What is overtraining? | The signs, symptoms, and treatments

Kelley Blalock Kelley Blalock Rehabilitation Specialist and Senior Personal Trainer
Overtraining occurs when we don’t give our body enough time to recover between exercise sessions. It can have a big impact on performance and the frequency at which we get injured. Whilst weightlifting and cardio are great for mind and body, adequate rest is just as important.

A lot of us are unable to recognise we’re overtrained because the signs and symptoms closely overlap with tiredness and fatigue. Keep reading to learn more about this common training pitfall and how best to avoid it.

What is overtraining?

Essentially, overtraining happens when there is a conflict between what your body can do in your workouts and what you are doing. In this instance, your body needs a certain amount of rest to recover that it isn’t getting.

If you’re asking your body to do too much, it will quickly let you know whether it’s capable. When we’re overtrained, your body is asking you to pay attention and make changes before your training starts to become harmful to your health.

Is overtraining common?

Yes, it is.

Even personal trainers can fall victim of overtraining from time to time. This is because balancing the amount of training you “can” and “want” to do is difficult. There is no exact science to understanding precisely “how much” training your body can cope with because we are not machines.

When you see your body changing, it’s exciting and usually you want to carry on towards your goal. This is why rest and recovery as part of any training plan is so important. To continue making progress, your body needs time to build and repair the muscles involved with exercise. 

What are the signs I might be overtrained?

The physical signs of overtraining begin with not feeling recovered between sessions. You might wake up feeling exhausted after a heavy training session or notice a little more muscle soreness than usual.

There might be mental signs too. You might find yourself questioning whether you want to or are capable of exercising today, or losing interest in your long-term goals. The enthusiasm you once had for training day-to-day may be lessened and you might start viewing exercise in a more negative light.

At some point, not feeling recovered after a series of workouts can cause a longer sensation of overall fatigue to develop. This might feel like a heaviness or a sluggishness that you can’t shake off. Common symptoms also include an inability to concentrate or a sensation of brain fog.

When progress starts to slow

On top of the way your body feels, another telltale sign that you’re overtrained is not making progress with your workouts.

  • If you’re weight training, you might find you can’t push past a certain weight for your lift or you’ve had to decrease the reps or weight you are doing. 
  • If you’re doing HIIT workouts, it might take you longer to complete a set of movements or you may only feel comfortable using a lighter weight than usual. 
  • If you’re doing cardio, you might notice your muscles recovering slower than usual. You might also find the effort you’re putting in isn’t yielding the results it usually does.

For all forms of exercise, you’ll find yourself needing more rest than you’re used to. If you are overtrained, you might even find that taking rest as instructed doesn’t give you the energy back that you’d expect it to.

Are there other warning signs?

  • Little aches and pains
  • Finding a lack of progression within your training programme
  • Strain across vulnerable joints like the elbow, hips or knees
  • Muscle growth putting strain on the surrounding ligaments

Overtraining and the menstrual cycle

For women, changes to your menstrual cycle (irregular periods or having no periods at all) could be a sign that you are overtraining.

This is because your body is having to choose between meeting the physical demands you are putting on it and the adaptations required to potentially carry a baby.

Tracking your periods can help you learn more about the impact exercise has on your cycle.

Am I overtrained or just tired?

You could be both. 

There is a subtle difference between these two feelings that can be hard to pinpoint. If you’re tired, you might think “I just don’t want to train today” in a light-hearted manner, whereas the feelings we typically associate with overtraining have a “heaviness“ to them.

A good gauge of whether you’re overtrained is to keep track of how many sessions in a row you’re feeling unmotivated for. If you’re not feeling your best for more than one or two sessions, you’re likely overtraining.

Is overtraining unique to cardio?


From a cardio perspective, you’re more likely to experience adrenal fatigue than you are overtraining. This typically occurs after exposing your body to stressful situations and shares a lot of feelings and symptoms with overtraining.

From a strength training perspective, you’re more likely to experience little niggles in your elbows or knees. This is because the movements involved in a strength training programme typically put added stress and strain on these areas. To avoid this, consider working with a personal trainer to nail form before you start adding weight.

How can I avoid overtraining in the future?

Analyse your rest and recovery routine

A great place to start is to look at the quality of your sleep.

  • Are you getting at least 8 hours of sleep?
  • Are you waking up during the night?
  • Is getting to sleep easy for you?
  • How refreshed do you feel when you wake up?

If you’re able to monitor metrics like heart rate variability (HRV) using a smartwatch or similar device, you’ll be able to find out how resilient your body is to encountering stress on a given day.

Reduce your training volume

Adding ‘deloading’ weeks every 4/6/8 weeks during training can help. During these weeks, your aim is to decrease your overall volume by decreasing reps, weight, or both. In cardio, this is often called a recovery week or a rest week.

You can also try increasing your protein intake to see if this makes an improvement to your fatigue levels. You may also find this helps with long term muscle growth if this is what you’re training for.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s also important to ensure you’re getting all the essential amino acids that your body cannot make on its own, as this can add to fatigue levels.

Introduce some gentle exercise or active recovery

Trying another form of exercise is another option. Light movement is recommended if you’re feeling tired, sore or worn out. These exercises can also help identify any weaknesses or imbalances that may be contributing to your fatigue level.

Try any of the following:

  • Stretching
  • Light bodyweight exercises
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Walking 

Yoga and meditation

If you are struggling with fatigue, meditation and yoga may help.

There’s a difference between resting where we’re “doing nothing” but still using mental energy to scroll through our phone or watch TV and actually giving your body and mind the time they need to recover.

Meditation and promoting relaxation with mindfulness techniques can also help you relax and recuperate. If you have a rest day, put some soothing music on and allow yourself to relax and calm your body and mind.

Can I still exercise if I’m overtrained?

Yes, but decreasing your volume significantly is advised. If you continue to exercise at an intense rate when you’re tired, you risk doing more harm than good.

Can repeat overtraining do long-term damage?

Yes, especially if you haven’t addressed the previous niggles it left you with. Long term, overtraining can affect your hormone levels, which amplifies the intensity of adrenal fatigue and other fatigue related issues.

When to see a professional

If overtraining is a persistent issue and taking some time off doesn’t lessen feelings of tiredness or fatigue, seek advice from a professional.

Your doctor will be able to analyse your exercise routine, overall health, diet, and medical history to determine the best course of action for minimising fatigue levels.

Last updated Friday 26 April 2024

First published on Friday 26 April 2024