Over Reaching or Over Training?

Its that time of year, with the Spring Marathon season just around the corner, when lots of people up their running volume and intensity in an effort to reach the training goals on their training plan.  Sometimes this can lead over training (OT) and injury.  But what (apart from the obvious) is overtraining? How do we define it? Recognise it? Manage it? In this post I aim to provide some kind of definition, differentiate between over reaching and over training and provide some info on how to manage the two conditions.

Over Reaching Vs Over Training? Non Functional Over-Reaching (NFOR) can be defined as:

“When athletes do not sufficiently respect the balance between training and recovery”

Meeusen et al. (2006)

And is different, although not easily distinguishable from over training.  The defining characteristic of which, is an reduction in the ability to perform at established levels, which may persist for weeks or months (Matos et al., 2011).  By the way these two terms are different to the regular “overload” we do in our training to get adaptations and improvements in our physical fitness.  The main difference between the two conditions appears to be recovery time. Recovery for NFOR can be measured from days to a couple of weeks, whereas OT can take weeks to months to recover from.

Who is affected?

NFOR and OT can affect both endurance and non-endurance athletes (Matos et al., 2011), but measuring the exact incidence of rates can be difficult due to the difficulty establishing set characteristics and measurable markers.  The range of the incidence of OT varies greatly, dependant on whether the measurements were over a single training season (21% in swimmers) or a whole career (60% in elite runners). It is more like to be more common in elite athletes, with high training volumes and intensities.

Signs and Symptoms of NFOR & OT

This can be split into 3 main areas: Physical, Psychological, Psychosocial.


  • The defining characteristic is a reduction in the ability to perform at established levels.
  • Reduced sleep disturbances, despite fatigue.
  • Increase in perceived effort during normal training.
  • Increased upper respiratory tract infections. Thought to be due to a depressed immune system secondary to chronic physical and emotional stress.
  • Increased frequency of injuries.
  • Muscle heaviness, during and after training.


  • Reduced enjoyment during training.
  • Lack of confidence and feeling intimidated by opponents.
  • Frequent mood changes, especially feeling sad during competition or training.


    • Multiple stressors from family/own expectations, busy/work school life.
    • Sport is often the most important factor in an athletes life and can often lead to reduced involvement in aspect of an athletes life outside their sport.

Possible cycle of psychosocial factors during NFOR & OT

Managing NFOR & OT

      1. Rest and recover – this is the most important aspect of managing NFOR and OT, you must allow the body and mind to recover. Encourage normal sleeping patterns.
      2. Training modification – reduction in volume and intensity and change from single sport/discipline to include cross-training.
      3. Communicate – athletes try to communicate with family, friends and coaches. Coaches and parents communicate with the individual.
      4. Resumption of training should be tailored to the athlete, based on their signs and symptoms and monitored and modified accordingly.

Prevention This can be more difficult than it may first seem. The effects of overtraining can take place of a protracted period and so changes in performance and general health can be quite subtle. Mood state can influence the willingness of the athlete to recognise the symptoms of over-training and thus become worse.  The points below may help:

      • By keeping a training log and note of race results (i.e. for 10k races) it is easier to identify patterns before they develop into problems.
      • Ensuring that you are getting adequate sleep and recovery. Plan this into your training week and make rest days exactly that.
      • If you compete in one individual sport (i.e. swimming or running) try and introduce some cross training into your week.
      • Keep your training varied and fun (that should be the main reason why we exercise after all)

This was a bit of a long post for me, but I hope you’ve found it useful. Feel free to leave a comment/feedback (but probably best to not comment about my lack of artistic ability!).

Best wishes


MATOS, N. F., R. J. WINSLEY, and C. A. WILLIAMS. (2011) Prevalence of Nonfunctional Overreaching/Overtraining in Young English Athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 43:7, 1287–1294.
MEEUSEN, R., DUCLOS, M., GLEESON, M., REITJENS, G., STEINACKER, J. and URHAUSEN, A. (2006). Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the Overtraining Syndrome. European Journal of Sports Science 6:1, 1-14.

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