Skip to main content
Log in

Hormonal responses in athletes: the use of a two bout exercise protocol to detect subtle differences in (over)training status

  • Original Article
  • Published:
European Journal of Applied Physiology Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In overtrained athletes, several signs and symptoms have been associated with the imbalance between training and recovery. However, reliable diagnostic markers for distinguishing between well-trained, overreached (OR) and overtrained (OT) athletes are lacking. A hallmark feature of overtraining syndrome (OTS) is the inability to sustain intense exercise and recover for the next training or competition session. We therefore devised a test protocol utilizing two bouts of maximal work. With this test protocol we tried to establish a difference in hormonal responses between the training status of T and OR athletes. Seven well-trained cyclists participated in this study and were tested before and after a training camp. We also present the data of one OT motocross athlete who was clinically diagnosed as overtrained. All athletes performed two maximal exercise tests separated by 4 h. Blood was analyzed for cortisol, adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), growth hormone and prolactin (PRL). Performance decreased by 6% between the first and the second exercise test in the OR group and by 11% in the OT subject. Moreover, during the second exercise test there were more marked differences between the T and OR athletes; in particular, the OT subject did not show an increase in some of the hormonal responses. PRL increased only by 14% in the OT subject’s second test and there was a 7% decrease in ACTH. The two exercise approach enables us to detect subtle performance decrements that will not be identified by one exercise trigger. The hormonal responses to the second exercise test were different between the T and OR athletes (the increase in the T group was higher than in the OR that was higher than in the OT). The results of the case presentation of an overtrained athlete provide evidence of an altered and dysfunctional hypothalamic–pituitary axis response to two bouts of maximal exercise. These findings can be used to develop markers for diagnosis of OTS and to begin to address the pathologic mechanism operative in the syndrome, as well as providing an outcome measure to evaluate possible therapeutic regimes.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Barron JL, Noakes TD, Levy W, Smith C, Millar RP (1985) Hypothalamic dysfunction in overtrained athletes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 60:803–806

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Chaouloff F (1993) Physiopharmacological interactions between stress hormones and central serotonergic systems. Brain Res Brain Res Rev 18:1–32

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Colthorpe K, Nalliah J, Anderson S, Curlewis J (2000) Adrenoceptor subtype involvement in suppression of prolactin secretion by noradrenaline. J Neuroendocrinol 29:297–302

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Duclos M, Corcuff JB, Pehourcq F, Tabarin A (2001) Decreased pituitary sensitiviti to glucorticoids in endurance trained men. Eur J Endocrinol 144:363–368

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Foster C, Lehmann M (1997) Overtraining syndrome. In: Guten GN (ed). Running Injuries. Saunders, Philadelphia, pp 173–188

  • Galassetti P, Mann S, Tate D, Neill RA, Wasserman DH, Daviss SN (2001) Effect of morning exercise on counteregulatory responses to subsequent, afternoon exercise. J Appl Physiol 91:91–99

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Gastmann U, Petersen KG, Bocker J, Lehmann M (1998) Monitoring intensive endurance training at moderate energetic demands using laboratory markers failed to recognize an early overtraining stage. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 38:188–193

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Gesing A, Bilang-Bleuel A, Droste S, Linthorst A, Holsboer F, Reul J (2001) Psychological stress increases hippocampal mineralocorticoid receptor levels: involvement of corticotropin-releasing hormone. J Neurosci 21:4822–4829

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kanaley J, Weltman J, Veldhuis J, Rogol A, Hartman M, Weltman A (1997)Human growth hormone response to repeated bouts of aerobic exercise. J Appl Physiol 83:1756–1761

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Lehmann M, Dickhuth HH, Gendrisch G, Lazar W, Thum M, Kaminski R, Aramendi JF, Peterke E, Wieland W, Keul J (1991) Training-overtraining. A prospective experimental study with experienced middle- and long distance runners. Int J Sports Med 12:444–452

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Lehmann M, Foster C, Keul J (1993) Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Med Sci Sports Exerc 25:854–862

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Lehmann M, Lormes W, Optiz-Gress A, Steinacker JM, Netzer N, Foster C, Gastmann U (1997) Training and overtraining: an overview and experimental results in endurance sports. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 37:7–17

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Ronsen O, Haug E, Pederson BK, Bahr R (2001) Increased neuroendocrine response to a repeated bout of endurance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 33:568–775

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sapolski R, Romero M, Munck A. (2000) How do gucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory, and preparative actions. Endocr Rev 21: 55–89

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Thorré K, Chaouloff F, Sarre S, Meeusen R, Ebinger G, Michotte Y (1997) Differential effects of restraint stress on hippocampal 5-HT metabolism and extracellular levels of 5-HT in streptozotocin-diabetic rats. Brain Res 772:209–216

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Urhausen A, Holger H, Kindermann W (1995) Blood hormones as markers of training stress and recovery. Sports Med 20:251–276

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Urhausen A, Holger HW, Kindermann G, Kindermann W (1998) Impaired pituitary hormonal response to exhaustive exercise in overtrained endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 30:407–414

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Uusitalo ALT (2001) Overtraining: making a difficult diagnosis and implementing targeted treatment. Phys Sportsmed 29(5):35–50

    Google Scholar 

  • Uusitalo ALT, Huttunen P, Hanin Y, Uusitalo AJ, Rusko HK (1998) Hormonal responses to endurance training and overtraining in female athletes. Clin J Sports Med 8:178–186

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Viru AM, Hackney AC, Välja E, Karelson K, Janson T, Viru M (2001) Influences of prolonged continuous exercise on hormone responses to subsequent exercise in humans. Eur J Appl Physiol 85:586–592

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


Part of this study was funded by the Research Council of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel OZR 387, 607.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Meeusen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Meeusen, R., Piacentini, M.F., Busschaert, B. et al. Hormonal responses in athletes: the use of a two bout exercise protocol to detect subtle differences in (over)training status. Eur J Appl Physiol 91, 140–146 (2004).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: