercise Burnout, How to Recover, and How to Avoid It

Key Takeaways:
  • There are two types of exercise burnout: functional overreaching and non-functional overtraining.
  • When done properly, functional overreaching can be a safe way to boost your fitness.
  • Non-functional overreaching is counterproductive and can lead to overtraining syndrome (OTS), both are newer terms for exercise burnout.
  • OTS is difficult to diagnose because the indicators aren’t the same for everyone, but there are some markers that may hint at overtraining.
  • You may be able to use certain heart rate variability measurements to help detect overtraining syndrome.
  • In addition to too much intense exercise, psychological, lifestyle, sleep, workload, and dietary factors can contribute to overtraining and burnout.
  • You can recover from OTS with rest, proper nutrition, good sleep, and a more varied workout plan. 
  • Keeping a daily log and adjusting to a more balanced workout can help you avoid exercise burnout or identify it and take action to recover.
  • If we overreach or overtrain, we can take steps to recover and learn how to avoid exercise burnout in the future.

About a year ago, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling my best, despite eating well and being in the full swing of my regular workout routines (cold exposure, mid-to-high-intensity exercise, and sauna). My hips and lower back felt tight, I wasn’t sleeping well, and my mood felt off. I had loose bowels, and I also noticed that my voice was tired and raspy all the time. It eventually occurred to me that I might be experiencing exercise burnout, so I decided to take a closer look at my fitness routine to figure out what needed to shift.

I had a really enlightening talk with Dr. Mike T. Nelson on the topic of exercise burnout. It turns out that building in an occasional rest day wasn’t enough for me to fully recover because I was overtraining regularly. Mike, a published researcher with a PhD in exercise physiology,  taught me that it’s possible to overtrain or workout too hard, transforming a positive, helpful habit into something that’s actually doing more harm than good. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned from Mike, in addition to what the research says on this topic. 

So, what does overtraining really look like? What are the signs and symptoms that you’re pushing too hard? How can you avoid it? And if it’s too late to avoid it because you’ve already done it, how do you recover? I’ll answer all those questions here.

What is Exercise Burnout?

I’ll start by saying, “no pain, no gain” is a harmful myth that doesn’t work for most people. Yes, pushing yourself to run faster in spurts can lead to positive gains over time. Yes, increasing the weights on your rack at the gym can help you gain more strength. In fact, strategically building short-term, controlled periods of extra pushing into your workout routine—also called functional overreaching—can lead to better performance. But that’s not the type of pain I’m referring to. It’s when the push becomes excessive and chronic that things start to go sideways, taking us from functional to non-functional overreaching. Now we’re in the realm of exercise burnout.

Functional overreaching is when intentional high-training stress (overload) reduces your ability to perform for a short period of time (a few days to a couple of weeks—think of the soreness you feel after a super-hard workout) [1, 2]. Many athletes intentionally incorporate functional overreaching into their exercise routines because performance can increase after the body has recovered appropriately [2, 3]. 

Non-functional overreaching is when you’ve overreached to the extent that a few days of recuperation is not enough to fully recover. At this point, you’ve incurred more significant bodily harm, and you may need several weeks to months to recover [1, 2, 3]. Your efforts have become counterproductive, and whether you’re an athlete training for a competition or you’re simply trying to reach a certain exercise goal, you’ve now delayed or reversed your progress.

If you keep pushing in a non-functional manner (which is what I was doing and didn’t realize), it could eventually lead to overtraining syndrome (OTS). The now outdated term, “exercise burnout,” refers to the spectrum between non-functional overreaching and OTS.

The Challenge of Diagnosing Overtraining Syndrome

Exercise is one of the most important and impactful things you can do to improve your health and well-being. But regularly overreaching and overtraining can do a number on your immune system, energy levels, digestion, overall mental and physical health, and so on.

There’s no clear distinction between non-functional overreaching (NFOR) and OTS. Many people assume NFOR is less severe than OTS, but there’s no scientific evidence of this. OTS is typically identified in retrospect, after enough time has passed for you to look back and realize that you were experiencing decreased performance or other symptoms of overtraining [4]. But that’s not very helpful if you’re trying to prevent it from happening or from worsening if you’ve already started down that path.

