Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

ABC of Sports Medicine The overtraining syndrome

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 13 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:465
  1. R Budgett

    Wingate test showing lower peak power in overtrained athletes.


    Overtraining - hard training without adequate rest (pathological)

    Over-reaching - hard training with adequate rest (normal)

    Athletes may experience chronic fatigue for many reasons, but it often results from the stress of training and competition - when it is called the overtraining syndrome. The primary complaint is of reduced performance, which is objective and can be measured. Many athletes train at an elite level even to compete domestically, so fatigue due to the stress of training is not confined to Olympic athletes; 10% of college swimmers in the United States are described as “burning out” each year.

    The cause of the overtraining syndrome is not known and there is no diagnostic or warning test. Intensive interval work (high intensity exercise with little rest) is most likely to precipitate the syndrome, so it is extremely rare in sprinters because they train with large amounts of rest. Sprinters may, however, suffer from postviral and other forms of chronic fatigue.


    Overtraining is the process of excessive training that leads to the overtraining syndrome, which can be defined as a state of prolonged fatigue and underperformance caused by hard training and competition. There should be an objective measure of the loss of form, which will have lasted at least two weeks despite adequate rest and will have no identifiable medical cause. Symptoms of a minor infection, typically an upper respiratory tract infection, may recur each time the athlete returns to training after inadequate rest.


    Over-reaching is the process of hard training that enables athletes to reach their full potential. It is part of a planned programme to stimulate adaptation and, when combined with periods of rest, permits the normal physiological response of full supercompensation. This contrasts with the pathological response to training in the overtraining …

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