Causes of Overtraining Syndrome

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This chart shows how low life stresses allow for good recovery, resulting in Supercompensation and improved performance. The same training stresses combined with other life stresses increase the impact of training and reduce the recovery between exercise bouts.

While Overtraining Syndrome involves training stress, the real cause is lack of recovery. Often, Overtraining Syndrome involves other stresses that combine with training stress so that recovery is impaired. The non-training stresses add to the training stresses to compound the overall impact. However, these non-training stresses also impair the quality of rest, further reducing recovery. Stresses can be categorized as physiological, psychological and social in origin[1]. This makes Overtraining Syndrome harder to diagnose and treat as the sporting community tends to ignore the non-biological aspects of training, and often stigmatizes psychosocial issues[1]. Some causes are also symptoms and are highlighted in green. These causes are particularly problematic as they tend to be self-reinforcing, creating a positive feedback cycle.

  • Training Monotony[2][3][4]. Overtraining Syndrome is an imbalance between training and recovery which can be measured as Training Monotony. Training Monotony is simply a measure of similar each workout is. Having a mixture of hard workouts and easy days (or rest days) reduces monotony and allows for good recovery. It seems that athletes can train remarkably hard provided they have sufficient recovery. Therefore, training hard every day or even having easy days that are not sufficiently easy appears to be a primary cause of Overtraining Syndrome.
  • Lack of sleep[2]. Most healing and recovery from training stress occurs while we sleep, so any reduction in the length or quality of sleep may have a disproportionately large impact on the overall stress levels. This can be a particular problem for athletes who have to choose between training and sleep.
    • Sleep apnea. Not only to sleep apnea reduce the overall quality of sleep, but the reduced oxygen flow will further harm recovery.
  • Interpersonal relationships[2]. Social stresses from interpersonal relationships are doubly damaging. They're not only a direct source of stress themselves, but they tend to undermine the social support group that helps with stress management.
  • Poor performance due to Overtraining Syndrome can often create additional stress. All too often an athlete responds to Overtraining Syndrome by believing that they are not training hard enough, and so work harder. If an athlete becomes aware of Overtraining Syndrome by failing in competition this can be emotionally devastating[3]. One study[5] of high school athletes noted the negative sporting experiences can create feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, hopelessness, and lead to major depression.
  • Infection or illness[2][3]. An illness or infection puts additional stress on the body. If the athlete continues to train with an illness this can dramatically increase the stress of training.
    • Long-term viral infections such as Mononucleosis (AKA Mono or glandular fever).
    • Recurring viral infections such as measles, hepatitis, herpes, infectious mononucleosis and Cytomegalovirus (CMV)[6].
    • Lyme disease.
  • Work related stress[3]. Work can create direct stress and long hours can also impair sleep.
  • Glycogen depletion[2][3]. It is much harder to train when our muscles a depleted of Glycogen, and some authorities suspect the chronic Glycogen depletion adds to the overall stresses and could be a trigger for Overtraining Syndrome.
  • Poor diet[2][3]. Reduced calorie intake also reduces our ability to recover and deal with stress, both training stress and non-training stress. A poor quality diet that is lacking in essential nutrients can also have a negative impact on recovery. To particular deficiencies to note are Magnesium[2] and Iron[2]. A symptom of Overtraining Syndrome is reduced appetite, making the quality of the diet worse.
  • Environmental stress[2]. Training in the extremes of heat or cold and to the training stresses. Because the stresses affect all workouts they have a tendency to increase Training Monotony. Altitude Training also acts as an environmental stress and Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure has been shown to produce a short-term performance degradation. However living at a higher altitude than normal is an even greater stress as it impacts all the time and will impair sleep quality.
  • Medication. Many medications can cause stresses on body and, and especially antibiotics.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Taylor & Francis Online :: Adjustment Disorder: a new way of conceptualizing the Overtraining Syndrome - International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology - Volume 2, Issue 2
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 The unknown mechanism of the overtraining syndrom... [Sports Med. 2002] - PubMed - NCBI
  4. Monitoring training in athletes with re... [Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1998] - PubMed - NCBI
  5. Depression and chronic fatigue in the high school ... [Prim Care. 1991] - PubMed - NCBI
  6. Persistent Viral Infections, National Center for Biotechnology Information