For athletes, is too much exercise a thing?
You may be an athlete who trains at least 15 hours a week, on top of your day job. You may have won races, swam miles, and bagged awards in sports competitions. You may be used to following a strict workout routine. Your body may be so used to being stretched beyond its limits to get stronger, leaner, or more agile – yet, you can still get athlete burnout.
Athlete burnout a serious condition, yet no one really talks about it. It’s different for everyone, but often, it is characterized by a diminished performance, accompanied by a slump or even depression, and a failing health.
Let’s get into the granular details of athlete burnout.
What is athlete burnout?
Athlete burnout, or overtraining syndrome (OTS), is a subtle feeling of fatigue felt by athletes. The fatigued feeling can be so subtle that, according to founding partner of Carpathia Collaborative, Heidi Iratcabal, ND, most athletes feel it’s nothing serious and just them being wimps. They feel the need to push through, thinking it’s just something they can, and must, overcome.
But that is not the case at all. In fact, it’s impossible to push past OTS.
What causes athlete burnout and who is at risk?
OTS happens when an athlete is unable to manage their training program in a systemic and consistent manner. It can also crop up if the athlete fails to monitor their performance. Here are some of the most common culprits behind OTS:
- A lack of awareness of proper nutrition and optimal exercise.
- A lack of knowledge hormones and the body’s physiological processes.
- A lifestyle that invokes chronic stress. An athlete that doesn’t sleep enough, skips meals, or stresses too much over being overachiever may be more prone to OTS.
Changes in hydration levels and in the replenishment of fuel stores also join the ranks of the most common causes of OTS.
Athlete burnout can affect anyone, even recreational athletes. Where professional athletes may suffer OTS from exertion or overtraining, recreational athletes may experience burnout due to under-recovery. In general, the chaotic nature of stressors in life tends to deplete the resources the body needs to perform or compete.
What are the symptoms of OTS?
As I have mentioned earlier, the symptoms and signs are different for every individual. They also tend to not be obvious at the onset. But, the small telling signs can add up and eventually place too much stress on the body, both on an emotional and physical level.
The spectrum of symptoms includes:
Sleep Disruption or Insomnia
Lower Energy Levels
Lower Immune System Function
Cognitive Impairment and Brain Fog
Irritability and Anger
Helplessness and Disappointment
Inconsistent Athletic Performance
How does OTS affect your body?
As you can see, overtraining syndrome manifests in three ways —hormonal, mental, and physical. Let’s break it down:
The body is a machine, finely tuned and incorporating parts that perform specific functions. Your hormones are produced by various glands. They are responsible for homeostasis, or the balance that controls most of your functions, from hunger cues to your body clock.
When overtraining, the hormones can get out of control, as some glands may produce too much hormones, some may not produce enough. This may lead to a drop in immunity and to abnormal cravings and hunger responses. In women athletes, an imbalance of hormones may even cause amenorrhea, or the loss of menstruation.
When runners, for example, put too much stress on themselves, it’s easy to feel taxed. They may spend sleepless nights feeling anxious about an upcoming race or they may begin to eat less, which can lead to caloric deficiency.
While mental fatigue is oft overlooked, it is a crucial part of training. When the mind is tired, the body follows suit. For instance, when an athlete’s brain is foggy or unclear, injuries or a breakdown may occur.
Physical injury is the most obvious symptom of overtraining. The injury may range from mild overuse injuries such as pains in the feet to Achilles tendons and other stress fractures that can take months to heal.
Physical overtraining is a sign that you’re pushing your body too hard. For example, every runner experiences a 10-mile run differently, depending on the gait mechanics, body type, and injury history. Regardless, if a runner experiences pain that changes the way they run and their gait mechanics, they need to see a doctor immediately. Brushing off small pains can lead to a more serious health issue down the road.
Dodging Athlete Burnout
There is a blurry line between OTS and your goals, making it such a challenge to avoid athlete burnout. In fact, the onset of OTS can actually be desirable. Called functional overreaching, this is the goals athletes set for themselves to get faster, fitter, or stronger. The danger is, it’s easy to get in trouble if you take a few steps too far.
In the end, smart nutrition, structured training plans, and reliable gear all matter. Proper recovery is also crucial. One or two days off is not enough downtime. Remember that a day spent resting properly is just as good as your best hustle.
If you absolutely can’t skip training, vary your workouts. Introduce variations in distance and activity or in time and intensity. The human brain loves variety, and the more you vary your body and muscles’ activation, the better will be your feedback loop. You get to perform better, without exerting too much effort.
Take note that it’s better to avoid OTS than to simply let it on. The road to recovery from athlete burnout can be long and challenging. It may take years, or months if you’re lucky, to reverse the effects. On top of that, the complications can be wide-ranging, affecting various aspects including your psychological health, bone health, and even fertility.
It ‘s important to pay close attention to your body. If you suspect burnout, step down a bit and address the issue immediately. Catching the signs of OTS early (and doing something about it) makes all the difference between reaching the finish line of a marathon and being in the doctor’s office.