How to Prevent Overtraining Syndrome


The best way to prevent overtraining syndrome in rock climbing is by following a periodized training plan, tracking your training sessions and health markers, and eating a diet that covers your energy expenditure.

Nevertheless, there’s a fine line between optimal performance and overtraining. That’s why in this article I’m going to discuss the 3 stages of overtraining syndrome, how to diagnose it, how to cure it, and most importantly, how to prevent it in rock climbers.

1. What is Overtraining Syndrome?

Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is a combination of symptoms that indicate that your body isn’t recovering from your training anymore. Simply said, your body is so tired it can’t recover anymore.

OTS is common among athletes but is still poorly understood. Among the symptoms of overtraining syndrome are:

  • You can’t complete your training session
  • Persistent thirst
  • You’re tired but you’re unable to sleep
  • You have an elevated resting heart rate
  • Your experience continuous body achiness
  • Weight loss
  • You get sick easily
  • You get injured frequently
  • You feel depressed

As you can see the symptoms of overtraining aren’t that special that you would say instantly; “hey I’m overtraining!”. Because these symptoms can also be the result of depression, other psychological problems, eating disorders (!), and hypothyroidism.

Now, why did I put an (!) behind eating disorders? Because many climbers suffer from eating disorders. It’s something that’s not being spoken about often but was discussed in a recent Climbing Gold podcast with Kai Lightner a professional competition climber from the US. This show is hosted by Alex Honnold, the American Rock Climber famous for his free solo ascent of El Cap. For me the main takeaway from that podcast episode was the fact that eating less can lead to a significant short-term gain in rock climbing, it is however not a viable long-term strategy. Your performance and health will deteriorate if you maintain the habit of under-eating. And I think it also puts you unnecessarily at risk for overtraining since your body doesn’t have the nutrients available to recover well.

2. What are the Stages of Overtraining?

The 3 stages of Overtraining Syndrome are functional overreaching (FO), non-functional overreaching (NFO), and Overtraining Syndrome (OTS).

You pass through these stages slowly as you train which makes OTS so hard to notice. As things go, the first stage of Overtraining, FO is something which you desire in your training.

Here’s an overview of what happens in your body during these 3 stages of overtraining.

2.1 Functional Overreaching

This is the first stage of overtraining where you start to see some symptoms. The thing with functional overreaching is though, that this is also the moment your body can still adapt (see image below). So, functional overreaching combined with proper rest will actually help you adapt and progress to a higher level. This is what training is all about.

The bottom line with functional overreaching is that you are overtraining but your body still adapts.

2.2 Non-Functional Overreaching

With non-functional overreaching, on the other hand, your body doesn’t adapt to your training anymore. Symptoms, therefore, are likely to be more profound because of hormonal, nervous, and mechanical imbalances. Which imbalances these exactly are, are beyond the scope of this article. What I think is important to remember though, is that if you:

  • Have multiple “bad training days” in a row
  • Can’t do routes/boulder problems at your limit anymore, and you’re becoming weaker each training
  • Experience a loss of sleep (quality)

You might be in a state of non-functional overreaching. If you’re assuming this, act now rather than later. Because the longer you wait, the longer your recovery will be. And this isn’t waiting 1 week, recover 1 week more. But rather, wait 1 week, recover double if not triple the time.

2.3 Overtraining Syndrome

OTS is the final and most serious stage of the overtraining spectrum. If this is your situation there are definite nervous and hormonal changes and you’re likely to be exhausted.

If you look at the spectrum and the symptoms, you’d say how would one get to a stage of overtraining when there’s no way you didn’t notice anything.

I think this has to do with a combination of the following factors:

  1. As I mentioned before, the symptoms of overtraining aren’t unique to OTS and can thus be easily attributed to something that has nothing to do with your training.
  2. If you’re at risk for OTS you’re training hard. And with training hard comes fatigue, exhaustion, muscle soreness, and bad days. That’s just another day at the office if you’re pushing your physical boundaries.
  3. OTS is a slow process and doesn’t always lead to a decrease in performance, to begin with. So, in your performance-oriented mindset all is well.
  4. If you’re so focused on achieving your next climbing goal it’s easy to diminish the signs you get from your body. As long as you reach your goal…

This far I discussed what overtraining syndrome is and its 3 stages of onset. Now, I’m going to explain how you get OTS, the risk factors, and how to diagnose it.

