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Overtraining syndrome and how to avoid it

OTS - Your body's emergency brake

No pain, no gain, the harder, the better is a widespread mantra, not only among professional athletes, but also ambitious recreational athletes who always want to push the limits of their performance one step higher. But is this really always the best course of action? Because as admirable as this mindset may seem, at some point the body cannot keep up either. Then a so-called overtraining syndrome (OTS) threatens as a result of the overall fatigue of the physique and psyche. How it manifests itself, the causes, treatment methods and how you can avoid it, you will find out in this article:

The symptoms

There are two different types of OTS. The sympathicotonic OTS manifests itself in an increased heart rate, sleep disorders, emotional instability and various organic complaints. Symptoms of parasympathicotonic OTS are less noticeable, are expressed primarily in their phlegmatic-depressive component and can change over time to a sympathicotonic OTS. However, both types have an initial, abrupt and unspecific drop in performance, abnormal fatigability and greatly delayed regeneration in the training process.

The reasons

The most common cause of overtraining is high training intensities in the anaerobic-lactic range over a longer period of several months to years. Likewise, a rapid increase in exercise workload over a short period of time can induce OTS. In addition, there are additional stressors, which are mainly in the personal living environment, such as a tense social climate, insufficient sleep, a demanding, stressful job or also resuming training too quickly after infections. 

Hormonally, pathological changes can be observed in both peripheral and central systems. Under conditions of maximum stress, less adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), cortisol and growth hormone (HGH) are released. Furthermore, a reduced release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well as reduced nocturnal excretion of catecholamines can be determined. All of this provides a self-protective feedback mechanism to avoid further stress-induced fatigue. The body is forced to shift down a gear.

The therapy

It sounds harsh, but it's the only way. The only effective therapy is to eliminate the causes. That doesn't mean that you have to take a complete break from training at OTS. A significant reduction in training intensity and scope is required in any case. In cases that have been going on for a long time, however, a temporary suspension of training is not always avoidable. Initially, only regenerative or short extensive units in the aerobic area should be carried out. A temporary change to another non-performance sport that is not physically demanding may also be necessary.

After restoring a stable resilience, which can take from a few months to more than a year in severe cases, more intensive forms of training are possible again, and finally also more aerobic-lactic units.

Avoid OTS

Due to the extremely lengthy rehabilitation and the numerous psychological co-symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, etc., which often accompany OTS, the primary focus is of course not on getting to such a stage. That's why you should adopt a mind shift to "smart, not hard". With intelligent training planning, sufficient regeneration and the right load periodization, you can reduce the risk of overtraining by a good deal. With more targeted stimuli, your body will likely be able to better adapt to training, allowing you to make faster progress. Also pay attention to other factors, such as sufficient sleep, a needs-based, balanced diet, and a good amount of variety in training. 

Take home message

Harder isn't always better, and instead of getting the training results you're hoping for, it may cause your body to pull the emergency brake. Therefore, pay attention to the points in this article to avoid overtraining. If you notice corresponding symptoms, above all a sudden, lasting drop in performance and severe exhaustion, it is advisable to consult a competent sports physician. Not only can he clearly differentiate an OTS from other, eg organic, causes. He will also help you on the path to rehabilitation with individualized, targeted measures to get you back on track as quickly as possible.