Mechanisms of Overtraining Syndrome

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There are many proposed mechanisms behind Overtraining Syndrome, but none of them are generally accepted[1][2].

  • Glycogen hypothesis. One hypothesis is that Overtraining Syndrome produces chronically depleted Glycogen levels leading to the problems of Overtraining Syndrome. While there is evidence of lower blood sugar in overtrained athletes, Glycogen stores are generally replenished between exercises[3]. Studies[4][5] have concluded that Glycogen depletion was not responsible for short term Overtraining Syndrome. There is also the suggestion[3] that Glycogen depletion has a knock on effect of increasing BCAA oxidation which in turn causes Overtraining Syndrome symptoms (see below).
  • BCAA hypothesis[3]. This hypothesis suggests that BCAA is used in higher amounts by the muscles because of Glycogen depletion. This BCAA consumption indirectly leads to a rise in tryptophan, and tryptophan is able to enter the brain where it is converted to serotonin. This increase in serotonin is linked to clinical depression and could cause symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome. However consumption of BCAA during or after exercise has not been shown to help.
  • Free fatty acid hypothesis[2]. As mentioned in the BCAA hypothesis the levels of brain serotonin depend largely on the level of tryptophan in the blood, and tryptophan increases with higher free fatty acid plasma levels. Because endurance training tends to increase the level of free fatty acids in the blood, this hypothesis proposes that excessive endurance training raises the blood free fatty acid which raises the tryptophan levels which in turn raise the serotonin levels.
  • Glutamine hypothesis[3][1]. Endurance exercise deplete glutamine levels and glutamine is important for immune system functioning. However decreased levels of glutamine have not been observed in overtrained athletes[3], and glutamine would only explain the compromised immune system, not other symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome.
  • Hypothalamus[3]/Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome[6] hypothesis. This hypothesis is based around compromise of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland or adrenal gland, which are all responsible for hormone levels. This hypothesis may have some limited support from the success in treating Overtraining Syndrome with hormone replacement therapy.
  • Muscle damage hypothesis[3][7]. Exercise induces damage to the muscle cells and this hypothesis suggests that this damage is the underlying root cause of Overtraining Syndrome. It is deemed unlikely that Overtraining Syndrome would be caused directly muscular damage, but rather this damage would precipitate other changes leading to Overtraining Syndrome[3]. It is been observed[8] that wounded animals exhibit "recuperative behavior", where they become lethargic, less sociable, and exhibit reduced appetite and thirst. This behavior is believed to encourage recovery by reducing activity and exposure to predators. This "recuperative behavior" in some ways mimics Overtraining Syndrome and depression in human beings. Unfortunately this hypothesis has never been supported by objective measurement[3].
  • Brain receptor hypothesis[2]. Exposure to chronic stress may lead to altered neurotransmitter receptors within the brain. Changes in these neurotransmitter receptors can modify the fundamental mechanisms of the brain and are believed to play a role in both Overtraining Syndrome and major depression.
  • Brain plasticity hypothesis[2]. The human brain retains the ability to update its 'neurological wiring', which is part of our ability to adapt and learn. This neural plasticity is one of the adaptations that occurs to long-term exercise. While mild levels of exercise in harms the creation of new neurons, severe exercise stress causes neurological degradation.
  • Immune system hypothesis[2]. Several case histories of linked Overtraining Syndrome to a recent infection. Given the depression is the most consistent symptom of infectious diseases in humans, there is a hypothesis that an infection is a triggering event for Overtraining Syndrome. It is then believed that other mechanisms maintain the depressive state causing prolonged Overtraining Syndrome symptoms.
  • Muscle calcium hypothesis[1]. Calcium is part of the mechanism behind muscle contraction and this hypothesis proposes that less calcium is released in overtrained state, which limits muscular contraction. The problem with this hypothesis is that it would only explain physical performance problems, not the immune system or Mood State changes.
  • Negative feedback hypothesis[9]. It has been suggested that Overtraining Syndrome is one of the negative feedback systems in the body that prevents damage, similar to the Central Governor Theory.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Physiological Perspective of Endurance Overtraining – A Comprehensive Update
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 The unknown mechanism of the overtraining syndrom... [Sports Med. 2002] - PubMed - NCBI
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Biochemical aspects of overtraining in endurance ... [Sports Med. 2002] - PubMed - NCBI
  4. Effects of repeated days of intensified... [Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988] - PubMed - NCBI
  5. Overtraining and glycogen depletion hyp... [Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998] - PubMed - NCBI
  6. Alternative & Complementary Concepts/ Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, Part 2: Adrenal Function and Overtraining
  7. Tissue trauma: the underlying cause of o... [J Strength Cond Res. 2004] - PubMed - NCBI
  8. Biological basis of the behavior of si... [Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1988] - PubMed - NCBI
  9. Overtraining In Sport, Kreider, Fry, O'Toole, Human Kinetics