The Fitness Zone

The Pitfalls of Overtraining: Embracing the ‘Less is More’ Philosophy in Fitness

Feb 15, 2024 | by Ellyn Johnson

In the pursuit of fitness goals, the prevailing notion often revolves around pushing one’s limits, squeezing in more reps, and extending workout durations. This is often perpetuated in mainstream media, outdated fitness resources, or by uneducated social media personalities. While health and fitness improvements do require regular physical exertion (obviously!), the lesser-discussed but equally crucial aspect is the potential danger of overtraining. We’re all guilty of it – of buying into this notion of ‘more more more’! But is ‘more’ really the answer to achieving sustained health and fitness improvements? After exploring this article it will become obvious that there is a limit to our often and how hard we train before we start to see negative health and fitness outcomes. 

Keep reading to explore the underpinning physiology of why overtraining occurs, the risks associated with regularly pushing the body beyond its limits, and the importance of finding a balanced approach to exercise for long-term health and fitness.

Understanding Overtraining

Overtraining occurs when the volume and intensity of exercise exceed the body’s ability to recover. We all know exercise is good for us, so surely more exercise is even better for us – right? Well, wrong. Contrary to the belief that more training is always better, overtraining can lead to a range of physical and mental health issues, ultimately hindering rather than promoting fitness gains. 

Consider an average gym enthusiast, Veronica, 38 years old, who wants to lose a couple of kilograms and get a little stronger. Veronica’s weekly training plan is as follows:

  • Monday: 1-hour Group Circuit Class
  • Tuesday: 1.5-hour Run Club session
  • Wednesday: 1-hour Group Pilates Class
  • Thursday: 1.5-hour Run Club session
  • Friday: 1on1 Personal Training Session (Strength Training)
  • Saturday: 1.5-hour Run Club session
  • Sunday: 1-hour Group Pilates Class

What’s wrong with this picture? Can you imagine if Veronica persists with this volume of training what might happen? This large amount of training volume can lead to many negative health and fitness outcomes, which we’ll explore more soon. 

Let’s unpack this more and explore the science underpinning overtraining – stick with me here. It all stems from a concept called General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This concept was developed by Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and pioneer in stress research. GAS describes the body’s response to stressors, whether they are physical or psychological. Think of exposure to toxins or physical pain, or more importantly to our field, exercise. Exercise is a form of physical stress we voluntarily undertake to achieve particular health and fitness outcomes. 

The GAS model consists of three stages: the alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. Collectively, these stages describe how the body can positively or negatively react to the stressors described above, and how overtraining can occur if we’re not careful. Let’s take a brief look at these:

Alarm Stage
The alarm stage is the initial, acute response to a stressor. When the body perceives a threat, it triggers the “fight or flight” response. Physiological changes, such as increased heart rate and heightened alertness, occur to prepare the body to deal with the stressor. This isn’t a bad thing! This is our body’s way of protecting us.

In the initial 6 to 48 hours after exercise (the stressor), we might experience a range of effects, such as fatigue, joint stiffness, and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Remember the feeling of agony 1-2 days after leg day and the inability to walk due to muscular pain? We’ve all been there. When we overload the body with a training stimulus, it causes small amounts of damage to our cells which triggers the release of hormones to promote growth and adaptations (more on this in the next stage). 

Resistance Stage
If the stressor persists, the body enters the resistance stage. In this phase, the body attempts to adapt to the stress. Hormonal levels may stabilise, and the body seeks to cope with the demands placed upon it. Adaptations occur to enhance the body’s ability to withstand the stressor in the long term (this is a good thing!). For example, after leg day our lower body skeletal muscles repair and become bigger and stronger to be able to withstand the next bout of lower body strength training – this is how we become stronger. This is the stage where we begin to adapt to training in a way that enhances our fitness, but only if proper recovery time is provided. This is key!

