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Overreaching vs. Overtraining

Athletes and occupational athletes are always on the path to increase performance. Whether that is a football athlete training their change of direction to help move past defenders or a law enforcement officer training a handgun draw to improve functionality during an assailant confrontation. Performance can be enhanced by increasing the load on the body to elicit an adaptation (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). The load placed on the body can result in an active physiological response and with appropriate recovery, a positive adaptation will result. In many cases, training at high levels overtime can be demanding on the body. Not just physiologically, but psychologically as well.

"Train to recover and recover to train." Dr. Dane Bartz

It has been well documented that exercise can produce muscular soreness (Miles & Clarkson, 1994). If individuals carry forward an optimal protocol post and after training, muscular soreness should start to reduce due to the superior practices of nutrition, sleep, and hydration. Although, at times, individuals experience high levels of muscular soreness which ultimately can be painful. This pain or otherwise known as “extreme soreness” can significantly alter physiological and psychological functionality.

Muscular Soreness versus Pain

At Linked Fit, we like to separate muscular pain and soreness. In our opinion, the word pain should be in the context of trauma that has been produced by an injury. When training in pain, it has been shown to alter biomechanics (Swain et al., 2019). Swain et al. (2019) were able to determine alterations in range-of-motion in the transverse plane when experiencing seated rotations and gait patterns with dancers with and without low back pain. Additionally, Ali and Mehrdad (2018) found that individuals with chronic low back pain significantly altered their rate of force and fatigue with landing performance when compared with participants, not in pain.

Muscular soreness is the general outcome of activity in muscular contraction beyond regular practice. It has been stated that eccentric (muscle lengthening under load) activities induce micro-injury which is the common reason for muscular soreness (Cheung, Hume, & Maxwell, 2003). The muscular soreness that is developed during or post-training can decrease strength, reduce the range of motion, and increase inflammatory biomarkers such as creatine kinase (Miles & Clarkson, 1994). However, let’s make it clear that a few days of muscular soreness is NOT overtraining, it is likely caused by the individual's lack of other influential factors that remain unclear to them, such as under-recovery.

Pain or Bad Movement?

“Squats are bad for my knees!” - Said by too many individuals.

It has been a statement floating around for years, “Squats are bad for my knees!" & "My knees hurt because of squats!” (Check out our article: Squats are NOT Bad!). In return, individuals perceive that squatting shouldn’t be programmed. Bullshit! Although there are a variety of cases that can cause knee pain when squatting, individuals need to know that squatting is NOT bad for their knees. This article will list a few cases that may be causing knee pain during a squat, or any movement for that matter. First, there can be a legitimate mechanical injury such as a meniscus or ligament tear in the knee joint. This unfortunate injury can increase the stress and change the behavior at the knee joint. Second, it can be a static or dynamic movement dysfunction that is causing the knee misalignment. Satkunskiene, Mickevicius, Snieckus, and Kamandulis (2017) provide significant evidence that leg stiffness and valgus knee motion with transformation in the Q-angle is associated with knee pain in adolescent basketball players. Third, degenerative concerns at the meniscus or vertebral disc may be the cause of pain (Carballo, Nakagawa, Sekiya, & Rodeo, 2017; Risbud & Shapiro, 2014). Although there are other cases that can cause pain during movement, it is clear that if the pain is experienced while moving, focus on addressing the issue that moves around it.

Although this article is focused on overreaching and overtraining, I wanted to state the common mixture of pain and soreness. In many cases, individuals use the word 'pain' when they really mean soreness or high fatigue. This can be pretty damn confusing to a coach... wait are you in pain? As a coach, we do not want to hurt our clients. Don't get me wrong, an individual may reach a point of high fatigue and the muscular burn may breach a point that is uncomfortable. Training until failure can definitely push someone outside their comfort zone, but shouldn't be "painful".

Let's get back to the main focus of this article! Now it is time to define and explain the terminology of functional overreaching, nonfunctional overreaching, and overtraining.

Many health and fitness professionals use overtraining as the term for the simple “under-recovery”, but let’s not get this confused with overreaching. Overreaching is defined as the accumulation of training loads that leads to performance decrements for a few days or weeks (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). If one stresses the body to extreme levels, it still likely won’t produce overtraining. The individual will more than likely be pretty damn sore for a few days, but if they follow a proper post and after training protocol, they will survive. However, if an individual continuously experiences extreme overreaching with additional stress and no recovery protocol is warranted, the result of overtraining is feasible (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012).

Functional Overreaching

Functional overreaching can be defined as an increase in training that induces a brief decline in performance but leads to an enhanced performance after recovery (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). The dip in performance parameters can be a few days to a few weeks depending on the program prescribed (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). When incorporating functional overreaching into a program through thoughtful periodization, it can sequentially produce a positive outcome via super-compensation (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012).