Here are some of the challenges of diagnosing OTS [5]:

  • OTS is not clearly defined, making it difficult to determine when it starts and how to diagnose it. The current definition requires at least “several weeks” of decreased performance, but fatigue can be temporary, and some training strategies might affect performance for longer periods.
  • The complexity of OTS makes it hard to understand. OTS isn’t just about training; other factors like medical conditions, inadequate calorie intake, poor sleep, and mental health can contribute to it and also be caused by it.
  • Psychological symptoms are not always considered in the diagnosis of OTS, even though they often are part of the condition.
  • We don’t have objective ways to accurately diagnose OTS. Many studies use subjective assessments of performance and psychological symptoms, which can be biased and unreliable. 
  • Gathering data on OTS is challenging because it’s unethical to induce it in people. Elite athletes are more likely to experience severe training loads, increasing their risk of OTS, but actually reaching OTS is hard to capture in natural settings (again, it’s usually recognized in retrospect). 
  • OTS is not a one-size-fits-all condition. Different sports and physical demands can lead to unique signs and symptoms of OTS. 
  • Overtraining is a diagnosis of exclusion [2]. The symptoms of overtraining can look like those of common diseases, like viral and bacterial infections, inflammatory or autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases (like diabetes), or hormone conditions (like thyroid disease). We have to rule these out first to determine whether overtraining is the issue [4].

Even though we don’t have a solid set of symptoms that each person could expect if they overtrain, we do know that overstressing the body in any way will cause damage that requires recovery time to heal. This is why building in rest days for muscle recovery and avoiding mental exhaustion are so important.

I’ll also note that females are less well studied in the area of overreaching and overtraining — most of the research is on males — so we still don’t know the difference between how these symptoms may manifest in each sex. We do know that the presence of estrogen can change the effects of dietary interventions like intermittent fasting. We also know that, according to the results of a randomized controlled trial in 2010, women perform better in physical activity if they eat beforehand, as compared to men, who seem to train better if they exercise after an overnight fast [6].

However, we can’t extrapolate from that how overtraining affects women vs. men, and more research needs to be done in general and specifically with women.

Symptoms to Look Out For

How the damage of overtraining manifests in each person may vary, but we can generally look for a string of lower performance, lower energy, worse mood, and less motivation as symptoms for exercise burnout.

Ideally, to better understand and diagnose overtraining, we’d need your baseline performance measurements (like VO2 max, heart rate zone(s) during exercise, and heart rate variability), regular testing for comparison, and a good sense of your personal variations [5]. In the real world, we can look for symptoms that may indicate functional overreach, non-functional overreach, and/or overtraining syndrome. It’s helpful to know how to differentiate between functional and non-functional overreach, especially if you have particular training or fitness goals in mind that will require periodic hard pushes.

Exercise Burnout

Measurable Warning Signs of Exercise Burnout

Take this next section with a grain of salt. I spent a lot of time above explaining why OTS is difficult to diagnose, and that’s because measurable lab markers are not yet consistently confirmed as diagnostic tools for overreaching or overtraining [7]. However, the following lab markers represent suspected signs of overtraining syndrome [5]:

  • Altered steroid hormones 
  • Reduced neutrophils (a type of white blood cell that’s critical for a well-functioning immune system) 
  • Reduced cortisol levels upon waking (cortisol should rise naturally first thing in the morning)
  • Reduced hormone responses to exercise (hence feeling fatigue or lack of motivation, even when your training plan hasn’t changed)
  • Reduced sensitivity of serotonin receptors (why you might feel mood disruptions)
  • Increased inflammatory markers after exercise
  • Increase in total white blood cell count, even if neutrophils are low (indicating excessive inflammation in the body)

If you’ve overreached, you may also have a more active parasympathetic nervous system (PNS; aka rest and digest system), which may be detected by certain measurements of your heart rate [8]. 

One heart rate measurement is called rMSSD, the beat-to-beat differences in heart rate variability (HRV) that indicate changes in the vagus nerve and PNS activity [9]. A meta-analysis found that studies could use rMSSD to detect early signs of workout burnout [8]. You can measure it for yourself with an app called hrv4training, available for iPhone, Android, Apple Watch, and Oura Ring [10].

Here’s how you can measure [11]:

  • Right after you wake up in the morning, remain lying down for 3 minutes. Then stand up for 3 minutes while tracking your HRV.
  • Record an average for the 3 minutes.
  • Do this every day for a week and calculate the total average.
  • If your weekly average HRV (measured as rMSSD) goes up compared to your other weekly averages, it may be a sign that you’re at risk of overtraining.*

*If you haven’t been keeping track of all of this and simply suspect you’re currently overtraining, listen to your body. Ultimately, very little (if anything) will be lost if you take it easy for a while and regroup. 

You can also try measuring rMSSD while sitting down after intense exercise [8]. Here’s how:

  • After intense exercise, sit down for 10 minutes. 
  • At minute 5, measure HRV (rMSSD) using your app for the last 5 minutes of your 10-minute recovery period. 
  • Record an average for the 5 minutes.
  • If it goes up compared to your other post-exercise HRV (rMSSD) values, it may be a sign that you’re at risk of overtraining.

One more way of using your heart rate to test PNS activity for the risk of overtraining may be to test heart rate recovery (HRR) for 1 minute after intense exercise [8]. You can do this without a heart rate monitor.

