May 12, 2022
We know you love training but are you training too much? Is the big bad overtraining boogeyman gonna get you? Is overtraining even real? Or maybe, you're just experiencing a little burnout. What's the difference? And by the way, how fine is the line between overreaching and overtraining?
That's a lot of questions, and this article will attempt to answer them all and more. We will go over what you need to know about burnout, overtraining, and overreaching.
Table of Contents:
We hope you're not burned out reading yet cause we haven't even begun.
Burnout and overtraining are two terms that are used to describe a general decrease in performance or motivation to go to the gym. While sometimes used interchangeably, we believe the symptoms of overtraining and burnout are very different.
In fact, the difference is recognized even now by sports psychologists, with research being conducted to distinguish the causes of each1. If you are a coach or sports psychologist, it would be very important for you to know the difference so you can treat them properly for your clients.
Regardless, these two are definitely related and can exacerbate the other, but we feel it's important to distinguish the two. If these are two different conditions, then that means there are different causes and different solutions. Therefore, let's look at burnout and overtraining separately so that we can identify the symptoms.
When we refer to "burnout," we are talking about a condition created by an overload of stress that causes an imbalance in one's life. This stress can come from your family, social life, work, and training. The stresses and pressure can become too much until one feels like they're always on the go, and one can never rest. In a cruel twist of fate, this overload will cause a person to become distant and disinterested with what they once loved due to never being able to relax.
It's even more twisted that it's really only possible for highly motivated individuals to really experience burnout as this group puts unrealistic expectations on themselves.
How this might look in the fitness world is giving yourself the goal of being the #1 bodybuilder in your state. Therefore, you train and train and train, but you're not getting the results you want, so you start canceling dinner dates or missing family events so you can train. Or maybe you can't enjoy yourself at a party because you can't risk having a beer. While you might be fine physiologically, your mental health begins to take a beating as you're not enjoying what you're doing, and there seems to be no answer.
Other examples could come from being over-obsessed with your diet, looks, or whatever. What used to make you happy has become a chore, and worse, you're not getting the results you were hoping for. You begin having trouble managing your family, job, and relationship because you can't risk messing up your training or nutrition.
Unfortunately, this is quite common in the fitness world and arguably more common and even more serious than overtraining. Actually, when compared to overtraining, you’re probably much more likely to catch some form of burnout.
While burnout is a sign of too much mental stress, overtraining is a sign of too much physical stress. It can happen when someone is working out too much with inadequate recovery.
In a perfect world, a person will recover before they go train again, particularly for the area they are working that session. But with overtraining, there is still leftover fatigue, so when you go to the gym, you pile on more fatigue. This excess fatigue compiles over time until it reaches a point where your performance is dramatically affected.
However, overtraining can affect a lot more than your performance in the gym. You can develop symptoms from overtraining like:
This decline in performance isn't necessarily caused by damage to the muscles though but actually from the inadequate recovery of the central nervous system and improper levels of hormones. It all starts with the overproduction of cortisol, which then alters your adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine levels through a series of reactions. This is similar to dominoes falling one by one and creating more and more chaos.
At the same time, we also need to say that many people can over exaggerate overtraining. It’s not going to happen in a week and it likely isn’t going to happen to guys running average training programs. Our bodies are resilient and they can take a lot of stress before they have overtraining symptoms. So while we want you to be aware of overtraining, we also don’t want you to freak out every time you wake up and are a little tired.
Overreaching is another term that is sometimes used with these conditions. However, overreaching is drastically different as it's done on purpose and is a planned period of time.
It's done to elicit a response known as supercompensation. This is your body's adaptive response to excessive stimulus so that your body will be able to handle that same stimulus easily in the future. In fact, super-compensation is at the heart of progressive overload.
Therefore, overreaching is when a coach will put excessive stress on an athlete, usually an experienced one. However, they know the athlete won't be able to handle it for long so they will then allow the athlete to recover for an extended period of time. Essentially, it is strategic overtraining.
It's a bit more complicated than that, and we will write up another article on this in the near future, but that's really all you need to know for this article.
In reality, burnout from training has similar symptoms as any other type of burnout, such as occupational burnout. Unfortunately, burnout is not as easy to spot in the early stages as overtraining is.
However, here is a list of signs and symptoms of burnout. We will try to list in the order it may appear. But keep in mind, it is far from a definitive guide as everyone is different.
Symptoms of burnout in fitness:
As you see, many of these symptoms are quite common in everyone at some point in their life, at least the first three, and many even experience number four at some point.
There are a lot of signs that could develop due to overtraining. Some of the very first signs and symptoms of overtraining you may experience are:
If you experience any of the above. Stop training. Give yourself a week of rest, or whatever you need to recover.
These are the first warning signs, and they will only get worse. You'll hear this more than once, but you can't out-train overtraining. We'll talk about what to do below.
If you do continue to train, you can expect to experience these overtraining symptoms, which can have long term effects:
None of those sound fun at all, so do yourself a favor and pay attention to the first group of symptoms.
Unfortunately, burnout can actually be harder to treat than overtraining. Well, the cure is actually quite simple and simply consists of a person stepping away from the sport or activity that is causing chaos in their life. However, getting a person to do that depends on their relationship to what's causing the burnout.
