Overtraining Syndrome

Too Much Of A Good Thing IS Bad

Learning The Hard Way:

After my senior year of high school, when I was 18 years old, I was asked to compete in NCAA track & field. I was fast, but by far not the fastest. My best event in high school was the 300 meter hurdles. I went on to become a 400 meter and 400 hurdle specialist at the NCAA level. Sports Illustrated rates the 400 hurdles as the hardest race in Track and Field. I wasn’t strong or explosive enough to run the 200 meter and I didn’t have the endurance to run anything 800 meters or above. My hurdle technique was good and I was tall for a track athlete standing above 6 feet. I guess the 300 and 400 hurdles came my way by default rather than choice. I hadn’t experienced overtraining syndrome at the h.s. level

I spent a lot of time in the weight room, but unknowingly worked out all the wrong things in all the wrong ways. I was always one of the hardest working athletes on the track but later learned I wasn’t the smartest when it came to my preparation. I did the traditional 10, 8, 6, 4 rep routines in the weight room. We had “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” when I was in high school which was the most widely known universal program amongst high school strength coaches in the area. I lifted arms A LOT MORE than any other part of my body. I wanted to look the part. I was incredibly lean but I wasn’t explosive. I looked fit but lacked endurance. I squatted 1.3x my body weight while National Champions are at almost 3 times that amount. I weighed in at 169 pounds and carried about 5% body fat.

I began my NCAA track career running the 400 meter race at around 49 seconds. At my first 300 meters of each 400 meter race, I would lead right out in front. My remaining 100 meters would almost always bring me to finish in back. The solutions presented to me screamed “YOU’RE OUT OF SHAPE.” If I was to compete at this level, I was instructed to run a mile before AND after practice everyday. The goal was to gain more endurance. I was instructed to put in “MORE VOLUME.” It made sense to me, so I did as I was told. Shockingly, I left NCAA competition running the same race in 55. My development had me running some of the worst times I had recorded since I started the sport.

Was I really so underprepared to run at this level? The answer was yes. My biological system wasn’t geared towards the level of intensity required to be successful for that duration of time. Energy system training is an entirely different conversation but I only later learned that what I actually needed was to become as explosive as possible over a 47 second duration. To put this into perspective, our world record holder, at the time, was the most explosive human on earth over a 43 second duration. It just so happened to take him and his gold shoes the distance of 400 meters.

 At the NCAA level, I was severely overloaded. There were times that I couldn’t get out of bed. I literally would sleep 14-16 hours a day. The sleep wasn’t enough. My recovery was poor and my preparation in the weight room didn’t exist. It couldn’t. I was too busy running 6 minute miles. I didn’t take supplements and wasn’t ever hungry enough to refuel. My biological system was headed in the wrong direction and I had severe overtraining syndrome. I was working harder than anyone else and yet I was getting worse. Overtraining and the inability to gain strength made me look “out of shape” as I was constantly told. I was on a slippery slope that didn’t allow me to eat or to get quality sleep. My issues kept stacking on top of themselves and I had no idea it was even happening.

Key Terms:

Volume: Load x Sets x Reps (ie 132lbs x 4 x 5 = 2,640)

Intensity: Moving weight at a max effort or the intent to move maximum weight at the rep count provided. Max effort is key.

Great T-Naton Article on Volume and Intensity.

What is Overtraining?

“I have defined overtraining as a syndrome because it can have various signs and symptoms, depending on the individual. The overtraining syndrome is an imbalance in a simple equation: Training = Workout + Recovery.” – Dr. Phil Maffetone

Overtraining occurs when an athlete is training at a rate that exceeds its rate of recovery. Without adequate nutrition, rest and recovery, training will actually decrease performance, hinder cognitive ability and ultimately nullify what “training” is actually meant to accomplish.

CNS Overtraining Syndrome

Many people don’t understand the difference between muscular and central nervous system (CNS) overtraining. Muscular overtraining occurs when the skeletal muscule system is not given sufficient downtime to repair broken-down tissues. For instance, if you were to work your hams and glutes intensely Tuesday and then go back into the gym on Wednesday to hit them again, you could run the risk of not allowing them to recover, thus suffer from overtraining.

 Central nervous system (CNS) aka, overtraining syndrome is something entirely different. Imagine a light bulb as your nervous system and your brain is a turn dial light switch. The switch dictates the amount of current the lightbulb receives. If you turn the light bulb on at full power and don’t allow it time to shut off daily, the light bulb will overheat and burn out at a faster rate. Similarly, this “electrical overload” may result in shaking, cramping, uncoordinated movements and mental cloudiness. Have you ever done a stair workout and after an hour had your legs shake while trying to walk back down to your car? Welcome to CNS overload.

