Does Overtraining Exist?

An Analysis of Overreaching and Overtraining Research

Abstract

Athletes experience minor fatigue and acute reductions in performance as a consequence of the normal training process. When the balance between training stress and recovery is disproportionate, it is thought that overreaching and possibly overtraining may develop. However, the majority of research that has been conducted in this area has investigated overreached and not overtrained athletes. Overreaching occurs as a result of intensified training and is often considered a normal outcome for elite athletes due to the relatively short time needed for recovery (approximately 2 weeks) and the possibility of a supercompensatory effect. As the time needed to recover from the overtraining syndrome is considered to be much longer (months to years), it may not be appropriate to compare the two states. It is presently not possible to discern acute fatigue and decreased performance experienced from isolated training sessions, from the states of overreaching and overtraining. This is partially the result of a lack of diagnostic tools, variability of results of research studies, a lack of well controlled studies and individual responses to training.

The general lack of research in the area in combination with very few well controlled investigations means that it is very difficult to gain insight into the incidence, markers and possible causes of overtraining. There is currently no evidence aside from anecdotal information to suggest that overreaching precedes overtraining and that symptoms of overtraining are more severe than overreaching. It is indeed possible that the two states show different defining characteristics and the overtraining continuum may be an oversimplification. Critical analysis of relevant research suggests that overreaching and overtraining investigations should be interpreted with caution before recommendations for markers of overreaching and overtraining can be proposed. Systematically controlled and monitored studies are needed to determine if overtraining is distinguishable from overreaching, what the best indicators of these states are and the underlying mechanisms that cause fatigue and performance decrements. The available scientific and anecdotal evidence supports the existence of the overtraining syndrome; however, more research is required to state with certainty that the syndrome exists.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

References

  1. 1.

    Urhausen A, Kindermann W. Diagnosis of overtraining: what tools do we have? Sports Med 2002; 32(2): 95–102

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Halson SL, Bridge MW, Meeusen R, et al. Time course of performance changes and fatigue markers during intensified training in trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol 2002; 93(3): 947–56

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Jeukendrup AE, Hesselink MK, Snyder AC, et al. Physiological changes in male competitive cyclists after two weeks of intensified training. Int J Sports Med 1992; 13(7): 534–41

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Kreider R, Fry AC, O’Toole M. Overtraining in sport: terms, definitions, and prevalence. In: Kreider R, Fry AC, O’Toole M, editors. Overtraining in sport. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, 1998: vii–ix

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Rowbottom DG, Keast D, Morton AR. Monitoring and prevention of overreaching and overtraining in endurance athletes. In: Kreider R, Fry A, O’Toole M, editors. Overtraining in sport. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, 1998: 47–66

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Fry RW, Morton AR, Keast D. Overtraining in athletes: an update. Sports Med 1991; 12(1): 32–65

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    O’Toole ML. Overreaching and overtraining in endurance athletes. In: Kreider R, Fry A, O’Toole M, editors. Overtraining in sport. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics,1998: 3–17

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Israel S. Problems of overtraining from an internal medical and performance physiological standpoint. Med Sport 1976; 16: 1–12

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Lehmann M, Foster C, Dickhuth HH, et al. Autonomic imbalance hypothesis and overtraining syndrome. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998; 30(7): 1140–5

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Kuipers H, Keizer HA. Overtraining in elite athletes: review and directions for the future. Sports Med 1988; 6(2): 79–92

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Lehmann MJ, Lormes W, Opitz-Gress A, et al. Training and overtraining: an overview and experimental results in endurance sports. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1997; 37(1): 7–17

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Lehmann M, Foster C, Keul J. Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1993; 25(7): 854–62

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Selye H. The stress of life. New York: McGraw Hill, 1976

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Rushall BS. A tool for measuring stress tolerance in elite athletes. J Appl Sport Psychol 1990; 2(1): 51–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Morgan WP, Brown DR, Raglin JS, et al. Psychological monitoring of overtraining and staleness. Br J Sports Med 1987; 21(3): 107–14

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    O’Connor PJ, Morgan WP, Raglin JS, et al. Mood state and salivary cortisol levels following overtraining in female swimmers. Psychoneuroendocrinology 1989; 14(4): 303–10