  • After maximal (all-out) exercise, sit or lie down while your heart rate monitor* measures your heart rate for 1 minute.
    • *If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can get a rough max heart rate as follows. Right after your biggest exertion, count the number of beats for 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6. That’s your max heart rate. When you’re done with all intervals of intense exercise, count your heartbeats while sitting or lying down for 1 minute.
    • *If you do have a heart rate monitor, look at your heart rates during your exercise period and find: 1) the maximum while you were intensely exercising, and 2) the value at 1 minute of rest.
  • Subtract your heart rate after one minute from your max heart rate, and you’ll have your HRR. 
  • If it increases relative to your other HRR times, it may be a sign that you’re at risk of overtraining.

If these heart rate signs are present, it’s probably time to take a break for recovery. Listening to your body is a big part of personal health, but if we’ve been programmed to push push push, sometimes we forget to tune in. I know I’ve done this, and it’s led to problems. So, sometimes having data to look at will give us the cue we need to take a break. It may also help us get back in touch with our bodies and what they’re telling us.

My Experience with Exercise Burnout/Overtraining

In the conversation I mentioned with Dr. Mike T. Nelson, I learned that I was exercising too hard for too long in the same elevated heart rate zone, when I was doing both cardio and weights. 

I’m a tracker and I love wearable devices, so I was able to share the relevant data with Mike, who helps me with my exercise programming. My data included things like my regular routine of morning cold tank and evening sauna, as well as an alternating schedule of weights on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and mountain biking with a 10-minute HIIT tabata run at the end on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was taking Sundays off and working about 35 hours a week across 6 or 7 days, doing a lot of high-demand cognitive work.

I also noticed that I had lost weight despite not changing much of what I was doing. I’d also lost my appetite, and I was sleeping more but feeling less rested.

After running through the data with Mike, he suggested that I was working out for too long at too much intensity (zone 3 and higher in my case). Instead, he said I needed more time at zone 2 and more variability throughout my workouts, moving through the zones. Specifically, he thought there should be far more variability during my strength training program, allowing breaks between reps. My breaks could even include active recovery, or low-intensity movements like walking, cycling, or active stretching.

Zone Training

According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, heart rate zones are ranges of heart rates (beats per minute or BPM) you can use to track the intensity of your workouts or other activities [12]. The five-zone standard that the American College of Sports Medicine uses breaks different exertion rates into five heart rate zones to describe exercise intensity [12, 13]. Dr. Mike T. Nelson suggested that I incorporate more zone 2 training into my weekly routine and take a break from training more often.

Zone 2 training is when your heart rate is at 57–63% of your maximum heart rate. This might include light-intensity exercises like walking, light jogging, cycling, or dancing. 

How do you know when you’re in zone 2? First, you need your maximum heart rate, the highest your heart rate should go when safely exercising. There are a lot of different ways to measure your max heart rate—running an all-out 5K, rowing 2,000 meters at max capacity, pushing something really heavy across the room, and more. 

If you can swing it, I recommend enlisting the help of a personal trainer to safely calculate your max heart rate in order to determine your five zones. However, if you would prefer to skip this level of detail, a good way to measure whether you’re in zone 2 is to use the Talk Test. 

Next time you’re exercising, notice whether you’re able to have a conversation or say complete sentences to yourself out loud without gasping for air [12, 14]. If you can, you’re likely in zone 2. Zone 2 can look different for every person,  depending on your fitness level and other factors, which is why knowing your numbers can be helpful—and why it’s important to reassess as your fitness improves.

How to Avoid Exercise Burnout

Prevention is the best treatment for exercise burnout, so if you start paying closer attention to your workout plan, you can avoid overtraining before it starts. This means adding some tracking habits into your training plan and adjusting your routine so it supports your whole body. 

For example, make sure you’re regularly doing activities that incorporate balance, cardiovascular output, flexibility, plyometrics (things like jumping and rebounding that rapidly stretch and then contract your muscles), resistance, and speed/agility [15]. Another goal is to replace some of your moderate-to-high-intensity workouts (zones 3 and 4) with zone 2 workouts rather than going hard at every turn.

Track your progress by keeping a daily training log. Whether you use an app or a handwritten journal, a daily log of your training activities will help you see patterns over time [4]. The longer and more consistently you keep a log, the more likely you’ll be able to connect the dots between your activities and your energy levels. Eventually, you may develop a sense of when you might be at risk of overtraining and need to dial it back. Include things in your training log that make sense for you. Here are some ideas [15]:

  • Waking HRV
  • Waking heart rate
  • Recovery heart rate
  • Body weight
  • Mood
  • Exercises completed
  • Amount of weight used
  • Number of sets and reps
  • Intensity of exercises
  • Time spent on each exercise
  • Rate your perceived exertion: how easy or hard an activity felt
  • Sleep quality and quantity          
  • Illness
  • Rest periods and active recovery methods
  • Nutrition (foods and calories eaten) [16]
  • Stressful circumstances

If the idea of tracking all of this overwhelms you, or you know it’s something you won’t sustain, then I suggest you start with just finding your rMSSD and HRV so that you can make better sense of changes in your fitness tracker if/when they happen. 

As you consider how your training is going, keep in mind that various physical and psychological factors can increase your training stress. For example, physical factors that could worsen your training stress might include:

  • Greater training load with too little rest
  • Multiple competitions separated by little time for rest
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Recent illness or injury
  • Environmental exposures such as high altitude, high heat, or frigid temps
  • Not eating or hydrating properly

And psychological factors that could contribute to training stress might look like [4]:

  • Impossible expectations from others (and yourself)
  • Competition stress (even against yourself)
  • Being “tightly wound,” perfectionistic, highly anxious, or stress-prone
  • Living and/or working in an oppressive or unsupportive social environment
  • Having relationships with family and friends who oppress you, dismiss you, don’t listen to you, don’t show up for you, or otherwise stress you out
  • Your exercise is monotonous and boring, feeling like a chore or hard on your body
  • Emotional or personal conflicts or problems
  • Demands from school/work/home

You can also estimate whether you should keep your training mellow for the day by asking yourself these questions before working out [15]:

  • Did I sleep well last night?
  • Was my waking heart rate within my normal range?
  • Have I had enough food and fluids?

If you answer “no” to one or more of these questions, it’s probably a good sign you should dial it back. If you’re still not sure, ask yourself the following: 

  • Do I have any major life stressors going on?
  • Am I dreading my workout or thinking about skipping it?
  • Do I feel unusually sore or fatigued?
  • Am I sick or nursing an injury?

Answering “yes” to any of these is probably evidence that your body isn’t its strongest and would benefit from keeping things mellow.

How to Recover from Overreaching and/or Overtraining

If your first guess here was that you should rest more, you would be correct! However, this doesn’t mean you have to take yourself out of the game completely, especially if you’ve simply overreached. The following actions may go a long way toward helping you regain your strength after overreaching.

  • Try active recovery. Light exercises like jogging, cycling, or active stretching for six to 10 minutes post-workout—may improve recovery in athletes [17]. 
  • Sleep more. Sleeping is one of the most restorative things you can do to recover from damage to muscle tissue and mental or emotional strain [18]. If you can sleep more, go for it.
  • Eat a nutrient-dense, high-protein diet. Shifting your diet while recovering from overreaching or overtraining is also key. This means increasing nutrient density in every meal as well as increasing total protein intake [19, 20, 21]. Focus on fruits and vegetables and add some liver into your diet to increase nutrient density, and choose your proteins wisely. For example, have a post-workout protein shake, fish or seafood, eggs, lean red meat, poultry, nuts, or seeds.
  • Hydrate. Make sure you are drinking enough healthy fluids, such as water or electrolyte drinks, while exercising and at rest throughout the day. A systematic review of research found that drinking plenty of fluids after intensive exercise is important for recovery [20]. Current recommendations are 11.5 cups per day (92 oz or 2.7 L) for women and 15.5 cups (124 oz or 3.7 L) for men. Note that 20% of your daily fluid comes from food [22], so women should drink about 74 oz in addition to their food, and men should have about 99 oz in addition to food. Drink more fluids before, during, and after exercise!
  • Consider cold therapy. In a 2015 randomized controlled trial, air cryotherapy (sort of like walking into a freezer and hanging out for a few minutes) helped elite synchronized swimmers (all female) sleep well and avoid fatigue and performance decrements after a session of functional overreaching [23]. Ice baths and cold showers may have similar benefits [24].

If you’ve reached full burnout and suspect OTS, then lots of solid rest is key. Either skipping exercise for a while or keeping to zone 1 or 2 training with rest days built in for a few weeks is probably a good idea. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends reducing your training by 50 to 80% [15]. It might also be time to reassess your training program to come up with something more balanced.

Less Pain, More Gain

I want to stress that I’m not advocating that you never work out hard. I personally love working out hard and would not listen to myself if I were giving that advice. Working out hard feels good and comes with its own benefits. But there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Fitness burnout is a real and serious possibility if you regularly overreach or overtrain. Make sure you build in some lower-intensity days and rest days into your routine.

Even if you’re not a data nerd like I am, you might consider a sleep app and/or a training app to help you begin to track even the most basic patterns in your lifestyle. Whatever you can track really will help you see a fuller picture if you’re concerned about preventing burnout.

For some hands-on help with creating a plan for you with diet guidelines, help with a fitness routine, and general guidance for how to begin or maintain a healthy exercise program, reach out to our clinic. We’d love to help you get started.

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➕ References

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