Overreaching Vs. Overtraining: Balancing Fatigue And Stimulus


Recovery Is Everything

Developing more size and strength is all about adaptation. Adaptation is caused when your body is placed into an environment it’s not equipped to deal with. In terms of lifting, that environment is simply the combination of everything you do in the gym: weights, exercises, reps, sets and tempos you utilise. Everything combined, overloads your body with a stress it just simply cannot overcome successfully right off the bat. The good news is, even though these stresses will initially wear your body down somewhat (e.g. increased fatigue, more muscle soreness), your body will always have a way of coming back stronger and bigger to deal with these stresses better the next time round. This is simply all occurring through the stress-adaption cycle. However, adaptation can only successfully occur if something else is present in your training: recovery. Recovery is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of training programming, yet without it, everything else just falls apart making progress an almost impossible task to accomplish. 

The Importance Of Post-Training Recovery

In simple terms: recovery is adaptation. Following your training session (or sessions) your body needs to repair all the stress it has underwent. The only way to achieve that is through recovery. Without recovery, this post-exercise stress just translates to more stress. In other words, training without recovery leads to a downward spiral of continued bodily wear and tear acting to drive you further and further from the adaptation you need to grow. Not what you want to happen! The problem is, this post-exercise scenario occurs all too often. While many people succeed in training with enough stimulus to induce the adaptation, they don’t combine this with the needed recovery to allow the adaptation process to go to completion. 

The bottom line is, regardless of your training experience, some form of recovery has to be implemented into your training programming if you want to make progress. This can be in the form of active (e.g. utilising lower work loads than usual), non-active (taking complete days off) or, simply switching the type of stimulus you use (e.g. different exercise variation). However, whatever method of recovery you choose to implement, the important thing is, it’s planned into your programming! If not, no matter how hard you train or how flawless your nutrition is, progress will not come. This is simply because your body is not being given the opportunity, through recovery, to come back stronger and bigger over time. 


Budgett (1998). Figure shows two routes of training progress (performance) in response to balances in training stress and training recovery. If recovery is matched with training stress (through periodised training methods), the general performance trend will be upwards over time. Even in an upward trend there will be increased periods of fatigue (overreaching) needed to initiate the adaptation process. However, sufficient recovery will keep this fatigue from overwhelming the body. However, if overreaching becomes too great, and sufficient recovery is not implemented, fatigue can start to become too great, sending performance into a downward regression

Too Much Recovery Vs. Too Little Recovery

One thing I hear frequently amongst lifters is: I am feeling a little tired today, I think I might be overtrained. If you are to maximise the benefits of post-exercise recovery in your quest for progress, then you need to have an idea of when and to what extent recovery needs to be implemented in the first place. This starts with having an idea of two terms: overreaching and overtraining. Knowing these two will give you a better idea of whether you are utilising too much or too little recovery in your programming. If there is a mis-match between the extent of recovery implemented and that of the training stimulus utilised, then progress is likely to be inhibited. 


A temporary state of increased fatigue in response to an accumulation of a training stimuli that with sufficient recovery (days to weeks), will allow the body to bounce back to higher levels of fitness than previously. 


Occurs when the stress from an accumulation of training stimuli far outstrips the bodies ability to recover from it and as a result, the body enters a chronic downward spiral of increasing fatigue that does not reverse easily with implemented short-term recovery periods (days to weeks).

The reason why it’s important to know these two terms is because they help you to assess when to implement planned recovery periods and to what extent. In my experience, many people think they are heading into overtrained territory because they feel a little fatigued, while in reality, they are actually far from it! However, the risk is, if people think they are actually heading into an overtrained zone, they tend to pull back on the amount of training they do and/or increase the extent of their recovery periods. Why do this? To get rid of the fatigue you feel. This is actually likely to cause more harm than good to your progress! 

Fatigue is a necessary part of your development. It means that your body is struggling to cope with the work you are currently doing. Which is good! It means you are pushing your body out of its comfort zone and through this, forcing it to adapt. Exactly what you want. If you experience no fatigue at all then you are simply not utilising enough work to push your body out of its comfort zone. Overreaching is a necessary part of the adaptation process. In other words, you will need to induce some level of fatigue through training and combine this with post-exercise recovery to allow the adaptation process to go to completion. The level of fatigue you experience in response to training will be higher the more experienced as a lifter you become.

