Can you train so much that it’s actually making you weaker?
That’s right — too much physical activity can trigger the chronic release of stress hormones and tax your immune system. Whether you’re a beginner or an elite athlete, watching out for the symptoms of overtraining is the key to maximizing your workouts and getting stronger and more resilient.
If your training program seems to decrease your performance instead of improving it, you’re probably overtraining. Overtraining syndrome can also lead to chronic fatigue, chronic muscle soreness, poor mental health, and other physical and psychological symptoms.
In this article you’ll learn how to spot overtraining early, the most effective ways to deal with it, how much recovery time you need to prevent overtraining, and how to choose the right amount of exercise for your body’s recovery capacity.
Overtraining refers to the mental, physical, and emotional consequences of exercising too much without enough rest and recovery[*].
It’s common in people who lift weights, but it’s just as likely to occur in other physically active people — runners, competitive athletes, and even soldiers.
There is no magic formula for how much physical activity is “too much.” The proper amount of exercise will vary from person to person based on pre-existing medical conditions, training history, stress levels, and factors like nutrition and sleep.
Under ideal conditions, when you exercise, you experience a short-term decrease in performance followed by a period of recovery. Once you recover, your exercise performance increases over time.
But in overtraining, excessive exercise volume or intensity paired with insufficient recovery reduces your performance over time instead of making you more fit.
Other Names for Overtraining
Technically, there are several related names for overtraining, and each one has a slightly different definition.
Functional overreaching is a short-term decrease in performance that fully improves after a few days to a week of rest[*].
Nonfunctional overreaching is a decrease in performance accompanied by other psychological and physiological symptoms that fully improves after a few weeks to a month of rest[*].
Overtraining syndrome is a long-term decrease in performance with other severe symptoms, lasting two months or longer, that is not explained by other causes such as disease[*].
Another name for overtraining syndrome is unexplained underperformance syndrome[*].
As you can see, each of these terms applies to different degrees of the same problem. This article will use overtraining as an umbrella term to refer to all of the various forms of overtraining.
The Worst Case Scenario for Overtraining
If you leave it unaddressed for months or years, overtraining can have serious consequences for your health, wellbeing, and athletic career[*].
In addition to causing the 12 signs of overtraining in the next section, over-exercising can also be fatal.
Exertional rhabdomyolysis is a life-threatening condition caused by muscle protein breakdown from extreme exertion. In rhabdomyolysis, your body breaks down the muscle proteins myosin and actin, which leads to a buildup of chemicals called creatine kinase and myoglobin.
Elevated creatine kinase and myoglobin strain your kidneys and can cause renal failure. Ions like potassium also flood your bloodstream, which can cause dangerous heart arrhythmias.
Rhabdomyolysis is one of the most extreme issues associated with excessive training, but you should do your best to avoid any degree of overtraining.
#1: Loss of Performance
The most obvious sign of overtraining is diminished exercise performance despite increases in training volume or intensity. Worse performance in strength, endurance, agility, and speed are all tell-tale signs of overtraining.
If your goal is to improve performance, your first instinct may be to intensify your training regimen or up the volume, but if you’re already overtraining, you’ll only dig the hole deeper.
#2: Increased Difficulty
In addition to causing poor performance, overtraining also makes training seem more difficult[*].
If your training sessions seem harder, but you haven’t increased your training intensity recently, you may be overtraining.
#3: Excessive Soreness
Muscle soreness after lifting weights or other forms of exercise, also called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), is normal. Typically DOMS lasts a day or two and goes away.
But in overtraining, muscle soreness can persist and disrupt your daily activities. If you are excessively sore, and the pain doesn’t go away on its own, you may be overtraining[*].
#4: Lack of Appetite
Overtraining causes hormone imbalances, which can lead to changes in hunger and satiety at mealtime.
In athletes with overtraining syndrome, decreased intake of calories, carbohydrates, protein, and reductions in metabolic rate are likely to occur[*].
And if you engage in intense or high-volume training programs while you’re fatigued, you’re also more likely to suffer from overtraining.
#6: Mood Problems and Lack of Focus
If you have a perfectionist mentality, the decrease in performance from overtraining can also compound your mood issues for psychological reasons[*].