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Hooper S, MacKinnon LT, Hanrahan S. Mood states as an indication of staleness and recovery. Int J Sport Psychol 1997; 28: 1–12

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Raglin JS, Morgan WP. Development of a scale for use in monitoring training-induced distress in athletes. Int J Sports Med 1994; 15(2): 84–8

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Koutedakis Y, Sharp NC. Seasonal variations of injury and overtraining in elite athletes. Clin J Sport Med 1998; 8(1): 18–21

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Fry RW, Morton AR, Garcia-Webb P, et al. Biological responses to overload training in endurance sports. Eur J Appl Physiol 1992; 64(4): 335–44

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Flynn MG, Pizza FX, Boone Jr JB, et al. Indices of training stress during competitive running and swimming seasons. Int J Sports Med 1994; 15(1): 21–6

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Hooper SL, MacKinnon LT, Gordon RD, et al. Hormonal responses of elite swimmers to overtraining. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1993; 25(6): 741–7

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Lehmann M, Wieland H, Gastmann U. Influence of an unaccustomed increase in training volume vs intensity on performance, hematological and blood-chemical parameters in distance runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1997; 37(2): 110–6

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Urhausen A, Gabriel HH, Weiler B, et al. Ergometric and psychological findings during overtraining: a long-term follow-up study in endurance athletes. Int J Sports Med 1998; 19(2): 114–20

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Costill DL, Flynn MG, Kirwan JP, et al. Effects of repeated days of intensified training on muscle glycogen and swimming performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1988; 20: 249–54

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Tanaka H, West KA, Duncan GE, et al. Changes in plasma tryptophan branched chain amino acid ratio in responses to training volume variation. Int J Sports Med 1997; 18(4): 270–5

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    O’Connor PJ, Morgan WP, Raglin JS. Psychobiologic effects of 3 d of increased training in female and male swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1991; 23(9): 1055–61

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Morgan WP. Psychological components of effort sense. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1994; 26(9): 1071–7

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Barron JL, Noakes TD, Levy W, et al. Hypothalamic dysfunction in overtrained athletes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1985; 60(4): 803–6

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Snyder AC, Kuipers H, Cheng B, et al. Overtraining following intensified training with normal muscle glycogen. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1995; 27(7): 1063–70

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    O’Connor PJ, Raglin JS, Morgan WP. Psychometric correlates of perception during arm ergometry in males and females. Int J Sports Med 1996; 17(6): 462–6

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Morgan WP, Costill DL, Flynn MG, et al. Mood disturbance following increased training in swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1988; 20(4): 408–14

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Lehmann M, Dickhuth HH, Gendrisch G, et al. Training-overtraining: a prospective, experimental study with experienced middle- and long-distance runners. Int J Sports Med 1991; 12(5): 444–52

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Hedelin R, Kentta G, Wiklund U, et al. Short-term overtraining: effects on performance, circulatory responses, and heart rate variability. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32(8): 1480–4

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Lehmann M, Mann H, Gastmann U, et al. Unaccustomed high-mileage vs intensity training-related changes in performance and serum amino acid levels. Int J Sports Med 1996; 17(3): 187–92

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Snyder AC, Jeukendrup AE, Hesselink MK, et al. A physiological/psychological indicator of over-reaching during intensive training. Int J Sports Med 1993; 14(1): 29–32

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Smith LL. Cytokine hypothesis of overtraining: a physiological adaptation to excessive stress? Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32(2): 317–31

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Mackinnon LT, Hooper SL. Plasma glutamine and upper respiratory tract infection during intensified training in swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1996; 28(3): 285–90

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Fry RW, Grove JR, Morton AR, et al. Psychological and immunological correlates of acute overtraining. Br J Sports Med 1994; 28(4): 241–6

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Rowbottom DG, Keast D, Goodman C, et al. The haematological, biochemical and immunological profile of athletes suffering from the overtraining syndrome. Eur J Appl Physiol 1995; 70(6): 502–9

