During last week’s U.S. Olympic Trials, four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel shared she’d been diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) around March, which required a three-week break from swimming in April.
Manuel spoke to the press about her struggle with OTS and with her mental health after she failed to qualify for women’s 100 freestyle at the Olympics, the same event in which Manuel won 2016 Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro.
It’s remarkable Manuel qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the 50-meter free on Sunday. Her comeback should be a message to athletes everywhere that something like OTS is not a career-killer.
In the meantime, let’s dive deeper into OTS and its symptoms.
What is Overtraining Syndrome?
Most importantly, above all else, the term syndrome does not mean disease. This is according to Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones, MD, at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City, who says syndromes “…are defined by a group of signs or symptoms. And you may not have to have all of them, but you might have two from one group and one from the other to have a syndrome. It is not a disease.”
No X-ray, MRI, or blood test will confirm a syndrome diagnosis. To diagnose an individual with OTS, the assessment is made based on commonly associated symptoms like fatigue, muscle soreness, and an elevated heart rate, even well after exercise.
And in the case of Manuel, those symptoms lead to others that affect the mind more like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Without proper sleep, the body copes worse with fatigue. In other words, some may describe the experience of OTS as a vicious cycle.
OTS in layman’s terms means burnout, which is the accumulation of too much training that pushes an athlete beyond the brink of their physical and mental limits. Research says experiencing OTS is incredibly rare.
But endurance athletes under the age of 30 like Manuel (24), who practice and compete year-round, appear the most at risk of developing OTS over the course of their career.
Symptoms and Warning Signs
If you are an athlete, particularly one who participates in a sport like swimming, cross-country, or track and field, be aware of the following symptoms for OTS:
- Chronic muscle aches and joint pain
- Elevated heart rate at rest, post-exercise
- Extended recovery time
- Weight loss
- Trouble sleeping, poor quality sleep
- Decreased sports performance
- Tension, depression
- Basic tasks seem difficult (ex. walking upstairs)
Related: Midseason Burnout: Are You At Risk?
Is OTS Curable?
Again, OTS is not a disease and no tests will confirm whether someone has it or not. The same could be said about a “cure.” If something can’t be diagnosed with complete certainty, then should anyone feel safe undergoing a procedure or taking medication to remedy the situation?
At this time, the medical community continues to gather more information about OTS.
It may have been particularly stressful for Manuel to take time away from training so close to the U.S. Olympic Trials. But as of right now, the prescription for alleviating symptoms of OTS is hitting pause.
Giving the body an extended period of rest and recuperation does not mean OTS will go away; it may return once an athlete returns to training. At this point, the individual must be mindful of their load management.