Training for a fitness goal and/or athletic event (endurance races, team sports, strength competitions) require you to gradually and progressively challenge the body to encourage physiological adaptation, resulting in stronger muscles, more efficient cardiovascular response (eg, heart and lungs turn around more blood / oxygen with less work), etc. There are a number of factors that affect adaptation (genetics, sleep, nutrition, hydration), but perhaps the most prominent one within our control is how hard and long we challenge the body.
There is a certain degree of "super human" mentality (and a bit of illogical thinking) among those in training. A "normal" human would use logic when deciding whether or not to run 26.2 miles - "If no one's chasing me, what's the point?" But for athletes, the thought of doing something seemingly impossible is oh so appealing and very rewarding. Admittedly, this ability to defy logic and ignore signals from the body and mind in order to challenge themselves is an advantage.
If you're like me, there's a certain amount of pride in these super human traits. Every time you get the intended result by pushing yourself "harder" or "faster," it's tempting to believe that your body can and will do what YOU demand and want, so long as you work hard enough and/or "just eat better"...
For those athletes in their 2nd, 3rd, or 15th season, it's easy to look back and compare...
You may even come from a background in which you saw first hand how "working harder" gets you more...
We live in a society that preaches,
"if you work hard enough, you can do or achieve anything"
But the quest for continued improvement and refinement has its own rules - no matter how perfect you try to control the variables.
Every body (and mind) has a tipping point, no matter how meticulously you fuel and train. Consider the car analogy - even if you follow the maintenance schedule perfectly, the car will burn out if you try to run it too hard or long. You may want that car to go 80 mph for 500 miles every day, but every car has a different gas tank and engine which limits what it can do.
There are varying degrees of training and over training (see below).
But sometimes, just taking the prescribed rest day / easy week isn't enough. If you notice your performance is not improving with rest / time, you risk moving into "nonfunctional overreaching." This is not a normal part of training. If you're in this phase, you don't feel "terrible" or "crushed" per say, but you also aren't seeing improvements. The temptation is to say...
All thoughts are completely reasonable and worth exploring with your coach, dietitian, and physician. Perhaps you are under-fueling, dehydrated, ill, or experiencing imbalanced stress. BUT if you have been putting in the work and perhaps have not taken off much time (or intensity) between seasons, it also may be a sign to dial back for MORE than a day or week.
Here's some language direct from an excellent medical resource called, "up to date" (last updated 2017) describing the condition and treatment...
In essence, there's no clear definition of over training syndrome - it's more a diagnosis of exclusion. And it always ALWAYS gets better with genuine and extensive time off. And the additional trick is that rest during this time should not come with caloric restriction. The body needs the fuel to repair and replenish. Restriction only inhibits the body's ability to do its job.
The thought of complete rest is terrifying. Training for a competition often means sacrificing other areas of your life - time with friends/family, work opportunities, money. To say, "oh maybe next year" or admit that perhaps this isn't going to go as planned is a COMPLETE bummer. Additionally, training is incredibly socially, emotionally, and physically rewarding for many, so it's difficult to step away when so many aspects of movement serve you.
But the risk is that if you don't honor what your body needs, not only will you be disappointed in your performance, but you may have to take an even longer hiatus from the activities that you love. Going into full blown over training syndrome is no laughing matter and it can take months or even destroy a career if injuries occur.
Over-training syndrome doesn't just happen to athletes...
Sometimes clients will come to me because they've "been working out for years but feel like they're moving backwards." After much discussion it's clear they're not following a training schedule - just trying to push their body as far and as hard as they can every day...without rest.
I can think of one woman in particular with a grueling 5 year long "streak" of a workout routine. She wasn't a competitor, but used movement to try to change her body. It took months to convince her that her ever increasing exhaustion was not related to a nutrient deficiency but rather lack of rest. And when she did rest, she came back and her workouts were easier and more efficient.
Even if you're not competing in a sport, you're still trying to get your body to adapt with increased strength and cardiovascular fitness (same as ANY athlete).
Moral of the story...
Pushing yourself is part of training (and sport). But there is a degree to which you can push too hard. All bodies need rest - even super human ones.
Stay nourished friends!
Myself as a case study ...
DISCLAIMER: The writing here is for informational and educational purposes only. It is NOT a substitute for individual care. Your needs may vary. or individual support, please contact a provider.
Please note it's been a number of years since I have updated these posts. The content and philosophies may have changed as I've grown as a provider. Please reach out with questions or concerns.
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and endurance athlete supporting well-being, one bit and bite at a time