All athletes want to be the best at their sports, which is why they spend countless hours in the weight room, on the field and out on the track. Most athletes think that pushing through fatigue and weakness is a way to get better and stronger. But when athletes ignore signals from their bodies to slow down and rest, they can fall victim to overtraining syndrome. For USA marathon runner Ryan Hall, the effects of the syndrome were career-ending.
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Hall recently announced he was retiring from competition, blaming low testosterone and fatigue as the main contributing factors. Many believe his symptoms are the classic signs of overtraining syndrome, which is an issue for many endurance athletes.
Researchers have known since the late 1980s that chronic and extreme endurance training has a tendency to lower testosterone levels, which can cause depression, fatigue and a loss of motivation. Most recently, exercise-induced low testosterone related to overtraining has been identified as a contributing factor in the decline of fitness, performance, energy levels and mood.
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According to Jack Raglin, a professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University Bloomington, studies have found that 34 percent of teenage competitive swimmers and 64 percent of elite American male distance runners will develop overtraining syndrome at some point in their careers.
To better understand this phenomenon, we look to the overload principle, the basic principle behind all athletic training. Athletes get fitter by pushing their bodies harder each workout; and each new overload depletes their muscle fuel stores, tears down muscle fibers, burns up neurotransmitters, and causes the secretion of various hormones, like testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. The reason athletes require rest after every hard training session is to allow their neuroendocrine recovery systems to activate by restocking fuel in their muscles, rebuilding their muscle fibers, and replenishing their depleted hormones and neurotransmitters.
According to one theory about overtraining syndrome, this recovery system can become worn out or even permanently damaged, causing the body to lose its capacity to recover from exercise. An example would be an athlete who pushes through his or her workout despite general fatigue and weakness, leading to their becoming irritable and unhappy, even depressed. They soon become so tired they can’t even finish their workouts. Future hard training sessions leave them stressed and depressed instead of excited and energized.
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The only reliable cure for overtraining syndrome is rest, which could mean taking weeks or even months off—a complete cessation of exercise. By the time the athlete has fully recovered, his or her season could be over.
Hall may have been the most promising U.S.-born marathon runner in recent years, but in less than a decade his career has come to an end because he ran too much, too often. Hall fell victim to overtraining syndrome. And it can happen to any athlete. The important takeaway is to listen to your body and know when to stop. Sometimes more is not better. Rest can be more important than a workout. Athletes can avoid Hall’s fate and learn from his experience by practicing proper nutrition, getting plenty of rest, and following a training program that meets their needs so they can reach their optimal athletic performance.