Chronic fatigue tends to set in when you engage in prolonged periods of intense or high volume exercise without adequate rest or suitable training periodisation.

It can also occur if you suddenly increase your training volume, frequency and/or intensity, or follow a monotonous training program.

Other factors can also contribute to a physiological state characterised by chronic fatigue and lethargy. These include:

  • Emotional stress
  • Psychological stress
  • Environmental stress
  • Physiological stress
  • Sub-optimal nutrition, especially a lack of protein, vitamins and minerals, or the exclusion of carbs or fats
  • Calorie deficiencies

Managing the load

A combination of some or all of these factors ultimately determines how much training a person can handle before chronic fatigue sets in.

And without taking proactive recovery measures, active individuals will simply continue to break down their bodies and systems, specifically their muscular, neurologic, endocrine and immune systems, through the combined effects of excessive exercise and the many lifestyle-related stressors we experience.

And when athletes push through this state of fatigue, they generally progress to what the sporting community generally terms overtraining syndrome.

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However, reaching this physiological state depends on numerous factors. To understand the distinction, it is important to acknowledge that everyone is different in terms of our physiology and genetics. We also have vastly differing training histories, and all have different lifestyles. Similarly, recovery requirements also differ from person to person.

Tipping the scales

Here are 6 major tell-tale signs that could indicate that you’ve moved beyond normal training fatigue into the realm of overtraining. to look out for:

1. Persistent illness

Overtraining is generally accompanied by frequent illness, especially upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) due to an over-stressed immune system.

2. Reduced performance and an inability to progress

Anyone who is overtrained will generally find it difficult to perform due to a lack of power, endurance, strength and/or speed. This spate of poor racing or workout performances could also result from the mental fatigue that accompanies overtraining. In fact, if left unchecked, your performances will eventually start to decline over time.

3. Changes in heart rate measurements

A sure-fire way to catch early signs of chronic fatigue, which is a precursor to overtraining, is to regularly measure your resting heart rate (RHR) as soon as you wake up before you get out of bed. Recording this measurement will give you an indication of how well you’ve recovered. An increased RHR generally indicates early-stage overtraining, or the start of an illness.

Other heart rate-related factors to watch out for include your recovery heart rate – the length of time it takes your heart rate to drop once an exercise session has ended. If your heart rate doesn’t drop at least 12 beats in the first minute after exercise, or if your heart rate exceeds 120 bpm after five minutes or 100 bpm after ten minutes then you may be overtrained.

You may also experience reduced heart rate variability during training and a decrease in maximal heart rate. This means there’s little difference in your minimum and maximum heart rate during the session in response to changes in your pace or intensity, which results in a flattish HR graph with few peaks and troughs.

In severe cases, heart palpitations can also occur. Low blood pressure, when considered in the context of these other symptoms, is another related cardiovascular indicator.

4. Poor recovery

The length of time it takes you to recover between exercise sessions or races increases when you’re overtrained. Athletes who are overtrained also experience persistently high levels of fatigue and other symptoms like prolonged muscle soreness.

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5. Uncontrolled weight loss

When you’re overtrained, your body generally works overtime to repair the damage you’ve accumulated over time. To access the energy needed to fuel this process, in addition to your on-going high training volume, your body will break down both fat and muscle as circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase.

Overtrained athletes also often experience a loss of appetite, which reduces their calorie intake and creates an even bigger calorie deficit. This can lead to severe weight loss over a relatively short period of time.

6. Psychological changes

When you are overtrained you may also experience changes in your mood, along with apathy, a loss of motivation, irritability, depression, restlessness, and a loss of libido. Your sleeping patterns may also change, often resulting in fitful sleep or even insomnia.

Chronic fatigue may require several days of rest or reduced activity to overcome, but recovery from overtraining syndrome may require weeks, months or even years of rest and treatment to cure.

So, if you don’t want to miss that big race, lose all the gains you’ve made or take yourself completely out of action, then make sure you balance your training loads with adequate rest.