#7: Poor Sleep or Insomnia
Sleep is a time of rest and repair for your body, but overtraining decreases sleep quality[*].
In overtraining, overproduction of stress hormones makes it difficult to relax and get a good night’s sleep, which can slow recovery further[*].
#8: Decreased Libido
Overtraining can decrease your sex drive by causing hormone imbalances and mood disturbances[*].
Normally, when you train, your sex hormone levels (including testosterone) temporarily plummet, and the stress hormone cortisol rises[*].
#9: Frequent Illness
When you overtrain, your body’s ability to deal with oxidative stress is diminished, which leads to inflammation[*][*][*][*][*]. Because of systemic inflammation and stress, overtraining can negatively affect your immune system[*].
#10: Frequent or Nagging Injuries
Achy joints are also a warning sign that you could be overtraining[*].
#11: Fat Gain and Loss of Muscle Mass
Overtraining can cause fat gain as well as unwanted weight loss, particularly loss of muscle tissue[*].
When you overtrain, your metabolic rate decreases, so you’re more likely to gain fat[*]. And when you can’t recover due to overtraining, your body is unable to repair your muscle fibers, so exercise like weight training causes catabolism (muscle loss)[*].
#12: Elevated Morning Resting Heart Rate
A study of endurance athletes suggests that overtraining increases morning resting heart rate by about 10 beats per minute[*].
If you’re an endurance athlete, you can monitor your resting pulse or heart rate every morning as a way to determine whether you’re training too much.
#1: Take Time Off
A balance between stress (from training, competition, and life) and recovery is “essential for athletes to achieve continuous high-level performance”[*].
Sometimes taking time off is the only way your body can recover from physical activity, especially if you’re overtrained. Even if you aren’t overtraining, you still need a few lighter exercise days or rest days each week for optimal performance.
If you’re a perfectionist or feel anxious about taking time off, you’re not alone. But you need to bring the right mindset to your recovery time.
In a case study of an overtrained elite international rower, 12 full rest days followed by six weeks of reduced-volume training allowed her to get back to competing within four months[*]. She became the European rowing champion later that year[*].
If time off works for elite athletes, it can work for you. Try taking a week off if you’re noticing signs of overtraining — if you don’t, an injury or illness could easily set you back for longer than seven days.
#2: Sleep More
Getting enough quality sleep is critical for recovery from exercise and life stress. Since overtraining can cause sleep problems, you need to ensure you sleep adequately to recover from overtraining[*].
For athletes, naps, extended sleep periods, and better sleep practices can improve performance[*]. Competition, heavy training, and life stress can all reduce sleep quality and duration, which is why you should prioritize sleep if you’re stressed out or training hard[*].
In a study of people who were deprived of sleep for 30 hours, exercise was more likely to cause mood disturbances and impaired reaction times[*]. If you’re sleep-deprived, your best option is to take a day or two of rest to catch up on sleep instead of exercising.
Along with improving your performance and motivation to train, increasing your sleep duration and sleep quality can also reduce your risk of injury and illness[*].
#3: Manage Life Stress
Exercise is a controlled form of stress. From the perspective of your body, training stress and life stress add up together. When you have too much stress in your life, your ability to cope with stressors — including exercise — is impaired.
Training distress is the failure to cope with life stress and exercise stress, and it can lead to overtraining. And if you’re a perfectionist, you’re more likely to experience training distress[*].
Life stressors like extended work hours, schoolwork, or university exams can also increase your risk of illness and injury from exercise[*].
To solve the stress puzzle, avoid stressors when possible[*]. If you can’t, consider stress reduction methods like deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and yoga.
You may need to reduce the intensity of your training program if you’re busy with work or have other unavoidable stressors.
#4: Decrease Caffeine and Stimulants
Normal training increases stress hormones like cortisol in your body, but chronic overtraining leads to low cortisol and feelings of fatigue. Caffeine consumption can raise cortisol when you’re under stress[*][*].
You might be tempted to reach for extra caffeine, but if you’re stressed out or overtrained, taking a break from caffeine and other pre-workout stimulants is the wiser choice.
Caffeine reduces sleep pressure (a mechanism that allows you to get tired at night and enter deep sleep), and poor sleep quality worsens overtraining[*].