Exhaustion Stage
However, if the stressor continues for an extended period without adequate recovery, the body enters the exhaustion stage. At this point, the body’s resources are depleted, and its ability to adapt diminishes. Physical and mental fatigue sets in, and the risk of various health issues, including illness and injury, increases significantly. This is what we call overtraining. This is the stage we aim to avoid. 

Figure 1. General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The graph shows the level of adaptation and training response through the three stages. Note how adaptations diminish and detraining/overtraining occurs within the exhaustion stage. Cunanan, A.J., DeWeese, B.H., Wagle, J.P. et al. The General Adaptation Syndrome: A Foundation for the Concept of Periodization. Sports Med 48, 787–797 (2018).

Effects of Overtraining

Overtraining can have profound effects on our physical and psychological well-being. When the balance between exercise stress and recovery is disrupted, the consequences can manifest in various ways, some of which might surprise you. Let’s take a look at some common ones: 

Chronic Fatigue
This is obvious, but prolonged overtraining can lead to persistent fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest. This exhaustion is both physical and mental, impacting daily activities and overall energy levels.

Increased Susceptibility to Illness
Overtraining can weaken the immune system, making us more prone to infections and illnesses. We can see a general decline in immune function. 

Muscle and Joint Pain
Overworked muscles and insufficient recovery time can result in persistent muscle soreness and joint pain. This is often a sign that the body is struggling to repair and adapt adequately.

Decreased Performance
Despite increased effort, overtraining can lead to a decline in athletic performance. Strength, endurance, and coordination may suffer, hindering training progress rather than improving it.

Insomnia and Disrupted Sleep Patterns
Overtraining can overstimulate our sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that helps our body activate its “fight-or-flight” response. This system’s activity increases when we’re stressed, in danger, or physically active. This can lead to difficulties in falling asleep or disrupted sleep patterns, further contributing to overall fatigue.

Mood Disturbances
The hormonal imbalances caused by overtraining can negatively impact overall mood and well-being and cause mood swings, irritability, and heightened feelings of stress or anxiety. 

Cognitive Impairment
Overtraining may lead to cognitive impairment, affecting concentration, decision-making, and reaction time. Mental fatigue can compromise cognitive function, both in daily tasks and during physical activities. Think of that ‘brain fog’ feeling we sometimes get after periods of intense training

Preventing Overtraining

Now that we have a deeper understanding of what overtraining is and how it might manifest, let’s take a closer look at how we can prevent it from occurring in the first place and how we might address it, should it occur. 

As with most things, prevention is better than cure. Our focus should remain on preventing overtraining and its side effects in the first place. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But we do still see many uninformed fitness enthusiasts unknowingly enter the dangerous territory of ‘more more more’ when it comes to training. A periodised training program, combined with adequate recovery time, is a simple, yet effective strategy to mitigate the risk of overtraining. Here are some strategies for how such an approach can be implemented:

1. Periodisation

Periodisation is a systematic and strategic approach to structuring a fitness program over a specific period. Rather than mindlessly undertaking training sessions with no goal or structure, this method involves dividing a training program into distinct phases, each characterised by varying levels of intensity, volume, and training focus. It allows for targeted training adaptations. For example, a higher-intensity strength-focused phase can be followed by a lower-intensity one emphasising endurance or skill development.

The primary goal of periodisation is to optimise performance, prevent overtraining, and promote long-term physical development. By cycling through periods of varying intensity, volume, and training focus, we can avoid constant high-stress training, and therefore prevent mental and physical burnout.

2. Variation in Training Modalities (i.e. Cross-training)

Overtraining often results from repetitive stress on specific muscles or joints with little recovery. Cross-training involves incorporating different modes of exercise into a training plan. For example, alternating between cardiovascular activities, strength training, and flexibility work week-to-week. Doing so reduces the risk of overuse injuries associated with continuous strain on the same muscle groups or joints.