For example, if it's someone who just got a little overzealous with their training, a couple of buds could slap him on the back of his head, tell him to cool it with the curls, and hit the bar. If the guy could let it go easily, then he'd be able to get over it fairly soon.
However, if the person has developed an unhealthy obsession with a sport, it could require professional mental health. It's not uncommon for athletes to form their identity with a sport, and telling them to let it go can be like telling someone to shoot their dog…it's not going to happen.
If the burnout is at a level where it has caused serious psychological issues, they need to speak to a professional therapist (i.e., not us) and start dealing with it. Like any obsession, it can take some time to fully recover.
In either case, the person will need to sit down and reevaluate their life goals. We are not therapists but writing these things down can help tremendously. When you write, it allows you to see what your life looks like and also forces you to acknowledge what’s happening.
The bad news is that we have heard of some very, very rare cases of people who developed such a bad case of overtraining that they never fully recovered. Remember, overtraining is actually caused by dysregulation of your hormones. Anytime you mess with your hormones for a prolonged period of time, you are putting yourself at risk of long-term damage. However, the good news is that long term effects of severe overtraining syndrome is very, very rare, as mentioned.
That being said, you will have a much shorter recovery time by spotting overtraining early as recovery time will grow exponentially as you pile on your overtraining. Therefore, you'd be wise to chill if you think this may be happening, as, again, you can't out-train overtraining.
If you do catch a case of overtraining, the best way to treat overtraining is to simply cut back on your volume and intensity significantly. Think about it like a prolonged deload. Also, if you're dieting, you may need to stop for a while as being in a caloric deficit does put stress on the body.
This doesn't mean you need to bulk, but you should be at maintenance at a bare minimum to give your body plenty of fuel. However, if you have been in an extreme caloric deficit, you’ll likely need to be put on a reverse diet and possibly see a professional.
You may also want to include some light recovery work to replace the time away from intense training. We're talking about simple walking or a cycle around the park. Just be sure not to turn it into a HIIT session!
The above would be enough for mild cases. If you have a more severe condition, you're going to likely need to just stop training altogether for some time.
However, at the its heart, overtraining is simply caused by a program that does not properly balance training with recovery.
Here are some basic things you can do to mitigate your chance of developing overtraining:
We saw that these two are clearly different, but there is also plenty of overlap. Further, some practices can definitely help with mitigating the development of burnout or overtraining.
1) Be Honest With How Much You Can Handle:
If you have read SET FOR SET for any length of time, you have heard us many times before talking about the importance of choosing the proper frequency. In our opinion, there's really no reason the majority of the population needs to train six days a week. Five days a week can even be a lot. Four days tend to be the sweet spot for most people and can help fight both burnout and overtraining.
First, it's only four days meaning you have plenty of time to explore your other interests or work on relationships. Secondly, it's only four days, so you have three full recovery days. You would need to train pretty damn hard to develop overtraining on four days a week. If you’re not sure what to do, give this program a shot: 4-Day Upper Lower Split.
Therefore, just be honest about how many days you can commit when you start a program. If you're unsure, you can handle five days and train for four days. If you're not sure, you can train for four days, train for three days. You're going to be much happier, and your relationship with the gym will be much healthier.
2) Take Deload Weeks Or Time Away:
Similar to above, take a deload or even time away. To be honest, it's not uncommon for us to just step away from the gym for a month when we feel we need it. And for the love of God, don't be that guy bugging his girlfriend to go to the gym on holiday. We're not saying just be a lazy fat ass, but if you're stressing about training on holiday, you are probably developing some unhealthy habits. Instead of going to the gym, going swimming, kayaking, ATV, hiking...just go outside and enjoy yourself!
The point is, don't be afraid to take time away. In fact, while we might not always plan a deload, we will use three-day weekends or vacations as our deloads. Love the gym and love living life. They're not mutually exclusive. Actually, they're quite complementary and you’re missing out if you forgot to enjoy life.
3) Incorporate A Hobby Or Cross-Training:
Similar to the above, find another athletic hobby or get involved in cross-training. For example, MMA and boxing are awesome complementary activities for weight training. You get to spread your social circle, have a sport that works different muscles and movements, AND you'll get fit as heck too!
Other awesome options are:
Again, the point is to have other interests and hobbies to engage in. Therefore, let's say you're just not feeling the gym. Instead of getting anxious, you can now grab your board and go surf, knowing you're not being lazy. Better yet, you're having fun!
Burnout and overtraining are both serious conditions that can affect your performance and your quality of life. The good thing is that they're both easily preventable. If you do feel that your burnout is more serious than accidentally taking on too much work, reach out to a coach or friend or someone you can talk to. We're often enemies of our minds too often, and talking can greatly alleviate this stress.
And above all, unless you’re getting paid, don’t take training so seriously. By all means have goals and pursue them with 100% effort. We just don’t want you to live a life full of no fun just so you don’t mess up your gainz. After learning all about overtraining and burnout, you can see there clearly is such a thing as "too much of a good thing".
1. Main LC, Landers GJ. Overtraining or Burnout: A Training and Psycho-Behavioural Case Study. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 2012;7(1):23-31. doi:10.1260/1747-95184.108.40.206
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