Under-Recovery and Over-Training: Awareness for Coaches and Athletes

5-forgotten-fat-loss-tips_ePosted by Tyler Bradstreet

The terms under-recovery and over-training are used quite frequently by coaches and athletes. These terms seem simple – the athlete has not fully recovered (under-recovery) and/or the athlete has excessively trained (over-training). However it is more complex than that. I believe there is a need for awareness regarding the:  (a) meaning of these constructs; (b) relationship between the two; (c) signs and symptoms; and (d) strategies to monitor and prevent. Having this awareness would allow coaches and athletes to be able to monitor training and recovery schedules effectively, which ultimately will lead to peak performances. The follow paragraphs will address these topics.

The life of an athlete competing at a high level is very hectic – they have to balance their daily life activities (i.e., school, work) and social activities (i.e., interacting with friends, loved ones) along with their intense training schedule. It is easy to overlook indicators of over-training when one’s time schedule is this full. Korber (2006, p. 22) provided an excerpt from an interview with a German swimming champion who was describing his daily routine leading up to the German Swimming Championships:

“I get up at 6:30 a.m. From 7 a.m. until 8:45 a.m. I have water training at the sport school. After that I have a quick breakfast to be at the hospital at 10 a.m. where I am doing my internship. At 3:30 p.m. I head off to the sport school for strength training or physiotherapy, followed by additional water training from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. At 9 p.m. I am finally at home. In the beginning of this program I felt like I was in a coma. However, I took the day off before the German Championships. The recovery during this period gave me the kick to perform well.”

This athlete, like many others, does in fact have a hectic schedule that does not have recovery time penciled in. HOWEVER, this athlete perceived his “one day off” as good enough of a recovery period to allow him to perform at his best. I don’t know about you all….but I don’t think that is going to cut it. Physical and mental rest are key components of fitness and preparation (Morris, 2008).

Itzel (2006) provides another example that may allude to a more favorable recovery schedule. Itzel wrote about an interview where the press asked the coach of the 2006 World Cup French national soccer team about what his team did to improve their physical condition from game to game.

“We have done almost nothing,” coach answered, “only recovery.” “You know… old people need care.”

Humorous…but the point is that this coach gets it – He understands that EFFECTIVE recovery time is NEEDED in order to perform well.


Defining Under-Recovery

Kellmann and Kallus (2001, p. 22) defined recovery as “an inter- and intra-individual multilevel (e.g., psychological, physiological, social) process in time for the re-establishment of performance abilities. It includes an action-oriented component, and those self-initiated activities (proactive recovery) can be systematically used to optimize situational conditions to build up and to refill personal resources and buffers.” Thus, under-recovery would be the absence of or an inadequate amount of recovery.

Defining Over-Training

Over-training is characterized by an ongoing performance plateau that does not improve with short amounts of rest and recovery (Kellmann, 2013). Common symptoms with over-training include:

  • depressed mood
  • general apathy
  • decreased self-esteem
  • performance
  • emotional instability
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • poor sleep
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • increased resting heart rate
  • vulnerability to injuries
  • hormonal changes
  • impaired immune response (risk for infections, etc.)

The Relationship between Them

Plainly stated, under-recovery is the precursor/cause of over-training (Kellmann, 2013). Thus, the key to preventing over-training is an active and proactive approach to recovery. Balancing training stress and recovery are essential to the achievement of optimal performance.

Kellmann (2002) proposed a general model describing this relationship.

With increasing stress (i.e., training), increased recovery is necessary to stay in the original stress state. Limited resources (e.g., time), however, initiate a vicious cycle: under increased stress and the inability to meet increased recovery demands, a person experiences more stress.  Ultimately, one can become stress to the point where they do not make time to recover adequately (Kellmann, 2013).


Prevention Strategies

The most frequent causes of over-training cited by athletes are: (a) too much stress and pressure; (b) too much practice and physical training; (c) physical exhaustion and all-over soreness; (d) boredom because of too much repetition; and (e) poor rest or lack of proper sleep (Kellmann, 2013).

Thus, to combat these issues coaches must systematically insert regular rest days into their overall training schedules. Coaches could schedule activities such as team dinners, movies, fun (laid-back) games, etc. However, the rest days inserted by the coach into the schedule do not have to become team functions; sometimes it’s good to leave the athletes to their own devices to do as they please.

Over-training can also be caused by: (a) monotonous training programs; (b) more than three hours of training per day; (c) failure to alternate hard and easy training days or alternate two hard days followed by an easy training day; or (d) no training periodization and respective regeneration micro-cycles after two, or three weeks of training.

Thus, athletes/coaches should explore the ideas of deliberate practice and random practice schedules.

Deliberate practice is practice that is effortful, highly structured, organized, and direct toward extrinsic goals and rewards (Colvin, 2010). As a coach, if you cannot give a GOOD answer to the question, “why are we doing this (in practice)?” then you probably aren’t practicing in a deliberate manner.

A random practice schedule is where several motor skills are practiced in a non-specific (random) order, as compared to blocked (one motor skill is practiced repeatedly before moving to another) or serial (several motor skills are practiced in a specific, repeating order)practice schedules.

Follow the constructs of deliberate and random practice, and athletes will become more effective at skill acquisition and mastery, all the while reducing their risk of becoming over-trained (as long as you throw some recovery days in there!).

For more information, check out Peterson’s (2003) four-step model to recognize the symptoms of over-training and to develop preventive strategies.

Last Thoughts

Hopefully this has given you a better understanding of the terms under-recovery and over-training. My takeaway messages are simply that no matter what you are doing in regards to improving your performance (i.e., goal setting, imagery, weight-training, cardio-training, sport-practice), it is MOST effective to do so in a systematic and purposeful manner. And, no matter how hard you train, you are fighting a losing battle if you do not provide your body with adequate recovery time.

Lastly, if you’re interested in hearing more about deliberate practice and/or random practice schedule, it will be the topic I cover next week.  Until then…

Kind Regards.

Tyler C. Bradstreet
Master’s Student: Sport and Exercise Psychology
Teaching Fellow: Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion, and Recreation
Sport Psychology Consultant: Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence
University of North Texas: Denton, TX


Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is Overrated. Portfolio Trade
Itzel, R. (2006). Triumph der Edelmanner. Retrieved from
Kellmann, M. (2002) Underrecovery and overtraining: Different concepts – similar impact? In M. Kellmann (Ed.), Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes (pp.219-229). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Kellman, M. (2013) Overtraining and recovery In S. Hanrahan & M. Anderson (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology (pp. 292-302). New  York: Routledge
Kellman, M., & Kallus, K. (2001). The recovery-stress questionnaire for athletes; User manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetic
Korber, P. (2006). Ich werde nie profischwimmer. Wiesbadener Kurier, p. 22, 28 June.
Peterson, K. (2003). Athlete overtraining and underrecovery: Recognizing the symptoms and strategies for coaches. Olympic Coach, 18 (3), 16-17.


6 thoughts on “Under-Recovery and Over-Training: Awareness for Coaches and Athletes”

  1. Hi Tyler,
    Great article. I enjoyed the flow of the article. It helped me understand everything fairly easy. It also helped when you explained the relationship between under-recovery and over-training and then provided prevention strategies.

  2. Bill — I’m glad you thought the article flowed well; that is something I strive for each time I write. I also agree that understanding the relationship between the two is quite important – it helped a great bit when someone explained it that way to me. Lastly, I like your website,; very cool concept! Hopefully my articles can be of some benefit to you during your professional endeavors!

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