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Mackinnon LT, Hooper SL, Jones S, et al. Hormonal, immunological, and hematological responses to intensified training in elite swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1997; 29(12): 1637–45

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Hooper SL, Mackinnon LT, Howard A, et al. Markers for monitoring overtraining and recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1995; 27(1): 106–12

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Shephard RJ, Shek PN. Acute and chronic over-exertion: do depressed immune responses provide useful markers? Int J Sports Med 1998; 19(3): 159–71

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Mackinnon LT. Chronic exercise training effects on immune function. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32 (7 Suppl.): S369–76

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Gabriel H, Kindermann W. The acute immune response to exercise: what does it mean? Int J Sports Med 1997; 18Suppl. 1: S28–45

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Gabriel HH, Urhausen A, Valet G, et al. Overtraining and immune system: a prospective longitudinal study in endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998; 30(7): 1151–7

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Mackinnon LT. Special feature for the Olympics: effects of exercise on the immune system: overtraining effects on immunity and performance in athletes. Immunol Cell Biol 2000; 78(5): 502–9

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Mackinnon LT, Hooper S. Mucosal (secretory) immune system responses to exercise of varying intensity and during overtraining. Int J Sports Med 1994; 15Suppl. 3: S179–83

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Halson SL, Lancaster GI, Jeukendrup AE, et al. Immunological responses to overreaching in cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003; 35(5): 854–61

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Pyne DB, Gleeson M. Effects of intensive exercise training on immunity in athletes. Int J Sports Med 1998; 19Suppl. 3: S183–91

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Rowbottom DG, Keast D, Morton AR. The emerging role of glutamine as an indicator of exercise stress and overtraining. Sports Med 1996; 21(2): 80–97

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Parry-Billings M, Budgett R, Koutedakis Y, et al. Plasma amino acid concentrations in the overtraining syndrome: possible effects on the immune system. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1992; 24(12): 1353–8

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Urhausen A, Gabriel HH, Kindermann W. Impaired pituitary hormonal response to exhaustive exercise in overtrained endurance athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998; 30(3): 407–14

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Vervoorn C, Quist AM, Vermulst LJ, et al. The behaviour of the plasma free testosterone/cortisol ratio during a season of elite rowing training. Int J Sports Med 1991; 12(3): 257–63

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Adlercreutz H, Harkonen M, Kuoppasalmi K, et al. Effect of training on plasma anabolic and catabolic steroid hormones and their response during physical exercise. Int J Sports Med 1986; 7Suppl. 1: 27–8

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Stone MH, Keith RE, Kearney JT, et al. Overtraining: a review of the signs, symptoms and possible causes. J Appl Sport Sci Res 1991; 5: 35–50

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Lehmann M, Schnee W, Scheu R, et al. Decreased nocturnal catecholamine excretion: parameter for an overtraining syndrome in athletes? Int J Sports Med 1992; 13(3): 236–42

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Task Force of the European Society of Cardiology and the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology. Heart rate variability: standards of measurement, physiological interpretation, and clinical use. Eur Heart J 1996; 17(3): 354–81

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Uusitalo AL, Uusitalo AJ, Rusko HK. Exhaustive endurance training for 6–9 weeks did not induce changes in intrinsic heart rate and cardiac autonomic modulation in female athletes. Int J Sports Med 1998; 19(8): 532–40

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Uusitalo AL, Uusitalo AJ, Rusko HK. Heart rate and blood pressure variability during heavy training and overtraining in the female athlete. Int J Sports Med 2000; 21(1): 45–53

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Smith DJ, Norris SR. Changes in glutamine and glutamate concentrations for tracking training tolerance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32(3): 684–9

    PubMed  Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Hedelin R, Wiklund U, Bjerle P, et al. Cardiac autonomic imbalance in an overtrained athlete. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32(9): 1531–3

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this review. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this review.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shona L. Halson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Halson, S.L., Jeukendrup, A.E. Does Overtraining Exist?. Sports Med 34, 967–981 (2004). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434140-00003

Download citation

Keywords

  • Heart Rate Variability
  • Plasma Glutamine Level
  • Catecholamine Excretion
  • Muscle Glycogen Level
  • Training Stress