3. Adequate Recovery Time

Rest and recovery are essential components of any effective training program, playing a pivotal role in preventing overtraining and promoting long-term health and performance. Rest and recovery are paramount to any training plan. It’s through adequate rest that our body adapts to the training stress we place on it. Intense training induces microscopic damage to muscle fibres, and it’s during rest that these fibres repair and adapt, becoming stronger and more resilient. Adequate recovery time allows for optimal muscle development and reduces the risk of overtraining-related injuries.

Intense exercise can also temporarily elevate stress hormones, such as cortisol. Chronic elevation of cortisol levels is associated with overtraining and can lead to hormonal imbalances. Sufficient rest helps restore hormonal balance, ensuring that the body’s stress response doesn’t become chronically activated.

When thinking about our energy supply, workouts deplete energy stores in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is a carbohydrate stored in our liver and muscles, consisting of glucose molecules linked together. It serves as a short-term energy reserve, breaking down into glucose to fuel the body’s energy needs. Rest periods following exercise allow for the replenishment of glycogen stores, ensuring that the body has the necessary energy for subsequent training sessions. Inadequate recovery can lead to persistent fatigue and decreased performance.

4. Professional Guidance

Professional guidance is crucial in a fitness journey, and seeking support from qualified and experienced fitness professionals or coaches is recommended. These experts can design personalised periodised programs tailored to our individual needs, offering valuable insights into effective recovery strategies. Additionally, scheduling regular assessments is essential for evaluating progress and making necessary adjustments to the training plan. Ongoing physical reassessments play a key role in identifying areas for improvement and identifying early signs of overtraining, ensuring a well-informed and adaptive approach to fitness.

In conclusion, the prevailing narrative in the pursuit of fitness often centres around pushing limits and intensifying workouts. However, as explored in this article, the concept of ‘more is better’ can lead to overtraining and wreak havoc on our health and wellness. The intricacies of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) shed light on the body’s response to stressors, emphasising the importance of balancing exercise stress and recovery. The stages of GAS – alarm, resistance, and exhaustion – illustrate how overtraining occurs when stressors persist without adequate recovery. The effects of overtraining, ranging from chronic fatigue to decreased performance and mood disturbances, underscore the need for a balanced approach to exercise. Ultimately, the key lies in understanding the nuances of our body’s response to stressors and adopting a holistic, balanced approach to exercise for sustained health and fitness gains. Maybe it’s time we embrace the ‘less is more’ philosophy when it comes to our health and fitness.


  • Kreher, J. B., & Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128-138.
  • Mahaffey, K. (n.d.). General Adaptation Syndrome in Fitness Explained. National Academy of Sports Medicine.
  • Quaglio, L. (n.d.). 19 Signs of Overtraining: How to Avoid Excess Fatigue and OTS. National Academy of Sports Medicine.
  • Ivy J. L. (2004). Regulation of muscle glycogen repletion, muscle protein synthesis and repair following exercise. Journal of sports science & medicine, 3(3), 131–138
  • Mika, A., Mika, P., Fernhall, B., & Unnithan, V. B. (2007). Comparison of recovery strategies on muscle performance after fatiguing exercise. American journal of physical medicine & rehabilitation, 86(6), 474–481.
  • Cunanan, A.J., DeWeese, B.H., Wagle, J.P. et al. The General Adaptation Syndrome: A Foundation for the Concept of Periodization. Sports Med 48, 787–797 (2018).
Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn Johnson

Ellyn is an Exercise Scientist specialising in youth Strength and Conditioning. She holds her Bachelor's degrees in Science and Exercise and Sports Science. She has previously worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for Academy level athletes at the Brisbane Lions Football Club. She has a background in Personal Training, coaching a range of clientele with diverse goals, including weight loss, body recomposition as well as recreational endurance athletes. In addition to her Strength and Conditioning experience, Ellyn currently works as a Learning Designer at the Australian Institute of Fitness. Here she works as a subject matter expert in the design and implementation of a range of health- and fitness-related courses and learning materials.

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