Overtraining: What and Why?

With many individuals new to the sport in 2020, there is a renewed focus on training methods for both newcomers and sage veterans. Running is often sold as a particularly straightforward pastime, to the point where consistency in training can sometimes be misinterpreted as more effort equating to greater returns.

The most experienced of runners can have periods where performances plateau, or motivation for training is lacking. This isn’t an indicator of lack of effort or commitment, sometimes a warning flag of sorts that the athlete has allowed themselves insufficient recovery.

Athletics Victoria have collated a review of overtraining information, pointing runners in the direction of strategies to avoid it, or rectify a flat training spot.

What is it?

Overtraining is often referred to colloquially as “feeling flat” or “burnt out”, more comprehensively phrased as an imbalance between training and fatigue, where physiological stress exceeds recovery of exercise capacity (Joyce and Lewindon, 2014; Lehman et al, 1993).

Why does it occur? How can it be averted?

Overtraining tends to be categorised into physiological, psychological or hormonally excessive stress. Given there are folk far wiser than myself in the area, there are reference links to more information at the base of the page.

The reasoning behind mentioning different types of overtraining centres on discouraging oversimplification.

Athletes can be particularly detail oriented, eager to have an immediate fix for an issue that can build up over a longer period of time. The breadth of reasons that can lead to overtraining highlights that the ‘fix’ can involve a variety of changes – but the easiest variable for us all to focus on is that – variety.

At times, concepts surrounding fatigue or the avoidance of it encourage complete rest. In the case of overtraining, rest and variety of training stimulus can be mixed effectively.

A concept established relatively early in overtraining research – inclusion of variety in training leads to new stimuli. Something as simple as a change in training venue, type of training session, or order of intervals can expose an athlete to new physical and psychological stimulus to adapt to. Inversely, repeated running routes or monotonous types of training can increase the likelihood of overtraining (Meeusen et al, 2013).

Additional resources

Sports scientist and University of Houston Cross Country coach Steve Magness provides additional discussion on overtraining here: https://www.scienceofrunning.com/2019/04/overtraining-three-strategies-to-reset-your-body.html?v=47e5dceea252

Magness provides insight on how strategies as manageable as spending time outside, or altering specific training sessions can bring an athlete out of a perceived slump. Magness refers to a recent British Journal of Sports Medicine study that found exercising outdoors was related to athletes entering a ‘positive recovery state’, where psychological health and willpower improved when consistently spending time outdoors.

For coaches looking for an extensive literary review of the topic, I’d recommend Tom Goodwin’s work: http://www.tomgodwin.co.uk/blog/academic-writingpresentations/academic-article-overtraining-generic-principles-for-sport/

What does this all mean?

For the recent or regular runner, feeling flat or particularly fatigued for prolonged periods might be an indicator of overtraining. It’s not a rare situation, which should reassure runners, it’s also a situation which can be remedied.

In such a scenario, athletes may utilise some of the variety-based strategies above to refresh their training week. If difficulties persist, this could be a productive time to discuss your training with your coach, or an exercise physiologist.


Joyce, D. and Lewindon, D. (2014) High-performance training for sports. Leeds: Human Kinetics.

Lehmann, M., Foster, C., & Keul, J. (1993). Overtraining in endurance athletes: a brief review. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Meeusen, R., Duclos, M., Foster, C., Fry, A., Gleeson, M., Nieman, D., … & Urhausen, A. (2013). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: Joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). European Journal of Sport Science, 13(1), 1-24.