How Much CNS Stress Is TOO MUCH?

This is where things get tricky. Athletes range all along the CNS “volumeability” spectrum. “Volumeability” ranges from age, athletic history, adaptations, and “recoverability.” Programming for a wide range of athletes, typically seen in high school settings, is incredibly difficult. In the typical team setting, shooting for the safe range of every athlete in a program is generally the best bet to ensure success across the group. We typically will see the 12-16 set programs in larger team settings to avoid any unsafe CNS stress, as well as avoid any unsafe movements that tend to result from fatigue. This weight room 12-16 set programming doesn’t include the additional stress that comes from speed and agility sessions, practice, or competition.

Example Basic Team Setting Routine:


4×3 Power Clean

4×6 Squat

4×6 Box Jumps

4×6 RDL’s

Core / Auxilary lifts

We’ve worked with athletes of all ages and abilities. We’ve seen Elite level athletes successfully recover from 100 sets per week of high intensity work. We’ve also seen top level athletes crash after a much lower weekly load. Each athlete’s ability to maintain positive nutrition and appropriate sleep habits will obviously allow for a higher set count to be maintained throughout their weekly program. The higher set counts and ultimately higher volume need to be kept constant across all seasons and preparation timeframes to ensure athletic progress and safety. If practice demand increases, weight room time must go down. You can only expand the body’s ability to recover so much before it’ll hit its limits. The division of high intensity work should be carefully planned according to sport demands. This is planned throughout the year and should look like something similar to the charts below.

*Programming and periodization may very on sport as some sports have several seasons and / or vary in length. 

Selected high intensity exercises that typically place a high level of stress on the central nervous system

Exercise or Activity

Rest Interval Between Sets

Intensity Level (Effort Level)

Rep Count

Post Activity CNS Overload Symptoms

Stair Sprints

2 min. – Max Rest


15>Seconds 3-8 Reps

Shaking Legs, Foggy Thoughts, Lack of Coordination.

Lifting Weights Above 80% of 1RM

2 min. – Max Rest


5> Reps

1-10 Sets

Cramping, Fatigue (unable to perform the rep)

Max Effort Sprints

2 min. – Max Rest


30 Seconds>

Cramping, Inability to recover in adequate 10+ Time Span

Max Effort Agility and Deceleration

2 min. – Max Rest


1-3 Reps / 1-8 Sets

Shaking Legs, Foggy Thoughts, Lack of Coordination.

Plyometric Work

5-10 Seconds Between Reps, Max Rest Between Sets


5 Reps /

3 – 5 Sets

Shaking Legs, Foggy Thoughts, Lack of Coordination.

Compound Weight Movements Above 80%

10-15 Seconds Between Reps, Max Rest Between Sets


1-3 Reps / 1-4 Sets

Shaking, Strength Drop Off, Secondary Muscle Overuse


Signs and Common Symptoms Of Overtraining Syndrome:

  • Sluggish, lack of energy. Feels kinda like Mono
  • Mild Soreness at all times. Subtle Aches and Pains
  • Headaches
  • Inability to pay attention, A “Cloudy Mind.”
  • Increases In Blood Pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability / Mood Swings
  • Increases In Acute and Major Injuries
  • Lack of Appetite
  • Night Sweats / Cold Sweats.


  1. Elite H.S. Female Multi-Sport Athlete. Jumper, Sprinter, Volleyball.
  2. She has a weight lifting class 2x a week where she generally does 12-16 high intensity weight lifting sets.
  3. Club Volleyball Practice 3 days a week. (Jumping CONSTANTLY)
  4. Strength and conditioning following volleyball practice that usually involves 12-16 high intensity sets (jumping, weights, agility)
  5. Privatized training focusing on specific weaknesses and biomechanical imbalancing to reduce injury. Workouts are typically 1-2x a week and involve anywhere from 18-24 sets of high intensity training (weights, plyometrics, agility, speed)
  6. Track Practice. 3-5 days a week. Workouts typically involve anywhere from 12-36 high intensity sets DAILY. She typically shows up sluggish and is told she looks…………. “OUT OF SHAPE”

Solution: It’s obvious this athlete is on a path towards some serious overload. What would you do to remedy her current situation?

At Elite our solution has always been to control what we can control. It is our job to compliment and not supplement. We pride ourself in finding what the athlete has already done, and not overlap or overdo. In a private setting we are able to custom mold around existing programs and adapt to needs. In this athlete’s case, we have lowered her privatized training to limited high intensity work while trying to remedy imbalancing that may place her at risk for injury. Avoid overtraining syndrome while helping this athlete learn and develop. We will limit her strength and conditioning participation following her practices. The rest, we leave up to her.