3. How do You get Overtraining Syndrome?

The basic principle of getting to a stage of overtraining is by increasing your training intensity and frequency without allowing enough time to recover. If you do this long enough your body will stop adapting to your training. If you continue after that point, you start detraining which means that every next training session makes you weaker by eating away at your energy reserves. The longer you do this, the higher the probability you’ll start to experience the symptoms of OTS I mentioned at the start of this article.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times already that OTS comes on slowly and therefore is often easy to “reason away”.

  • “I’m training super hard, so of course I’m tired”
  • “Everyone has a bad training now and then”
  • “I’m feeling weak because I’m not pushing my training hard enough”

And the list could go on and on. So, instead of using your brain to create excuses for the fact that you should take a break, use it to structure your training smartly.

One of the ways to do that is to be aware of the moments you’re at a higher risk for overtraining.

3.1 What are the Risk Factors for Overtraining Syndrome?

The risk factors for overtraining are:

  • Early single-sport specialization
  • Increase in training load over a short period
  • Training preparation for an important event
  • Excessive pressure from parents and/or coaches to succeed
  • Elite sport level

Now, let’s have a more detailed look at the reasons why the above are risk factors.

3.1.1 Early Single-Sport Specialization

Early single-sport specialization means that at an early age you’ve only made a certain set of movements. Be it running, cycling, rock climbing, or playing soccer. The more you engage in a single activity, the easier it is to plateau. This is a level of performance which for the moment you aren’t able to progress beyond.

Besides, as a young climber, you mainly develop your pulling muscles in your upper body

Luckily climbing is a sport that inherently has a large variety of movements with the climbs itself lasting between seconds (bouldering) to hours (multi-pitches). The thing is though, that it is an upper-body dominant sport that involves significantly more pulling than pushing movements.

3.1.2 Increase in Training Load Over a Short Period

This is the most obvious risk factor for overtraining. Because you are literally overtraining. Too much in too little time. Your body doesn’t have time to adapt to your training load.

Still, if you build up your training load over a longer period you might be able to handle it easily.

3.1.3 Training Preparation for an Important Event

In preparation for an event, your focus diverts to the event and you’ll do anything to succeed. This makes you prone to ignoring signs and symptoms of overreaching. As long as you succeed in reaching your goal.

3.1.4 Excessive Pressure from Parents and/or Coach to Succeed

Sometimes parents and coaches want the success of their child/athlete more than the athletes themselves. I’ve seen my fair share of crazy parents and coaches shouting beside the soccer field and with rock climbing, it’s no different. Perhaps without the shouting, but pushing athletes unnecessarily. This is an insanely tricky situation as the people you love and trust are pushing you to do things, you’re not yet capable of. At an age, you’re extra vulnerable to their opinions.

3.1.5 Elite Sport Level

In elite rock climbing, bouldering, and any other sport for that matter, it’s the name of the game; find the thin line between insane performance and overtraining and stay just below it. Take into account the amount of pressure that comes with competition, fame, and from your brain (yourself), and it’s easy to cross this line.

Besides, rock climbing doesn’t have an off-season like soccer players for example. If competition season is over there are plenty of hard projects waiting for you at some sunny destination.

3.2 Overtraining in Non-Elite Climbers

If you’re reading this you are likely part of the majority of the rock climbers who don’t perform at the elite level.

To you, I’d like to say that the training load is relative to your physical state. So, if you are less trained you also need less training to reach a state of OTS. Even more so, because you might not only climb but also engage in other sports which put a strain on your recovery battery.

4. How to Diagnose OTS?

The diagnosis of OTS is made primarily by excluding all other possible causes of your symptoms. So, your doctor should obtain a thorough history of your training, checking the risk factors I discussed above, recent injuries and illnesses, and additional stressors coming to form your personal life and work.

Some other symptoms that might you might experience which I haven’t mentioned yet are:

  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Tender muscles
  • Joint aches
  • Weak nails/hair
  • Fatigued appearance

5. How to Recover from Overtraining Syndrome as a Rock Climber?

The best way to recover from overtraining syndrome is to rest. How you rest though, depends on the stage of overtraining you’re in.

Here’s an overview of how to rest in each stage of OTS. Still, I do want to mention, if you assume you’re in a state of overtraining speak to a medical professional directly and use the information in this article to have an informed discussion about your options.

