Part of staying fit is avoiding injuries. In this article, we take a look at common overtraining issues and how to avoid them.
by Alexander Stone, DPT
If you're an athlete or fitness enthusiast, you want to exercise consistently to perform your best. But what happens when we put too much energy into exercise? Unfortunately, many of us aren’t aware of the risk that overtraining injuries pose for our long-term fitness goals. But what are the most common injuries associated with overtraining, and how can you avoid them?
In this article we’ll explain what overtraining is, why it happens, the 5 most common types of overtraining injuries, and the most effective habits that you can use to prevent overtraining injuries.
In a hurry? Here’s the basics of what you should know:
- Overtraining is a state that develops due to excess training and inadequate recovery.
- Athletes are especially prone to overtraining injuries because they are constantly pushing the boundaries of their bodies, and are often under pressure to perform.
- Five of the most common overtraining injuries are tendinitis, muscle strain, ligament sprain, bursitis, and overtraining syndrome.
- Focusing on habits like warming up, stretching, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and making time for rest can help you avoid overtraining injuries and keep performing your best.
What Is Overtraining?
The term overtraining is used to describe a state that occurs when the body is unable to recover adequately between workouts, leading to habitual fatigue, persistent muscle soreness, joint pain, and other physical problems (1). Over training isn’t just physical though, and can also cause psychological issues such as anxiety or depression due to difficulty adapting to changes in your body and difficulty performing your normal activities or exercise. In addition, overtraining may lead to long-term health problems if not addressed properly.
Why Overtraining Injuries Happen
Overtraining injuries can be difficult to avoid for most people, but are especially common among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. This is because overtraining is often caused by an intense or repetitive training regimen, which is the normal routine for these groups.
The most common example of this is an athlete training for an upcoming event and entering the most intense phase of their program. During this time, frequency and intensity of exercise has been increased while resting time is likely decreased (2). This means more stress on the body with less recovery time, which can accumulate to a weakened body state over time, priming the body for injuries.
Another common example you might not have considered is an untrained individual starting an exercise program for the first time. When starting a new fitness regimen, even a very basic or otherwise low-intensity program can still be a big change compared to a sedentary lifestyle, making it challenging for the body to adapt to new stress. This is because overtraining is a relative problem, meaning that the most important factor is how much (and how quickly) the total intensity of your training plan is adjusted (3).
It’s important to know what injuries to look out for so you can adjust your training program accordingly to prevent them.
The 5 Most Common Overtraining Injuries
There are endless examples of overtraining injuries that we could cover, so let’s focus on some of the most common types of overtraining injuries that affect athletes and weekend warriors alike: tendinitis, muscle strains, ligament sprains, bursitis, and overtraining syndrome.
The word tendinitis, more recently referred to as tendinopathy, describes a painful inflammatory condition caused by overuse or overtraining of muscles and their tendons. When this happens, the affected tendons become swollen and irritated due to excessive and repetitive strain during exercise. Too much exercise without adequate rest and recovery can put an extra strain on tendons, causing them to become weakened, inflamed, and unable to withstand normal stress - this is tendinitis (4).
Some examples of tendinitis that you might be familiar with include tennis elbow, runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, and achilles tendinitis. All of these injuries are common among athletes, runners, and bodybuilders because they involve repetitive stressing of tendons that become weakened over time due to overtraining.
Muscle strain, also called muscle pull, is a common type of injury that can occur when too much stress is placed on muscle fibers, which can happen suddenly or slowly over time. When muscles are overused from repetitive activities, such as running or weightlifting, microtears can accumulate and weaken muscle tissue. With repeated stress and inadequate recovery, weakened muscle tissue becomes very likely to “overstretch” or strain. While muscle strains happen to anyone, athletes may be more susceptible due to their constant exercise and physical activity (5).
Some sports or activities are more likely to cause muscle strains. For example, a soccer player may be more likely to strain a hamstring, while a bodybuilder may be more likely to strain their biceps. When training, it’s important to remember that the muscles you use most frequently will be more susceptible to excess stress and overtraining injuries.
Ligament sprains are an incredibly common sports-related injury that can seriously impact your training plan. Ligaments are the tough connections between bones that provide stability throughout the body, and when they are strained or stretched too far, they don’t stretch back - this causes instability in the joints they cover and pain when stressed. Athletes often experience ligament sprains due to over-stressing certain joints and developing excessive irritation in ligaments that don’t tolerate stress or recover as well as other structures of the body (6).
Ligament sprains can range from insignificant stretching to complete tears, with some being very painful and requiring medical attention for proper recovery. Some ligament sprains you may be familiar with include ACL tears (common in football and soccer players), ankle sprains (common in runners and basketball players), and wrist sprains.
Bursitis is the painful inflammation of bursae, which are small fluid-filled sacs found in different parts of the body. Your bursae act to cushion connective tissue and muscles surrounding joints to reduce friction during movement and compression. When bursitis occurs, everyday activities like walking, lifting and exercise can become painful. This overtraining injury is common among athletes because repetitive use of certain muscles - or rubbing on the bursae from bone - can cause bursae to become irritated and inflamed. In addition to sports and workouts, bursitis can also be caused by underlying medical conditions such as gout or an infection around a joint (7).