When developing a training program, coaches need to find the ideal balance between stress in training and outside of the facility. Stress is stress! When the body experiences stress, is produces an overload on the sympathetic nervous system. When not managed correctly, it can overwhelm the body and produce a variety of disturbances.

Nonfunctional Overreaching

Now nonfunctional overreaching is known to produce longer performance decrement for weeks to months (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). In terms of psychological considerations, nonfunctional overreaching can produce psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, denial, and difficulty concentrating (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). Although the diagnosis of psychological conditions needs to come from a licensed professional, these conditions need to be known in the world of coaching. Exercise psychology is just as important as physiological responses to produce optimal adaptations and enhance performance.

When it comes to training, novice individuals that have not been training for a while may reach nonfunctional overreaching due to their newly introduced training routine and lack of recovery fundamentals. Roy (2015) provides an excellent article and explains that more is not always better! Thus, moving towards the implications that a good balance is needed when beginning a routine. When an individual continues to ignore the signs and symptoms of nonfunctional overreaching, injuries can occur or leads to overtraining.


Overtraining is a tricky diagnosis and frankly, still unclear when it comes to interpretation. Kreher and Schwartz (2012) define overtraining as consistent and extreme measures of nonfunctional overreaching with performance decrements beyond two months. The outcome of overtraining is negative and can greatly impact an individual’s athletic programming or potentially, end their career altogether (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012).

The continued intentions to practice nonfunctional overreaching and neglecting recovery protocols can produce maladapted physiology and psychology above extreme levels (Kreher & Schwartz, 2012). Overtraining is experienced in many physique and bodybuilders due to a lack of optimal programming and adequate recovery methods. These individuals may experience high amounts of fatigue and stress, leading to burnout and eventually, retirement.

Therefore, individuals need to understand that the simple practice of under-recovery can lead to nonfunctional overreaching and overtraining. The explanation of under-recovery includes a variety of important matters that need to be known prior to develop an optimal program. It is important to know the pre-training protocol, such as what can happen to the body, physiologically and psychologically, when programs do not go as planned. If an individual experiences overreaching (functional or non-functional), what happens to their body? Additionally, a during-training protocol needs to be considered. It is very likely that an individual may not feel 100% coming into a training session, however, training is still planned. Therefore, what things can individuals do to redirect or modify that training session to contribute towards recovery. A post-training protocol needs to be implemented following training to help increase relaxation. A variety of techniques can help produce a calming effect and increase protein synthesis after training. Last but not least, an after-training protocol should be designed to continue the progress of recovery. This will include strategies of nutritional fueling, leisure time, and also meditation practices to ease the mind.

In the end, needing a few days off is not because of overtraining. If you are training at an extreme intensity at all times and do not consider other recovery methods in your practice, then overtraining may be something you are dealing with. If your program is on a regular basis, think about how you can achieve functional overreaching in training to elicit a positive adaptation and greatly impact performance. Although this will take some serious thought and an understanding of exercise physiology, you have a variety of resources around you to take action.


  • Ali, J., & Mehrdad, A. (2018). Effect of Lower Limb Muscle Fatigue on Ground Reaction Force Components During Landing in People With Nonspecific Chronic Low Back Pain. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 1-7. doi:10.1123/jsr.2018-0153

  • Carballo, C. B., Nakagawa, Y., Sekiya, I., & Rodeo, S. A. (2017). Basic Science of Articular Cartilage. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 36(3), 413-425. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2017.02.001

  • Cheung, K., Hume, P. A., & Maxwell, L. (2003). Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Sports Medicine, 33(2), 145-164. doi:10.2165/00007256-200333020-00005

  • Kreher, J. B., & Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports health, 4(2), 128-138. doi:10.1177/1941738111434406

  • Miles, M. P., & Clarkson, P. M. (1994). Exercise-induced muscle pain, soreness, and cramps. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 34(3), 203-216.

  • Risbud, M. V., & Shapiro, I. M. (2014). Role of cytokines in intervertebral disc degeneration: pain and disc content. Nature reviews. Rheumatology, 10(1), 44-56. doi:10.1038/nrrheum.2013.160

  • Roy, B. A. (2015). Overreaching/Overtraining: More Is Not Always Better. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 19(2). Retrieved from

  • Satkunskiene, D., Mickevicius, M., Snieckus, A., & Kamandulis, S. (2017). Leg stiffness, valgus knee motion, and Q-angle are associated with hypertrophic soft patella tendon and idiopathic knee pain in adolescent basketball players. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 57(7-8), 1003-1013. doi:10.23736/s0022-4707.17.06911-0

  • Swain, C. T. V., Bradshaw, E. J., Ekegren, C. L., Orishimo, K. F., Kremenic, I. J., Liederbach, M., & Hagins, M. (2019). Multi-segment spine range of motion in dancers with and without recent low back pain. Gait & Posture, 70, 53-58. doi:



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