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Detecting and Avoiding Overtraining Part II: Warning Signs

By Lee Gardner and Walter F. DeNino

In last week's article, we looked at the use of heart rate variability (HRV) as a tool for detecting a state of overtraining in an athlete. While the utility of using HRV alone is somewhat inconclusive, there are additional pieces of information that are helpful indicators of an overtrained state. Recognizing and identifying this information will help any coach or athlete avoid the series of events that could destroy a triathlon season.

To begin, let's review the spectrum of various states of fatigue as defined in our previous article. Specifically, we cited functional over-reaching (FOR), non-functional over-reaching (NFOR) and overtraining syndrome (OTS) as points on a spectrum of cumulative fatigue. Ideally, FOR is the state an athlete is trying to impose by applying adequate stress to the body so as to illicit a response that, once recovered from, will result in an increased level of fitness. Continuously over-reaching without proper recovery leads to NFOR, which, if an athlete ignores, will inevitably progress to OTS, or as we like to say "the ever-deepening pit of fatigue."

All triathletes can relate to the concept of overtraining. In pursuit of our goals we either train too much or too intensely and ultimately slip beyond the point of recovery. Working with a coach is one way to make this less likely as he or she should be able to objectively and subjectively detect a state of overtraining and make adjustments in your program in real time. For those without the luxury of working with a coach, it is still possible to maintain an awareness of your level of fatigue.

As such, it is necessary to have an understanding of symptoms that can occur as your body traverses from FOR to NFOR and beyond along the spectrum of overtraining. These symptoms manifest in numerous ways, including physical, emotional, and behavioral changes that most would easily notice. Below is a list of common symptoms brought on by overtraining. Keep in mind that each athlete will respond differently to overtraining, and may or may not experience any or all of the symptoms listed here. It may be useful to share this information with a spouse, significant other or housemate, and most certainly your coach, in order to aid in early detection.

Physical Changes that indicate possible overtraining:
1.      Unintended weight loss or weight gain
2.      Persistent increase in muscle soreness, even with standard/easy to moderate effort workouts
3.      Increase in Resting Heart Rate by more than 5 beats per minute
4.      Slower than normal recovery of heart rate after a hard effort
5.      Lingering muscle and joint pain
6.      Swollen lymph nodes or "glands"
7.      GI problems -- specifically, diarrhea or constipation
8.      Minor abrasions heal slowly
9.      "Heaviness" or "sluggish feeling" that lasts for more than 24 hours after standard workouts
10.  A decrease in physical performance, particularly, during standard workouts

Emotional Changes that indicate possible overtraining:
1.      Loss of joy for competition
2.      Desire to quit
3.      Loss of general enthusiasm
4.      Easily irritable or heightened impatience or annoyed by otherwise normal interactions with others
5.      Complaints of being bored

Behavioral Changes that indicate possible overtraining:
1.      Loss of ability to concentrate for long periods of time
2.      Loss of appetite
3.      Loss of coordination
4.      Loss of libido
5.      Changes in sleep habits or inability to get quality sleep or unable to sleep

Identifying any number of these changes in an athlete may or may not indicate that a state of overtraining exists. However, tracking changes throughout the athlete's training can help identify whether he or she is moving towards or even already in this state, and more importantly, action can be taken early to prevent NFOR and OTS.

trismarterLee Gardner is a triathlon coaching associate with  as well as a USA Triathlon Certified Level 1 triathlon coach. Walter F. DeNino is the president and founder of Visit to learn more about their personalized coaching options such as Tri4Life and Tri2Lose as well as innovative Eat2Win sports nutrition services. Contact or call 917.825.1451 for more information. strives to provide the highest quality internet-based triathlon coaching and sports nutrition services for the everyday triathlete and novice. These services are based on an understanding of the sport and tailored to the expectations and needs of each and every client. Our services address every aspect of triathlon preparation: Tri4Life personalized coaching, Tri2Lose weight loss and Eat2Win sports nutrition. At, we celebrate the journey along with our clients from start to finish.

Adapted from Lore of Running4th EditionT Noakes, Human Kinetics (2003)