This happens because more experienced lifters need to utilise greater work loads in order to stimulate the adaptation process. However don’t forget, as more work is done, the body needs more recovery in order to ensure that this fatigue translates into growth and not into overtraining. If you are a slightly more advanced lifter, then higher levels of fatigue are completely normal and necessary. Even though it might feel like you are heading into an overtraining zone, you are probably far from it. If you ensure that your plan matches the level of fatigue to the extent of your planned recovery, then you will not slip into an overtrained state. 

If you are unaware of overreaching then it’s very possible that all this fatigue you experience is confused with overtraining. It does happen frequently! Many lifters see fatigue that they experience as a side effect of too much training and not enough recovery time. Well, this can be partly true. If you feel yourself getting significantly more fatigued over time and this correlates with worsened performance in the gym over time then the chances are, there is a mismatch between the amount of training you are doing and the amount of time you spend recovering. In other words, fatigue is getting out of hand and your body simply can’t keep up and overcome most of it. But, if you are feeling fatigued, are still incorporating recovery periods into your training and, making steady progress, then you are likely doing everything correct! In this case, your successfully inducing fatigue to get your body to grow, but you are also preventing this fatigue from getting out of control. Good job! 

The truth is, unless you are a complete beginner, it’s unlikely you will ever train fatigue free again. Simply because now your body has to undergo a lot more stress to make it grow. As long as you have the needed recovery to keep this fatigue in check, you will make progress and avoid this fatigue translating into a downward spiral of overtraining. 


Kellmann (2010). Figure shows the interrelation between stress states (squares) and recovery demands (circles). As shown, when the magnitude of the stress increases (e.g. more volume utilised during your training), the extent of recovery must also increase in proportion. If stress increases without an increase in recovery, then performance can regress, fatigue can overwhelm and the body is pushed further away from adaption and towards an overtraining state. Likewise, if recovery is too great, then it’s likely that the training stress is not great enough to induce adaptation. Recovery can come through reduced stress (e.g. reduced volume), a change in stress (e.g. a change in exercise) or, a break from stress (e.g. a day off the gym). 


Managing Recovery

Managing recovery is not an easy task. This is because everyone is different. Everyone has different levels of training experience, different lives outside the gym and, different genetics (e.g. work capacity, recovery capabilities). Therefore, it’s pretty difficult to set out guidelines over optimal recovery management. Also, no one really knows the point at which beneficial overreaching becomes detrimental overtraining. How much fatigue is too much? After all, a certain level of fatigue might cause adaptation in one person, while causing overtraining in someone else. It’s all very difficult to set down definitive guidelines. A lot of your recovery management is going to come down to trial and error through experience.

Although overreaching is necessary for adaptation, no one knows the boundary. The line that takes someone from overreaching into overtraining territory. However, there are some signs that have been commonly observed in overtrained people (Johnson and Thiese, 1992): 

Physiological Symptoms 

Higher resting heart rate

Changes in normal blood pressure

Delayed return to normal heart rate

Elevated basal metabolic rate

Elevated body temperature

Weight loss

Impeded respiration

Subcostal aching

Bowel disorders 

Psychological Symptoms

Sleep disturbances

Loss of self-confidence

Drowsiness and apathy 


Emotional and Motivational imbalance

Lack of appetite




Although there appears to be a huge range of symptoms seen in those who are overtrained, no two overtrained people will show the exact same symptoms. Also, these symptoms don’t tell us at what point someone is actually entering overtrained territory. Not to mention, most of these symptoms can also be caused by a huge range of other underlying problems, which might give the impression that someone is overtrained, while in fact are caused by something else not exercise related. However, as Johnson and Thiese (1992) point out, it might actually be helpful for people to regularly monitor and record any physiological as well as psychological changes over the course of their training period. The rationale is that any significant deviations from the norm could indicate an increase in risk of overtraining, thus giving people the opportunity to readjust their training before overtraining strikes.

