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Stage two

This stage of overtraining is more recognized. Classic signs and symptoms include an elevation of the resting and training heart rate, and often aggravation of the symptoms from stage one.

Performance reductions are more evident in this stage, as are symptoms such as fatigue, feelings of depression and sleeping problems (typically, you fall asleep easily but wake in the middle of the night with difficulty getting back to sleep).

Hormone imbalance is now usually more dramatic, with an abnormally high cortisol and low testosterone and DHEA. This puts you in a catabolic state, making recovery much more difficult. In addition, immune system function is reduced resulting in more frequent colds, flu or other infections. Allergy or asthma may also be develop or exacerbate.

The second stage of overtraining can last a long time. If the problem is not remedied, typically through reductions in training and racing volume and training intensity, a runner may enter the third stage of overtraining.

Stage three

This is a chronic condition with more serious physiological and psychological ramifications. Often, this includes a career-ending physical injury or other serious chemical or mental problem. In a sense, the body has given up its fight against overtraining stress. Hormone levels are abnormally low, with cortisol reversing its elevated levels. The sympathetic nervous system also is reduced as reflected in an abnormally low resting heart rate. Runners in this stage are usually not racing due to very poor performance and injury, with exhaustion and depression common. Going out to train is no longer fun. Even lactate response is low.

Unlike the first two stages, recovery from the third stage of overtraining is a much longer and more difficult process. Runners often have to cancel a whole season and focus on getting healthy, often with the help of a professional. Recognition of the overtraining syndrome in its earliest stage is essential to avoid the anguish of this common and unnecessary problem. The remedy may be as simple as reducing training and racing volume, and training intensity. Not only can stress come from running, but other lifestyle factors can add to the overtraining syndrome.

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Dr. Philip Maffetone has trained many world class athletes in all sports since 1977. His books include In Fitness and in Health (4th edition, Barmore), Training for Endurance (2nd edition, Barmore), Fix Your Feet (Lyons Press) and many others.