If you aren’t overtrained, low or moderate doses of caffeine (100-200 milligrams) can help your body cope with exercise stress, but higher doses may increase your stress levels and chances of experiencing anxiety and depression[*][*][*].
And if you consume caffeine habitually, the exercise benefits of low-dose caffeine disappear due to tolerance[*].
#5: Planned Deloading
Deloading refers to a designated period during which you reduce your exercise intensity or volume. A deload week is an excellent way to prevent overtraining.
For weight training, you can do fewer reps with the same weight, or you can lift less weight for the same number of reps — or a combination of the two. When it comes to endurance activities, you can slow the pace, reduce the distance, or both.
If you’re training hard and under lots of stress, deloading once every four weeks is wise. For most people, deloading every eight weeks is appropriate.
Even if you would rather train hard, deloading for a week or two every twelve weeks can improve your recovery and boost your performance compared to training hard constantly.
#6: Sometimes Less is More
If you’re stressed out or overtrained, you may be surprised to learn you can get better results by reducing your workout volume and intensity. Sometimes quality is more important than quantity.
Don’t worry too much about losing your hard-won progress — chances are you can maintain your strength for up to 12 weeks with just a single resistance exercise session per week[*].
#7: Periodize Your Training
Instead of training the same way year-round, consider periodizing your training. Periodization means structuring your training methods, volume, and intensity over time with your long-term goals in mind.
Competitive athletes and advanced trainees use periodized training cycles to reach peak performance at competition time or to achieve fitness goals. With proper periodization, you’ll avoid beginner mistakes like training too many different fitness qualities at once or maxing out every week.
There are several different types of periodization (traditional or linear, block, conjugated, and undulating). If you want to take your performance to a new level without getting burnt out, take the time to learn more about periodization or hire an experienced personal trainer to show you the ropes.
#8: Static Stretch After Lifting and Other Activities
Static stretching after exercise can help you relax by increasing the activity of your parasympathetic nervous system[*]. Low-intensity stretching can reduce your muscle soreness, and may improve your muscle recovery after exercise[*].
But don’t static stretch before you exercise or compete, because static stretching reduces your explosive performance for at least 24 hours[*].
And if you’re sore because you’re new to exercise, don’t stretch too intensively — if you do, it may increase your soreness[*].
A review of 10 static stretching studies in young athletes found no benefit for reducing muscle soreness[*]. However, that doesn’t mean it has zero benefit — it’s still worth a try for better relaxation, less muscle soreness, and faster recovery.
#9: Self-Myofascial Release
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a form of therapeutic self-massage using foam rollers, tennis balls, lacrosse balls, or other tools. SMR was one of the most common therapies used by Olympic athletes to reduce muscle and tendon pain and soreness during the 2016 Olympic games in Rio[*].
SMR is more effective than static stretching for increasing flexibility, mobility, and performance, and it works exceptionally well for reducing muscle soreness[*][*][*]. It also activates your parasympathetic nervous system to improve relaxation and recovery[*].
Unlike static stretching, you can perform SMR before or after exercise with no adverse performance effects[*]. It’s also an excellent choice for active recovery on non-training days.
#10: Schedule Active Recovery
If you don’t like to sit still, active recovery or active rest is a perfect option for your rest periods. It can enhance your recovery, reduce soreness, and improve your performance.
Active recovery refers to low-intensity activity that doesn’t tax your system. You can use walking, yoga, light aerobic activity, light resistance training, mobility work, self-myofascial release, or post-exercise cooldowns as your active recovery.
If you’re sore or want to improve recovery, target the same muscle group you last exercised[*].
As an added benefit, active recovery reduces insulin levels and increases fat-burning compared to passive rest[*]. It also helps clear out the byproducts of exercise by increasing blood flow to your muscles[*].
Keep in mind the goal of active recovery is recovery. Intense exercise is not active recovery. And you should still schedule a day or two of complete rest from physical activity each week.
#11: Eat More Calories and Fat
Regular exercise increases your metabolism and your body’s need for fuel. Eating more calories and fat is one of the easiest ways to prevent overtraining.
