Athlete Burnout: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Overtraining Syndrome

Can you exercise too much?

Last year, I set my sights on becoming an Ironman and started triathlon training 15-20 hours a week while working full time. Over the course of the year, I went from having only run one marathon to completing four triathlons, including my Ironman.

In total, I swam more than 96 miles, rode 2,500 miles and ran 530 miles. And by the time race day arrived on November 19, 2017, I was fried! Although I finished my race and can call myself an Ironman, my body hasn’t been the same since. Over the last 10 months, my workout routine has been non-existent, I’ve suffered from depression, and I’ve gotten sick more than ever before.

It’s all thanks to athlete burnout — a serious, but rarely talked about, condition.

What Is Athlete Burnout?

Athlete burnout is the general term for overtraining syndrome (OTS), a feeling of fatigue that can be so subtle “most athletes think they need to push through, or [that] they are just being wimps,” explains Heidi Iratcabal, ND, founding partner of Carpathia Collaborative, a functional medicine center for whole life heath. But that’s not the case at all; you can’t push past OTS.

The signs and symptoms of OTS are different for everyone, and not immediately obvious, but they all add up to an overload that places too much physical and emotional stress on the body. Symptoms include everything from tension to fatigue, irritability, decreased energy, sleep disruption or insomnia, lower immune system function, inconsistent athletic performance, exhaustion, hair loss, cognitive impairment and brain fog, depression, helplessness, anger and disappointment.

And just because you’re a recreational athlete doesn’t mean you’re not at risk. OTS burnout can affect anyone, though Dr. Nicky Kirk, an award-winning chiropractic sports physician and owner of The Recovery Doctor, explains that there’s a big difference between the recreational and professional athlete.

“A recreational athlete is unlikely to suffer burnout due to overtraining or exertion,” Dr. Kirk explains, “but rather, under-recovery and the complex and chaotic nature of other life stressors that can deplete the system of resources needed to perform or compete.”

That’s what happened to me.

What Causes Athlete Burnout?

What Causes Athlete Burnout?

Overtraining syndrome occurs when an athlete doesn’t manage their training program in a consistent and systematic manner that monitors their performance. Audrey S. Arnold, a certified women’s health and nutrition coach at Lotus Power Health in the U.K., recognizes three main causes of OTS:

  1. A lack of education around hormones and how our body works physiologically.
  2. A life that includes being chronically stressed. For example, when athletes focus on being overachievers, not sleeping enough, skipping meals, etc.
  3. Not being aware of how to eat and exercise optimally.

The most common culprits of OTS are insufficient sleep, poor nutrition and replenishment of fuel stores and changes in hydration levels. “There are many small tells that the system is overloaded,” explains Dr. Kirk. “So, everything must be looked at in context.”

How Do You Avoid It?

Unfortunately, avoiding athlete burnout can be a challenge. There’s a fine line between overtraining syndrome and where you need to be, physically — it lies on a continuum. “The first step of OTS is actually desirable, [it’s] called functional overreaching,” describes Dr. Kirk. “This is where we need to be in order to get stronger, faster or fitter.” But just a few steps too far, and you could be in trouble.

The key is proper recovery. This was my main problem. I had a coach who believed in only taking one day off every two to three weeks, and it wasn’t nearly enough downtime. As Dr. Iratcabal says, “A proper rest day is just as good as your best workout.”

She continues: “My advice is to vary the workouts, in intensity and time, in distance and activity. The brain loves variety, so the more we vary the activation of the muscles and body, the better the feedback loop. Translation: you will perform better, [and] with less effort.”

And you definitely want to avoid OTS, as the recovery process can be long and challenging.

“It can take months or even years to reverse the effects of overtraining syndrome,” warns Dr. Kirk. “There can even be complications with regards to bone health, fertility and psychological aspects.”

So, if you suspect you are in the early stages of burnout, back off your training and get some simple blood panels done to address the issue immediately. Don’t wait. You’ll regret it.


  • Nicky Kirk is an award-winning chiropractic sports physician and owner of The Recovery Doctor. His aim is to pioneer sports performance testing and innovative sports medicine. During his career he has consulted for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and is a regional adviser for the Caribbean and Latin America. Visit his website at therecoverdoc.com.
  • Audrey Sourroubille Arnold is a certified women’s health and nutrition coach and the founder of Lotus Power Health, a community focused on women’s health. She offers coaching and advice for women dealing with hormonal imbalances, fertility issues and more. You can find her at com.
  • Heidi Iratcabal, ND is the founding partner of Carpathia Collaborative, a certified functional medicine practice. A naturopathic practitioner, Dr. Iratcabal is an Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner, board-certified by The American Alternative Medical Association, a doctor of pastoral therapy, and a certified gluten practitioner. You can visit her website at com.
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