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How to recognise and minimise overtraining in your athletes

Brian Mackenzie explains the signs and symptoms of overtraining and provides a method to monitor athletes for the onset of overtraining.

The bottom line in sports conditioning and fitness training is stress, not mental stress, but adaptive body stress. Athletes must put their bodies under a certain amount of pressure to increase physical capabilities. Where the stress loads are appropriate, then the athlete's performance will improve, but if the stress loads are inappropriate, then a state of overtraining could come about for the athlete.

Signs of Overtraining

Symptoms indicating overexertion can be classified in the following way:

  • Movement coordination symptoms:
    • Increased incidence of disturbances in movement (the re-appearance of faults that seemed to have been overcome, cramp, inhibitions, insecurity)
    • Disturbances in rhythm and flow of movement
    • Lack of ability to concentrate
    • Reduced power of differentiation and correction
  • Condition symptoms:
    • Diminished powers of endurance, strength, speed. Increase in recovery time, loss of 'sparkle' (competitive qualities)
    • Reduced readiness for action, fear of competition, giving up in the face of difficult situations, especially at the finish
    • Confusion in competition, a departure from usual tactics
    • Susceptibility to demoralising influences before and during competition
    • Increasing tendency to abandon the struggle
  • Psychological symptoms:
    • Increased irritability, stubbornness, the tendency to hysteria, grumbling, defiance, increased quarrelsomeness, avoidance of contact with coach and colleagues
    • Oversensitivity to criticism, or increasing indolence, poor incentive, dullness, hallucination, anxiety, depression, melancholy, insecurity

Close observation can help eliminate the possibility of severe effects of over-stressing. As soon as symptoms are noticed, loading should be reduced, and recovery pursued. All performance checks and competition pressures must be removed, and active recovery put in their place.

Causes of Overtraining

It is possible to categorise certain factors, if permitted to accumulate, which will bring about a state of overtraining. They are as follows:

  • Recovery is neglected (mistakes in the build-up of training cycles, inadequate use of general exercise sessions for recovery)
  • Inappropriate increase in the frequency of training or the extent of loading or density of loading
  • Demands are increased too quickly, so that adaptation cannot be consolidated
  • A too rapid increase of loading after forced breaks (injuries, illness)
  • Too great an extent of loadings of maximum and sub-maximum intensity
  • Too high an intensity of duration loadings in endurance training
  • Excessive and forced technical schooling in complicated courses of movement without adequate recovery
  • Excess of competitions with maximum demands, combined with frequent disturbance of the daily routine and insufficient training
  • An excessive bias of training methods and units

Factors Reducing Performance

Performance can also be affected by the following factors:

  • Lifestyle:
    • Inadequate sleep, irregular routine by day
    • Use of alcohol and nicotine
    • Excess of caffeine
    • Bad living conditions (noise, overcrowding, inadequate light, etc.)
    • Overstimulating company
    • Lack of free time or inability to make good use of free time (no relaxation)
    • Nutritional deficiencies (lack of vitamins)
    • Rush and hurry
    • Frequent necessity to adjust body-weight
    • Taking on more stresses when already at capacity
  • Environment:
    • Overburdening with family duties
    • Tensions within the family (parents, husband, wife)
    • Difficulties in personal relationships
    • Dissatisfaction with career, studies, school
    • Bad assessment and marks in school, in studies, etc.
    • Conflict of attitudes to a sport (family, superiors)
    • Excess of stimuli (TV, cinema)
    • An increased burden in one area of the environment (e.g. final exams, A levels)
  • Health Upsets:
    • Feverish colds, stomach or intestinal upsets
    • Chronic illnesses
    • After the effect of infectious illness


A Profile of Mood States (POMS) (McNair et al. 1971)[1] was developed for people undergoing counselling or psychotherapy. The questionnaire gained popularity among sportsmen and women and was introduced into the sports world in 1975. POMS, which contains 65 questions, has subsequently demonstrated that it can be used successfully to assess performance status in athletes.

Owen Anderson used a shorter questionnaire to monitor the performance status of the athletes he coached. Each morning the athletes assess themselves against the following six questions:

  • I slept well last night
  • I am looking forward to today's workout
  • I am optimistic about my future performance
  • I feel vigorous and energetic
  • My appetite is great
  • I have little muscle soreness

They rate each statement on the following scale:

  • 1 - Strongly disagree
  • 2 - Disagree
  • 3 - Neutral
  • 4 - Agree
  • 5 - Strongly agree

If their score is 20 or above, then they have probably recovered enough to continue with the training program. If their score is below 20, then they consider rest or an easy workout until their score rises again.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) How to recognise and minimise overtraining in your athletes. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 6 / October), p. 1-2


  1. McNAIR, D. et al. (1971) Manual for the Profile of Mood States. San Diego, CA: Educational and Industrial Testing Services.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) How to recognise and minimise overtraining in your athletes [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.