One very common example of this condition is trochanteric bursitis, which affects the side of your hip. When the bursa on the side of your hip is inflamed, activities like running, kicking, and squatting or jumping become very painful. In some cases trochanteric bursitis may completely halt your training program, so preventing overtraining injuries like this should be a priority in your training regimen.
Overtraining syndrome is a condition much more complex than a simple injury, causing athletic performance and physical health to decline over time. This complex problem starts with intense fatigue and exhaustion that persists over weeks or months, eventually leading to more serious issues such as insomnia and stress fractures. In some cases, overtraining syndrome can even contribute to weakened immune systems, depression, and potential heart problems (8).
You might start noticing signs of overtraining syndrome when you don't give yourself enough time to recover between workouts or games. This is normal and happens to even the most conditioned people. However, persisting through these signs to continue exercising or playing your sport without resting will become increasingly damaging over time. Because overtraining is unique to everyone, being sensitive to your specific needs is your best defense against overtraining syndrome.
How to Prevent Overtraining
Overtraining injuries can be difficult to avoid, but there are some proven strategies to help keep your training injury-free for the long haul (9). Five strategies that you can focus on to help prevent overtraining are warming up before exercise, stretching after exercise, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep.
Warming up before exercise is an essential part of protecting yourself from developing overtraining injuries. Proper warm-up gives your body a chance to adjust to the stress that it will encounter during exercise, increasing blood flow to muscle and lubricating your joints. This helps make your movements smoother and more efficient while allowing you to safely maximize the intensity of your workout safely.
In order to get the best results, your warm-ups should include dynamic (active) stretching instead of static stretches. This is because dynamic stretching helps warm-up muscles better than static stretching, without overstretching your muscles and tendons before heavy or explosive activities. Incorporating warm-ups into your exercise routine can be a great way to ensure that you stay safe and healthy while enjoying all the benefits of your workout.
Stretching is an important component of just about any workout. Not only can stretching enhance flexibility and reduce the risk of a muscular injury, but it can also help prevent overtraining by helping relieve muscle tension and promoting recovery. Like we said earlier, stretching after your workout is recommended for best results. In this case you want to focus on static stretching, which means stretching a muscle group for a hold of 30 seconds or more.
You should aim to stretch to the point where you feel a gentle tension, but never to the point where you feel pain. Focusing on stretching in your routine is great for improving mobility, posture, and even your exercise technique.
Staying hydrated is a key pillar in preventing overtraining injuries of all kinds. In fact, drinking enough water throughout the day can help increase your energy, improve your focus and limit fatigue - all of which are essential for a successful workout session. As a general rule of thumb, athletes and fitness enthusiasts should aim to drink half of their body weight in ounces, daily, at a minimum.
Staying hydrated is also important for helping your muscles and other body tissues recover after activity, helping you prepare for your next game or workout faster. Ultimately, drinking enough water can help optimize your workout routine, recovery, and overall well being on a daily basis.
Eating healthy is essential to fuel your body and prevent overtraining injuries. This is because a well-balanced diet provides you with adequate micronutrients and macronutrients to promote tissue repair, which helps your body adapt to stress faster. Nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can help optimize your blood sugar, stabilize your energy levels, and maximize gains from training.
Vitamins and minerals are particularly important for athletes because they provide a wide range of benefits like strengthening bones, supporting muscle growth, and promoting joint health long-term (10). Eating a healthy diet with a variety of foods can also help manage inflammation associated with training, making it easier for your body to recover after a long workout. Nutrition plays a major role in preventing overtraining injuries, so make sure to watch what you eat and focus on the foods that help you perform your best.
Getting enough sleep is one of the most important, but often overlooked components of preventing overtraining injuries. When sleep and rest are given the proper time and attention, your body has a bigger opportunity for optimal recovery between workouts. This is because your muscles, joints, and nervous system need plenty of time to recover and rebuild before being seriously challenged again.
Inadequate sleep can lead to persistent fatigue and poor workout performance, impacting your performance and setting you up for injury. It may feel like pushing ourselves farther is beneficial, but often we fail to realize pushing too hard without proper sleep and rest only results in physical burn out. Make sure to get seven to eight hours of quality sleep each day so you stay alert, energized, and ready for your next workout!
Overtraining injuries are common among athletes, but there are several things that can be done to prevent them. Some of the most common overtraining injuries include tendinitis, muscle strains, ligament sprains, bursitis, and overtraining syndrome. However, by warming up before exercising, stretching after exercise, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep, you can help prevent these types of injuries and optimize your performance.
Thanks for reading!
Alex Stone is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is experienced in orthopedics and sports medicine with an emphasis on performance optimization.
Alex creates educational content for apps, websites and social media (@dr.alexstone). He is passionate about health science education, exercise science, and general health/wellness optimization.
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