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Overtraining syndrome - knowing how far you can push!

It is a condition that many have suffered from, some knowing, some perhaps unknowing, but ask most what it actually is, and the descriptions will often be rather vague.

Yes, the clue is in the title, but how do we quantify it?

Are there various stages, and if so what stage are you in?

How can it be prevented?

And how can it be rectified if you are unfortunate enough to suffer its debilitating effects? Here we hope to offer a concise guide on how to hopefully steer clear and prevent, if not diagnose and recover from this condition.

The Stages

As our knowledge of such conditions has grown and developed over time, overtraining has been separated into three categories by physiologists and exercise scientists:

Functional Overreaching:

The first is, if dealt with and managed correctly, something which is actually positive and is necessary for improved physiological performance. ‘Overtraining, good?’ I hear you ask. Well, in this case, yes, most certainly. It is this that the principle of ‘progressive overload’ is built upon, the idea that as the body adapts to a certain degree of stress, more must be placed on it in order for it to reach a new peak and improve.

Typically, this is the sort of fatigue that one will experience following a three-week block of training. The symptoms are fairly general and what you would experience following a few long and/or hard days on the bike, such as a reduced cardiac response for a given mechanical output, feelings of slight lethargy and sluggishness.

There will be a period of decreased performance, but it will be short-term and very much acute in nature. Following a period of two to five days when your training load is reduced, the desired adaptations should have taken place, allowing you to resume training at an elevated level of performance.


Non-Functional/Sympathetic Overreaching:

The next stage. This is where we begin to move into a state of overtraining which is not beneficial to your athletic performance. Fatigue, in essence, creates the potential for elevated levels of fitness and performance, however, the caveat is that it is only potential, and it must still be realised.

To get to this point, we have had a stage in training at which the athlete, despite being relatively fatigued, makes a conscious decision to push on. They will feel tired, but convince themselves that more is better, and when they do rest they will see even greater gains. Cardiac response to their perceived effort will be poor, and power output will begin to fall below previous levels, perhaps even struggling or failing to finish workouts high intensity or ‘breakthrough’ workouts that are set. The individual's mood will also begin to deteriorate, focus at work or school may be a struggle, and they will feel constantly fatigued.

Here, signs of decreased Heart Rate Variability and an increased resting heart rate will also be noted, as the sympathetic component of your nervous system becomes overactive. Hormonal imbalances will also begin to occur. The functionality of the adrenal gland will also be impacted, and cortisol levels will become elevated, therefore having a negative impact upon testosterone and DHEA production, both of which are crucial for muscle regeneration and growth. As a result, one's ability to recover from training sessions will be inhibited as will the subsequent adaptations which make us fitter and improve performance. Feelings of fatigue will also be prolonged.


At this stage overtraining is still in the acute phase, and can be remedied fairly quickly if noted early enough. Rest is the priority here if an athlete presents with issues such as these.

Overtraining Syndrome/Parasympathetic Overtraining:

The final, and most serious stage of overtraining. Here, fatigue will be overbearing, and performance aerobically and anaerobically will be severely inhibited. The hormonal issues aforementioned and the subsequent impacts will be more severe as the sympathetic nervous system is inhibited to an even greater extent, while biomechanical imbalances and feelings of depression may also arise, increasing the risk of injury among other issues.



Recovering from a chronically overtrained state can take months, and return to any form of intensive exercise should not even be considered until the symptoms above have been mitigated. The further an issue such as this goes on, the lower the chances of ever returning to previous levels of performance. Return to training should also be gradual, with the retraining of an aerobic base carried out thoroughly and patiently.

For anyone ever in question about whether or not they are suffering from being in an overtrained state in the case of either of the latter two stages, a blood test should be the first port of call. At any stage, an early diagnosis will heavily impact upon the time frame for an athletes recovery and return to competition, preventing the issue from worsening and potentially being the difference between a lay off of a few weeks, to six months and what for most is an entire season.



Something which should be a key priority for any athlete or coach, to understand how to prevent overtraining one must have a deep understanding of a rider's strengths and weaknesses. Certain athletes will have much greater tolerances for high-intensity anaerobic exercise, while others who are more aerobically developed cannot withstand the same dosage of such efforts. Two riders will not react and respond the same way to an identical training schedule, with their life at work, at home, not to mention their genetic makeup, all being things which should be taking into consideration for athletes and coaches when preparing someone's training.

Planning in advance is also a key component, with scheduled periods of rest throughout each training cycle, allowing the body to adapt to work that has been done and prepare it for the further work to come. The importance of allowing the body to rest and allow physiological factors such as those mentioned above which influence your performance, to normalise and return to optimal levels, is crucial if you are to progress and develop consistently as an athlete.

However, for someone working with a coach, perhaps the most important factor is contact between the coach and athlete, and the encouragement of subjective feedback to support and work in conjunction with the objective data the rider produces. It is in this that the early warning signs will more often than not present, long before and much more obviously than it does in their heart rate and power output, which contrary to what many believe, do not hold all the answers.

Stay on the winning line

Within Elevation Coaching Craig, Paddy and I pride ourselves on analysing performance data and how we integrate this into effective training programmes. Even more so we believe strongly in extracting the data which cannot be captured via Bluetooth or USB uplink: the human element. Communication is a huge part of coaching and turning words and emotions into a noteworthy metric is as important as heart rate and power to us. The breakdown of this human link can be a huge factor in the onset of overtraining. Feedback in both directions is the key to staying on the safe side of the overtraining fence-line.

- Kenny Wilson, Elevation Coaching

If you would like our help at Elevation Coaching to formulate a progressive training plan to smash your goals get in touch at

We offer a range of bespoke plans ranging from £75.

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