If you undereat, you’re not giving your body the nourishment it needs to perform optimally or to repair itself after training. Since one of the symptoms of overtraining is reduced appetite, eating less during overtraining is an issue that can compound the other problems associated with overtraining.
In men, eating a diet low in fat, especially saturated fat, reduces testosterone and other male sex hormones, which can impair recovery from exercise[*].
If you’re worried about gaining unwanted weight, step on the scale once each week — if you notice weight gain, you can always adjust your calorie intake again.
If you’re using the keto diet for weight loss, you may need to decrease your training volume or intensity, especially if you’re experiencing a lot of stress.
Along with taking time off, sleeping more, and other methods to improve recovery, be sure to eat enough if you suspect you may be overtrained.
#12: Increase Protein Intake
To prevent overtraining, you must ensure adequate protein intake.
Very high protein intake may not help prevent overtraining compared to moderate protein intake. However, insufficient protein in your diet can increase muscle soreness, impair recovery, and decrease performance[*].
A study of resistance-trained athletes found that a daily intake 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, or 120 grams for a 150-pound person) improved their strength and markers of recovery during competition[*].
If you train twice per day or train with high intensity, you may benefit from an even higher protein intake level[*].
You don’t have to eat more protein at every meal. If you suspect your protein intake is too low, you can eat a large meal high in protein post-workout, or use a keto-friendly protein like Perfect Keto Whey Protein on training days.
#13: Consider Supplements
Nutritional supplements won’t save you from overtraining, but they can be one part of a well-rounded approach to improve recovery, reduce muscle soreness, and help your body deal with stress.
Two to four grams of dried ginger powder per day can have an anti-inflammatory effect in your body, reducing pain and improving your post-workout recovery[*][*][*]. You can also eat four to eight grams of fresh raw ginger instead of dried ginger powder.
Three grams per day of dried cinnamon powder has a similar effect to taking ginger[*].
Phosphatidylserine, a phospholipid derived from soy, can reduce your cortisol levels, improve your stress response, and enhance your performance and recovery during and after intensive exercise[*][*]. For best results, try 600-800 milligrams of phosphatidylserine per day in divided doses[*][*][*].
A study of rowers given 1500 milligrams of spirulina extract per day for six weeks found that their immune function was less compromised by intensive exercise than rowers who received a placebo[*].
You can also supplement amino acids to improve your muscle recovery and immune function during and after exercise. During overtraining, exhaustive training programs can lead to depletion of glutamine, a conditionally essential amino acid[*].
Supplementing up to 0.3 grams of glutamine per kilogram of bodyweight (about 0.13 grams of glutamine per pound of bodyweight, or 19.5 grams for a 150-pound person) post-workout reduces inflammation and soreness and speeds recovery[*][*].
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) taken before workouts can also improve your recovery and reduce your muscle soreness after training[*][*]. For best results, start with taking 0.09 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (about 0.04 grams per pound of bodyweight, or 6 grams for a 150-pound person) of BCAAs before you train[*].
Perfect Keto Perform Pre-Workout Formula has BCAAs and other keto-friendly ingredients formulated to enhance your training performance and recovery.
Removing processed and high-glycemic index foods is an excellent way to stay healthy while you improve your fitness[*]. Keto can help prevent overtraining syndrome by reducing inflammation and improving your body’s ability to use fat for fuel[*].
Your choice of diet is a critical factor in your exercise performance and recovery. On the keto diet, you’ll experience fat adaptation and favorable body composition changes that can help you achieve your goals.
The bottom line: stay in ketosis most of the time for optimal training and health benefits, but you can strategically consume carbs to boost your performance.
When you’re in ketosis, the most effective ways to exercise are weight training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
The Takeaway: Prevent Overtraining to Stay Strong
Training hard and achieving your goals is incredibly rewarding, but recognizing the signs of overtraining can save you from illness, injuries, and other severe issues.
When it comes to overtraining, prevention is vital. If you follow a periodized program with active recovery and periods of complete rest each week, you’re unlikely to overtrain.
Watch out for symptoms like reduced performance, muscle soreness, fatigue, mood issues, and unexpected weight loss. If you listen to your body and take a break before serious problems occur, you’ll come back stronger than before.