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Overtraining - When There Isn’t Enough Time to Recover

Stacey Penney
Stacey Penney

Designing a training program for an athlete to peak for competition is one of the driving goals for sports performance specialists. From the big picture annual macrocycle, to the monthly mesocycle breakdown, and the finely detailed microcycle, periods of rest need to be included in these plans to avoid overtraining and the potential negative impact on performance.

Overtraining occurs when an athlete’s body doesn’t have enough time to recover. An overtrained athlete who is not achieving results may even be tempted to stop training altogether. Overtraining might be to blame if your athlete has any of the following symptoms (1,2):

  • elevated resting heart rate
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • chronic fatigue, workouts described as draining
  • an increase in colds or infections
  • inadequate sleep
  • a decrease in performance, or an inability to reach training goals
  • lack of enthusiasm, psychological staleness

Inadequate rest and recovery can lead to compensation and injury (1,2). If signs of overtraining start to occur, adjustments can be made to the programs acute variables, including training volume, intensity, duration, frequency, and/or exercise selection (1). For example, when an athlete experiences an intense case of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), reducing the intensity and duration of training, or training different muscle groups for the days following will give the affected muscles time to recover (3).

Even between sets and exercises the body needs a rest interval. Depending on the goals of the athlete’s training cycle, exercise intensity and energy systems tapped, rest between sets can range from 30 seconds to 5 minutes (1).

Rest Interval Continuum

Stabilization/Strength Endurance: 30-60 seconds

Hypertrophy: 45-90 seconds

Max Strength/Power: 3-5 minutes

Proper nutrition is also a part of the recovery process. Replenishing with enough carbohydrate to top off the glycogen stores along with adequate protein to aid in muscle repair is key. For strength athletes, the protein recommendation is between 1.2-1.7 g/kg body weight per day (4). For endurance athletes the protein goal is between 1.2 -1.4 g/kg body weight per day (1,4). Carbohydrate recommendations for athletes are between 6 and 10 g/kg body weight per day depending on multiple factors such as total energy expenditure, type of activity, environmental conditions, and gender (4).

Though rest intervals are important between sets, too long of a break can reduce the adaptations to training and decrease neuromuscular activity (1). Longer bouts of rest between training sessions can also result in a loss of strength and cardiovascular abilities. Cardiovascular detraining starts to occur within 12 days, with decreases seen in VO2max (2). Strength gains are lost at a much slower rate of decline, and can actually be maintained with as little as one training session per week for 12 weeks (2,5).

Rest is an often over looked component of the training puzzle. It is a vital piece that needs to be incorporated in to an athletes training plan. The need for a recovery period applies to both cardiovascular and strength training. Each athlete will uniquely respond to training stimulus, so it is important to be on the lookout for signs of overtraining and adjust the training plan to keep them performing at their peak, injury free.


1.  Clark M., Lucett S. NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010.

2.  Powers SK, Howley ET.; Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. Eighth Ed. New York, NY:McGraw Hill, 2012.

3.  Cheung K., Hume, P., Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Medicine, 2003;33(2):145-64.

4.  American Dietetic Association. Position of the american dietetic association, dietitians of canada, and the american college of sports medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009:514-515.

5.  Graves, J. Pollock, M., Leggett, S. et.al. Effect of reduced training frequency on muscular strength. International Journal of Sports Medicine 1988 9:316-319.

Tags: Certified Personal Trainer Tags: Fitness Tags: heart rate Tags: Sports Performance Tags: Workout Plans Tags: athlete Tags: Recovery

The Author

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, CNC, is the Content Strategist with NASM and AFAA. A 20+ year veteran of the fitness industry, she's worked with the top certification and continuing education groups. At NASM and AFAA she drives the content for American Fitness Magazine, blog and the social media platforms. Stacey received her degree in Athletic Training/PE from San Diego State University and an MS in Exercise Science from CalU, plus credentials in Health Promotion Management & Consulting (UCSD), Instructional Technology (SDSU), group fitness and yoga. Previous San Diego Fall Prevention Task Force Chair, she’s developed continuing education curriculum for fitness organizations in addition to personal training, writing, and co-coaching youth rec soccer.