  • Functional Overreaching: reduce your training load and intensity by 70% and include more cross-training (other types of sports and/or opposition training). Also, eliminate any high-intensity training. Your recovery should take up to 4 weeks. If you compete you don’t have to stop.
  • Non-functional Overreaching: no cross-training, nada, just take a 3-week break and then cross-train and build up your climbing intensity for 2-10 weeks. If you compete, it’s time to take a break from that too. Understand how to build up your training by reading my article on how to return to rock climbing after a break.
  • Overtraining Syndrome: It depends on how long you have been training, how long your break should be. It’ll be somewhere between 1-6 months, preferably under the supervision of a medical professional. And no competition for much longer than the time you take off.

In all stages of OTS make sure to follow a diet that provides you with all the nutrients you need for optimal recovery. I recommend you speak with a (sports) nutritionist.

As you read the main treatment for OTS is (relative) rest. Still, wouldn’t it be better if you never got OTS? Let’s have a look at how you can prevent overtraining syndrome in rock climbers.

6. How to Prevent Overtraining Syndrome in Rock Climbers?

You can prevent overtraining syndrome in rock climbing by:

  • Monitoring your training & performance
  • Adhering to a periodized training plan
  • Working together with a coach and/or sports physiotherapist that has your long-term health and performance at the heart
  • Eating a diet that covers your energy expenditure and includes all minerals and vitamins
  • Managing the stressors in your and private life

6.1 Track Your Training & Performance

The best way to track your training and performance is by writing down the following information:

  1. How many routes/problems you climbed and at what level
  2. How long your total training time was (in minutes)
  3. What your Rate of Perceived Exhaustion for this session (sRPE) was on a scale from 0-10

Then each morning you can measure your resting heart rate the moment you wake up. To get this information you can use a chest heart rate monitor or count your heart rate for 15 seconds while holding your middle and index finger to your ulnar/radial artery in your wrist.

If your resting heart rate is 10-30 higher than normal (you discover your normal resting heart rate by tracking for a week when you’re not experiencing any fatigue), you’re probably overtraining. If you see a difference as small as 5bpm more or less you might consider just taking a day off. As things go, this might indicate your immune system is fighting disease or that you’ve been training hard lately.

6.2 Follow a Periodized Training Plan

A coach or trainer can develop a periodized training plan which takes your current level of training, other stressors in life, and your goals into consideration. Planning your training sessions so that you peak at the right moment and that you have enough rest days to recover.

Basic weekly periodization could be like this:

4-day training week:

Monday: hard climbing

Tuesday: easy climbing

Wednesday: off

Thursday: hard climbing

Friday: easy climbing

Saturday: off

Sunday: off

5-day training

Monday: hard climbing

Tuesday: easy climbing

Wednesday: off

Thursday: medium climbing

Friday: off

Saturday: hard rock climbing outdoors

Sunday: easy climbing

Regardless if you’re in an endurance or max strength phase you can manage your training intensity this way:

Hard climbing = sRPE 9 (f.e. projecting, max-performance)

Medium climbing = sRPE 7 (f.e. endurance training, max strength training)

Easy climbing = sRPE 5 (f.e. technique training, easy continuous climbing)

6.3 Working with a Coach and/or Sports Physio

If you work together with a coach or sports physio this person can help you develop your training plan, track your sports performance, and offer an objective perspective on your fitness. Because of your brain, you might still try to reason away clear signs of overtraining. In that case, your trainer can discuss your progress and adapt your training.

6.4 Eat a Diet that Covers your Energy Expenditure

The better you eat the healthier you’ll be and the better you’ll perform in the long term. If you want to use shredding weight to send hard projects, do so under the supervision of a nutritionist. That way you won’t damage your long-term health for short-term gain.

6.5 Manage Stress at Work and in Your Private Life

Unfortunately, you carry the same battery at work, at home, and while you climb. So, if your work is stressful at the moment, it might be smart to either do something about that (if you can) or adjust your training.

If you know when you’ll have more work of things to do in your private life you can adjust your training plan before it happens. That way you don’t feel like you’re missing out on training because you planned too much in time and energy you don’t have.

7. Sources & Citations

A comprehensive overview of Overtraining Syndrome at: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Overtraining_Syndrome

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël Broersma, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

Recent Posts