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Overtraining – When There Isn’t Enough Time to Recover

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.

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The Author

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS

Stacey Penney, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS

Stacey Penney 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.


  1. Shlomo Fishman- NASM CPT
    July 28, 2013 at 11:48 pm — Reply

    As a NASM-CPT and future PES,
    My specialty is focused on endurance athletes, as mentioned above; every athlete responds differently. Personally Iv’e put my athletes through some tough training plans, and the reason why they are able to train for long periods of time, is the recovery. Bad recovery = Bad performance in the gym.
    That’s all. Make sure your athletes eat, and sleep properly.
    Good luck!

  2. wiliiam weiss
    July 29, 2013 at 5:52 am — Reply

    I am currently ready to sit for the NASM exam and look forward to a career in PT

  3. Ben
    July 29, 2013 at 1:28 pm — Reply

    “Though rest intervals are important between sets, too long of a break can reduce the adaptations to training and decrease neuromuscular activity.” I bet if Kirk Karworski hadn’t waited more than the scientifically-proven 5 minutes between sets during his training he coulda squatted that 1000lbs way more than just 2 times. All those people who actually train to get strong sure don’t know how to organize their rest times.

  4. MIchael
    August 5, 2013 at 6:59 pm — Reply

    Hi, I have over-trained for about 8-9 years consistently (no joke). I am now 30, and since I was about 21 I would train hard almost every day. For a couple years I was training hard 6x/week and one light day. Then I added in one rest day. I would take off 2 or 3 days here and there and a rest week maybe once per year. I did cardio almost every training day for about 45 minutes, which I now realize was way to much; and a lot of it was moderate to high intensity cardio. In the past 2 months my body has completely broken down. I have many nagging muscle injuries and pain. My knees are in great pain as well, one of my major concerns. I recently obtained medical insurance for he first time in about 10 years so I am only now able to get bloodwork/mri’s, ect. My blood work came back very good with the only issue being my T was low (this is weird because my energy level, physique, aggression is that of something with High T). It came in at 279. I feel this may be from overtraining. I am going this week to my GP to see the recent test results and if T is still low he is going to prescribe me a Test-supplement such as androgel.

    Besides good genetics, my diet is nearly perfect; I take every important vitamin, natural anti-inflammatories, and use supplements to help recovery and protein synthesis. I am 5’8″ about 160-165 lbs, very lean, and have a well built physique.

    Recently I injured my right Sartorius leg muscle. I took off a week, then resumed exercise but it wouldn’t heal. I started PT a few weeks ago and it has helped only a little. I am very disconcerted in general but especially with this injury because I will warm it up, stretch it, and then later the muscle will be very sore and tender. It’s like if you don’t stretch it, it re-pulls, and if you do-stretch it, it re-pulls.

    Last week I threw down my cards and decided to take 2 full weeks off to try and reset my CNS and heal my injuries. Today starts week 2. To be honest my injuries are still prevalent and I feel like doing the most harmless action triggers a pain response from some of muscle injuries. Simply stretching my shoulders the other day triggered a small re-strain on my right pec. Then this morning, doing nothing out of the ordinary my right tricep strained slightly(and this was one of the injuries I thought had healed up by now).

    I would really appreciate your advice as to how to go about recovering my body from years of punishment and lack of time to recover. I assume that my body adjusted to not recovering for so long that this is actually a shock to it and it takes a little time for the body to equal itself out again. I’ve been going to acupuncture, I go to PT, use a foam roller, roller stick; Anything that can help me.

    When I come back I am changing my whole regiment: weight training 5x/week, and cardio 3-4x/week. Less volume of weights as well. I have/had very long workout sessions.

    I feel that my scenario is very specific and not so common especially how long and hard I have over-trained. Its amazing I haven’t broken down already. I think that at 30 my body cant recover as fast and allow me to keep training without injury. I’m not old by any means but we all surely recover faster at 21 than we do at 30.

    I may have not supplied enough pertinent info for you to properly advise me so please let me know if you need more info.



  5. September 28, 2013 at 7:57 am — Reply

    Overtraining can also increase biological stress level of the body, because of not enough time to recover.

  6. […] best thing you can do when you’re sore is to not overtrain. If your legs are so sore you can’t walk down the stairs, don’t go to the gym and lift […]

  7. April 3, 2016 at 12:51 am — Reply

    […] it comes down to it, over-training occurs when the body doesn’t have enough time to recover, and can manifest in the following ways: elevated resting heart rate and blood pressure loss of appetite and weight […]

  8. […] remember that too much too soon can be just as detrimental as not training at all. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, overtraining occurs when an individual is training beyond the body’s ability to recover. As a […]

  9. November 8, 2016 at 12:42 am — Reply

    […] “If you’re sore a lot, you may be overtraining and getting worse results,” Brookbush says. One 2012 study found that overtraining can boost […]

  10. February 1, 2017 at 7:36 pm — Reply

    […] If their resting heart rate starts to be consistently higher (or lower) than normal, they might be overtraining. Ask about other signs, like fatigue, and watch to see if performance is lagging. If so, it might […]

  11. […] and in quick succession increase injury risk, Hoolihan says. Also, HIIT is often so intense that overtraining is an easy mistake. Evidence also suggests it’s an ineffective hypertrophy builder for those […]

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