Training programs aim at improving the level of physical condition. This can be achieved by regularly adding an extra workload on the body. The athlete’s body has to handle a bit more burden than it is used to. When – after the workout – the athlete takes sufficient time for rest and recovery the body will repair the “damage” that is caused in the workout. This process of recovery will be taken a bit further, so that the athlete will be somewhat more adapted to the overload. This extra adaptation is called “supercompensation”.

This process may be graphically represented as follows:

The thin horizontal line represents the level of performance; the higher that line the better the condition. After a strenuous workout you are fatigued and therefore even worse than before, but immediately after the workout the body starts recovering and when the old level is reached it goes on repairing so that the body will be better equipped for the next workload. After a few days this temporary phase of supercompensation will disappear again.

 Assessing the workload and the time necessary for recovery is the most difficult aspect of training. The overload may be too light, so that no adaptation will follow. Or the time of recovery is too long so that the phase of supercompensation disappears again. In that case we speak of “undertraining”.

This is an ineffective training program. The next training stimulus is given when the phase of supercompensation has passed. When the next training stimulus is given at the right time, i.e. at the peak of supercompensation, the program will be highly effective and the level of performance will go up.
This is an effective training program. The new stimulus is given at the peak of supercompensation. It is represented here as only four workouts; in practice it will take several weeks to reach the new level.


As has been said above, assessing the right overload and choosing the right span of time for rest and recovery is the difficult part of training. When the workload is too much or recovery time is too short the desired effect will not come about. On the contrary, the athlete may get worse and worse despite his hard work. This workload is not only physical; it is the sum total of physical and mental stress. Social problems may well play a role in the process of overtraining. Overtraining may occur in degrees of seriousness, often there is a sliding scale of “overstraining”, “overreaching” and “overtraining”. There is no clear dividing line between these three. The division is based on the time that is necessary to recover from it.

OVERSTRAINING is what the word says; the strain is too much. When an athlete overestimates himself and trains too hard in one or two workout(s) he will pay a price for his foolishness. He will probably have sore muscles, he will be fatigued but in about a week he will recover. His workout will not be very effective because the supercompensation phase will not occur.

An example of overstraining; the overload was too much. Recovery takes longer, but the process is reversible.

OVERREACHING is a more serious form. For a somewhat longer period of time the athlete chooses a workload that is too much or his recovery time is too short. The process is reversible but it might take some months before he is back on his previous level. There are two very different forms of overreaching; the one is intentional, the other is not. When an athlete tries to gain improvement by training slightly too hard and then takes a longer period of rest and recovery he hopes that the supercompensation phase that follows will take him to a higher level than in a “normal” program. It is often done in periods of four weeks, the first three weeks contain the hard work up to the very border of the danger zone or slightly over that line and then in the fourth week the workouts are aimed at rest and recovery. This form of training is known as “functional overreaching”. Though this approach is rather popular there is certainly a risky side to it.

Functional overreaching. The athlete intentionally trains too hard, hoping that a super-supercompensation will follow.

The other variation of overreaching is the unintentional or non-functional one. The athlete trains too hard and notices that his performance level worsens instead of improving. More often than not the response is training even harder, leading to a downward spiral. At the end he will be obliged to give up, often with a feeling of injustice. The first signs of fatigue, agitation, muscle soreness, disturbed sleep and appetite may be noticeable. It may take months to recover.

Unintentional or non-functional overreaching. Again it is here represented as three workouts; in practice it may take weeks or even months.


THE OVERTRAINING SYNDROME is the most serious of the three forms. It builds up in quite a long span of time. There is a strong similarity with a mental burn-out in the social context and very often the causes are not purely physical. Difficulties at school or at home, the loss of a loved one or other disturbing events are often seen. The severe training program is often an escape route. The time to recover from a serious overtraining syndrome may well be more than a year.

The overtraining syndrome. The stress of a heavy training program, often added to social problems, lead the athlete deep into the danger zone. Recovery takes very long. It is advisable to seek professional help.

As one may conclude: overtraining is serious business. Therefore it is certainly advisable to consult a doctor; preferably a doctor specialized in sports.


  • Performance worsens
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Muscle soreness
  • Disturbed sleeping pattern
  • Quickly irritated
  • Disturbed appetite
  • Concentration problems
  • Morning pulse higher
  • Depression


  • Don’t train too hard, train smart. For beginners: an overload of 10% is more than enough. A frequency of three workouts a week followed one day of rest will be sufficient. Elite and other well trained athletes recover better and faster so they can do more training sessions.
  • See to it that your training program offers variation.
  • Train under the supervision of an experienced and qualified trainer/coach. Be aware of the fact that not every trainer/coach is experienced and qualified.
  • Consult a doctor before it is too late.
  • Have fun.