The practice of physical exercise produces both psychological and physical benefits. But, in some cases, h acer sport can also be counterproductive , as anything taken to the extreme can be harmful.

Physical exercise addiction is one of those phenomena that has attracted the attention of psychologists, but so has Staleness or Overtraining Syndrome . This syndrome has been seen more, but not exclusively, in athletes.

Overtraining Syndrome causes a decline in athlete performance

As we saw in the article on runnorexia, excessive physical exercise can lead some people to severe addiction . In contrast, in other cases excessive physical training can lead to the opposite, for example: feelings of fatigue, lethargy, loss of vigour, insomnia, depression etc., and this is what happens in Staleness .

Together with these symptoms, the Overtraining Syndrome ( SSE ) is characterized by a decrease in the athlete’s performance, caused by stressors that are a consequence of excessive training and the absence of adequate recovery a. Other extra-sporting stressors (social, occupational, economic, nutritional, etc.) also favor the appearance of this syndrome.

Overtraining syndrome is associated with prolonged and/or excessive training and inadequate recovery

The correct sports planning is very important because it allows the athlete to adjust to the General Adaptation Syndrome , that is, it allows the athlete’s body to adapt to the training and stimuli that cause stress (physical, biochemical or mental).

Therefore, a good planning contributes to increase the sport performance, and the alternation between work and rest allows a sufficient recovery and an improvement in the physical qualities of the individual .

Overtraining Syndrome: The Burnout of Athletes

Any training session is likely to cause a state of fatigue (acute), but n or acute fatigue should be confused with Overtraining Syndrome , which refers to chronic and widespread fatigue and also presents psychological symptoms, such as emotional fatigue, apathy or depression.

The mechanisms of acute fatigue depend on the duration and intensity of the exercise, but when fatigue is prolonged, there is a serious decline in sports performance, accompanied by a set of physiological and psychological symptoms of exhaustion. In many cases, this can lead to the abandonment of sports practice .

Some authors use the term in Burnout or “being burned out” (more used in the field of work) to talk about Staleness, since both are characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced self-realization.

Symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome

Many studies have been conducted to provide information on Overtraining Syndrome, and it has been concluded that the symptoms described so far vary from subject to subject.

However, the American Physical Therapy Association has established a set of symptoms that are frequently present when an individual suffers from Staleness . It is important to highlight that not necessarily all of them will appear. The symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome are the following:

  • Physical and Physiological : increased blood pressure and increased heart rate during rest, breathing problems, high body temperature, hypotension, weight loss, loss of appetite, increased thirst, gastrointestinal problems and muscle aches.
  • Immunological : vulnerability to infections (especially of the respiratory tract) and reduction of the body’s defences, decreased ability to avoid injuries, decreased speed of healing, decreased production of red blood cells (increased fatigue).
  • Biochemicals : increased cortisol (stress related hormone), adrenaline, serotonin, increased plasma fatty acids, decreased muscle glycogen, hemoglobin, iron and ferritin.
  • Psychological : mood disorders (e.g. depression), lethargy, anxiety and irritability, decreased motivation, lack of concentration, low stress tolerance, low self-esteem and lack of confidence, loss of libido, sleep disorders and feeling of exhaustion (physical and emotional).

The importance of psychological indicators in diagnosis

For both psychopathology and sports psychology, Stanleness arouses a lot of interest. Psychological indicators are very important for the diagnosis.

Previously, apart from the decrease in sports performance, other physiological variables had been suggested as possible markers of this syndrome , for example decreases in heart pressure or elevations in cortisol level. These markers, however, have not proven to be reliable markers.

Over time, experts have realized that the best indicators for this syndrome are psychological or psychophysiological. A very useful and widely used tool in the world of sport and physical training is the “Profile of Mood States (POMS) “.

A questionnaire that evaluates the following emotional states: tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue and confusion . Normal people tend to score lower on negative emotions (confusion, fatigue, etc.) and higher on positive ones (vigor). This is known as the “iceberg profile”. In contrast, people with SSS score inversely.

Unlike physiological markers, the POMS tool is cheaper, scores are easy to obtain and its determination is non-invasive. Therefore becomes an ideal tool for the diagnosis of Staleness .

Causes and consequences for the SSE organism

Due to the complexity of this phenomenon, looking only at physiological factors would be biased towards this condition. The causes of Staleness and the damage it produces in the organism are still not completely clear .

Neurological factors

According to Armstrong and Van Hees’ model, the hypothalamus seems to have an important function , as it would activate both the Sympathetic-Adenomuscular Axis (SAM) involving the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-adrenocortical Axis (HPA). It is not the aim of this article to explain this model, as it can be quite complex.

Now, as an idea, it is important to understand that neurotransmitters would play an important role in this syndrome . For example, serotonin, which seems to play a very important role in Staleness.

Psychological and physiological factors

Regarding the body’s immune response, another complementary model seems to indicate that due to overtraining, lack of rest and other factors that favour the appearance of the syndrome (for example psychosocial stress or psychological problems of the individual), what is known as Smith’s ” Cytosine model” would be produced.

This model states that excessive and prolonged training combined with other causes, would increase the number of cytosines resulting from skeletal muscle, bone and joint trauma caused by overtraining. These changes are related to a depression of the immune function and may expose the individual to an increased risk of experiencing infections and diseases.

Treatment of Overtraining Syndrome

The treatment should be used on the different symptoms that the patient presents, and usually begins with the physical aspect, treating the physiological symptoms. Once the physiological symptoms have been treated, the psychological symptoms can be addressed, which require the presence of a psychologist . Regaining control over sleep hygiene and a proper diet are also very important.

With regard to physical training, and despite the fact that some specialists propose the total suspension of physical exercise, it seems to be more effective to regulate it adequately and not to suspend it completely. To begin with, it is important to work on regenerative resistance, through swimming, cycling or jogging . Gradually, the volume and intensity should be increased and there should be an adequate relationship between the progressive load of the training and recovery.

Bibliographic references:

  • Kellmann M. (2002). Underrecovery and overtraining. In: Enhancing recovery, preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, 1-24.
  • Palmer C. and Mitchell J. L. (2015). When (or how) do the Olympics become ‘stale’? Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 18(3), 275-289.