Even though this seems like a useful method, it’s likely to be quite time consuming and extremely imprecise. Especially since these symptoms are not only caused by overtraining. It is also important to note that overtraining is not the only cause of long-term underperformance. There are a whole host of other conditions that can lead to this with the same symptoms, which makes this method even more unreliable. 

At the moment there is no test to see if someone is overtrained. Kreher and Schwartz (2012) highlight a few potential theories that might explain what is happening to cause the effects of overtraining. The hope here is that these theories might pave way for a potential clinical test. Some of these theories put forward have included changes in immune cell functions, alterations in central and peripheral nervous system activities, inflammation markers and, fluctuations in key hormone levels (e.g. cortisol). By developing tests for these changes it is hoped that we might be able to identify at what point training pushes people into the zone of overtraining and out of overreaching. Unfortunately, many studies to date have shown only inconsistent results (Kreher and Schwartz, 2012). At this time the search goes on. But it’s interesting to know what is being done! 

These efforts to try and identify the tipping point between overreaching and overtraining are not only interesting for competitive athletes, but for everyone interested in achieving the best progress possible. Being able to test for this tipping point would give people a lot more control and precision over their training. If we could accurately test for this overreaching-overtraining boundary, then it would become a lot easier to manipulate someone’s training stimuli and recovery periods to avoid overtraining, whilst keeping someone in an optimal state of overreaching (enough fatigue and recovery to allow for consistent progress without them slipping into an overtrained state).

At present, any adjustment to someone’s training is mostly done through observation of progress and how they feel. Unfortunately, ‘feel’ is not the most reliable training indicator. Especially since many people can fall into the trap of mistaking light/moderate fatigue as overtraining. While in fact, the fatigue experienced by most people is simply just an indicator of sufficient training and a job well done!

Also, the problem with the observational ‘wait and watch’ approach is that it is difficult to determine at what point someone considers program adjustment. What kind of time frame are we looking at? Do you wait until someone presents a few symptoms of overtraining before changing something in the program? Do you wait until someone exhibits the first decline of performance (it could just be an off day after all!) or, do you wait until someone demonstrates a consistent loss in performance over a matter of days/weeks? The problem with all this is that by waiting to make adjustments, who knows where that person could be: are they in a state of overreaching, on the border between overreaching and overtraining or, already deep into the dreaded overtraining territory? Who knows! By the time adjustments are considered, someone could be so far into the overtraining zone that it becomes almost impossible to get them out of it again. An unlikely example, but demonstrates why an actual clinical test is likely to be a huge bonus over simply observation and feel. 



Beginner And More Advanced Lifters

Optimising recovery is paramount if you want to make consistent progress over time. Unfortunately, there are just no clear guidelines to it. How you manage your recovery will really depend on how you are progressing over time. If progress is going up over time, then the chances are your recovery is optimal. If it’s going down over time, then it’s likely your recovery is not enough to balance out the stress your body is going through, and something needs to change.

Recovery management is going to be different between beginners and more advanced lifters. Since beginners don’t need a lot of work to force adaptations, they also don’t need an extensive recovery period afterwards. For a beginner, a single training session might be sufficient enough to induce the needed adaptations and a single days rest following will probably be enough to recover from this stress. On the other hand, those more advanced will need a lot more work to continue producing the needed adaptations for growth. This will also mean a lot more recovery time following the stimulus. This could be anywhere from days to weeks depending on the level of experience and magnitude of the training stimulus used. In this case, you will probably have to cycle more frequently (some form of non-linear periodisation) between periods of higher work loads and lower work loads (active recovery) in order to afford you with the rest needed to prevent fatigue getting out of control. 


With beginners, only a small training stimulus is needed to initiate the adaptation process. As a result, only a small amount of recovery is needed. ‘A’ represents the extent of the recovery period (Tuesday – 24 hours). 


With more advanced lifters, the training stimulus needs to be greater in order to initiate adaptation. This also means more recovery must be implemented. “B” represents the extent of the recovery period. This time, recovery extents across Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as opposed to just one day (beginner). It is likely that in this situation some form of active recovery would be implemented (lower volume work days) before utilising another higher work day on the Friday


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