Let me begin by saying yes, overtraining absolutely is a real thing, however, it’s not as easy to induce as is commonly believed. The impact of overtraining can be profound, taking months, or even years to recover from, depending on the severity. However, true overtraining is often only a concern for elite athletes in their sports. If you’re a novice or intermediate athlete the odds of you being overtrained are quite low. What you may experience is actually under-recovery. The two may sound similar but are very different in practice.
REAL Overtraining Syndrome is a state of prolonged performance decrease. It’s the result of accumulating more stress than can be dissipated, regardless of recovery. You’ve trained WAAAAY past your limit, so you’re stuck in a constant state of fatigue. REAL overtraining syndrome is essentially a near death experience for your body. Your body responds by pressing the reset button, which is why it takes so long to recover once you’ve induced it. If you’ve ever used a Windows PC and seen the dreaded Blue Screen of Death then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it’s a computer freezing in the worst way possible and the only solution is to reboot. Even then there may still be some irreparable damage. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Under-recovery is simply a failure on your part to recover from an imposed stress. With proper recovery protocols (sleep and food) you would normally be able to recover and adapt. The fatigue you’ve accumulated causes a decrease in performance, and your failure to recover from it leaves you in a suppressed state. This can easily be remedied by ensuring that you’re recovering adequately.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. They both depend on your ability to recover from imposed stresses and cause a decrease in performance, so what’s the difference? The difference is that under-recovery happens when you’re careless with your recovery. With overtraining, it doesn’t matter how diligent you are; the accumulated stress is simply more than you could ever recover from. You’ve trained past your body’s ability to recover, regardless of how much you eat, sleep, meditate, etc. Under-recovery can be mitigated by improving recovery but by the time you’re overtrained it’s too late (unless you have a time machine and can go back and reduce your volume/intensity).
That being said, now we can get into why the odds of YOU inducing true overtraining are low. By now you should be familiar with progressive overload; gradually increasing volume & intensity over time to progress. When you’re a novice you don’t need much volume/intensity to get better. As you mature as an athlete you need increasing levels of volume/intensity to continue progressing. Fast-forward 8-10 years into your career and now you’re an elite athlete. You’re near or at your genetic potential. PRs are coming months at a time, in VERY small increments, if their coming at all. Your volume has to be programmed in large blocks because one or two days per week just ain’t cutting it anymore. In order to add even 1 kg to any of your lifts you have to expose yourself to levels of stress that you wouldn’t have been able to comprehend when you were a baby athlete. Training under these circumstances pushes your recoverability to its limit. It’s at this point that you’re in danger of overtraining. In your pursuit to get better you can inadvertently do more than you can handle under ideal circumstances and now you’re kind of screwed.
This isn’t the case for novice & intermediate athletes. To be clear, I’m not saying that it can’t happen only that it’s much less likely. As a novice or intermediate athlete you’re training doesn’t have the volume and intensity of an elite athlete (unless you’re the unlucky recipient of poor programming) so you’re not pushing your recoverability to its limit. HOWEVER, if you’re not recovering adequately from the stresses of training then you will put yourself into a state that is similar (read similar, not the same) as overtraining. This is short lived compared to overtraining. Once your recovery is in order you can be back to normal within a few days, or weeks at the most.
The big takeaway here is that if you’re a novice/intermediate athlete, overtraining should be low on your list of concerns. If you’re feeling particularly fatigued after a few days of training, look at your recovery before changing your programming. Make sure you’re doing everything you can do to recover adequately. Why reduce volume and skip sessions (potentially missing out on some delicious gains) when an extra hour of sleep and an extra bowl of rice, chicken, and broccoli would do the trick? Hit your training hard and recover harder. Leave overtraining for those unfortunate, awesome, elite athletes.