Overtraining, Burnout, and Performance Plateaus

Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts love their sport and are willing to give their all every time they go out to train or compete.  However, people do not always realize that training too often or at too high of an intensity can actually have a negative impact.  Doing too much and recovering too little can lead to overtraining, burnout, impaired athletic performance and hurt overall well-being, including mental health. So, how do you know if you may be experiencing overtraining, performance plateaus, or burnout?

Signs and Symptoms

Before we dive in, it’s important to understand these terms because they are all linked to one another.

Overtraining Syndrome:  The response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in disruption of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes.  

Burnout:  A response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery; continual training and sport attention stress, resulting in staleness, overtraining and eventually burnout. 

Plateau:  An unexplained drop in performance in training or competition due to overtraining.

It’s also very important to recognize the signs of overtraining. It can cause physical symptoms, physical and mental health concerns, and performance problems, including:

  • Exaggerated fatigue or “heavy legs”
  • A mismatch between training load and perception of effort (in other words, a workout that isn’t that hard feels HARD)
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in concentration
  • Decrease in performance or plateau in performance; not improving anymore
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Loss of interest in your sport or activity
  • Headaches
  • Inability to handle stress
  • Gastrointestinal issues, appetite changes
  • Increased frequency of illness, especially upper respiratory illness
  • Changes in resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Sidenote On Diminishing Returns

Another important factor that may play into performance plateaus is the principle of diminishing returns. What this means, in a nutshell, is: The rate of fitness improvement diminishes over time as an individual’s fitness approaches its ultimate genetic potential. In other words, we all have a ceiling.  And, the longer we train and participate in something, the returns we get from the training will diminish over time. But keep these distinguishing signs and symptoms of overtraining in mind and they should help to determine if you are dealing with a ceiling-plateau issue or an overtraining-plateau problem.

Prevention Strategies

If you are an athlete or have an active, competitive child who is playing a sport for several months or even year round (not recommended),  here are some things to consider to prevent against overtraining, burnout, and plateaus:

  • Don’t specialize; play multiple sports
  • Use a good training plan and apply periodization of training (Part Two Coming Soon)
  • Get medical checkups regularly
  • Optimize recovery. Prioritize adequate sleep (see below)
  • Proper nutrition and hydration (Maybe I Should Do a Part 3?)
  • Listen to and understand the body. Take breaks if necessary
  • Journal; keep track of how you are feeling by reflecting regularly (it’s also good for stress!)
  • Find other, enjoyable hobbies and activities that aren’t competitive or related to sports

Rest and Recovery

Rest and recovery are key to preventing overtraining but also to ensuring optimal performance under any circumstances. What do I mean by rest and recovery? It can mean different things depending on the person and the situation.  It doesn’t mean we have to be on the couch with our feet up.  Recovery can range from things as simple as deep breathing and meditation to making slight changes in your plan.   

Strategies to Get Adequate Recovery
(Adapted from American College of Sports Medicine Recommendations)

  • Take at least one recovery day every week.  More may be necessary based on your activity level
  • Apply periodization to your training plan (Part Two – Coming Soon!)
  • Incorporate variety into your plan
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Take steps to manage stress
  • Practice self care
  • Make sure that training volume and training intensity are inversely related.  In other words, if you are exercising at very high intensities, the volume (sets, reps, time, etc.) is low.  If your intensity is low, than volume can be higher
  • Avoid too great a relative intensity (percent of 1 Repetition Maximum) for extended periods
  • Manage training volume (number of sessions, exercises, sets and reps) for extended periods
  • Don’t perform every set of every exercise of every session to absolute failure, with no variation
  • Make sure that when you are selecting exercises you aren’t overusing particular joints or muscle groups
  • Avoid excessive use of eccentric muscle actions.  This refers to those exercises that require your muscles to elongate while you are creating force.  (Ever wondered why you’re so sore after lunges?)
  • Take into account the cumulative training stresses from other forms of exercise.  In other words make sure you are taking into account ALL of your training including cardiovascular training, sport-specific training, recreational activity, etc.


During intense exercise, muscle and tissue can actually experience wear and (microscopic) tear.  So, if we train and compete at high intensity for prolonged periods of time, without rest, our tissue can go from being worn down to broken. It’s important to overload a muscle to wear it down, to a certain extent, so that it can build back stronger and better. But if you beat it up too badly, it just breaks.  So, it is vital to build in the opportunity for tissue repair.  Some effective strategies for repair include:

  • Adequate rest time
  • Adequate sleep
  • Proper nutrition and good meal timing
  • Manage stress
  • Proper hydration
  • Massage
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Cryotherapy

Sleep, Hormones, and Mood

A Circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that is a part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle.  If sleep is distrubed, or not prioritized, it can have a negative impact on complex hormone regulation and interactions like:

  • Growth hormone – involved in muscle repair and metabolism 
  • Thyroid stimulating hormone – metabolic rate, heart rate, digestion, and muscle control
  • Leptin – energy expenditure and appetite
  • Ghrelin – involved in appetite control
  • Cortisol and Epinephrine – overtraining significantly affects these stress hormones causing imbalance and can lead to mood swings, unusual irritability and an inability to concentrate

Overtraining is real and very common physiological problem among athletes.  It can lead to burnout and performance plateaus.  It’s important to follow a safe training plan and identify the signs and symptoms. Medical help may be necessary to address the situation.

Check back for my second part of this series, “Periodization”.

Photo Credit: Skitterphoto

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