The physical and mental demands placed on soccer players can eventually lead to diminished performance. Heavy and prolonged training may bring about what is known as overtraining syndrome, staleness or burnout. Furthermore, too many games within a short period of time can also lead to poor performance and increase the chances of illness or injury. This article looks at the reasons behind overtraining, the various symptoms as well as preventing or recovering from this syndrome.


The principle of training overload is essential for improving fitness. The biological mechanisms in the body respond to a training load by adapting their capacities to meet this stress. This process may cause a relatively brief drop in performance, followed by a full recovery or improvement in performance (adaptation or super-compensation).Training status can only be further improved by increasing the load that the body is working against. Thus, the sequence of load-fatigue-recovery is extremely important. A player suffering from the over-training syndrome experiences long-term under-performance and chronic fatigue, this despite continuing or even increasing training load.

Overtraining occurs when the recovery is inadequate and the player continues to train beyond their body's ability to recover. Further physiological adaptation to exercise stops and when the player tries too hard to improve performance, the stress and physical trauma experienced is faster than the body can repair the damage. In chronically overtrained athletes a decline as much as 15% in physical performance is not uncommon. The main causes of overtraining can be listed as:

Energy depletion - Inadequate carbohydrate intake over a prolonged period of time (glycogen depletion) can cause fatigue. Lack of adequate protein, vitamins and minerals and insufficient fluid intake can all affect energy levels and the body's capacity to regenerate. This is particularly important when exercising in hot conditions. See our nutrition section for further information.

Anaemia (Iron deficiency) - Blood tests can reveal a lack of Iron intake which leads to a poorer oxygen carrying capacity in the blood. This reduces aerobic capacity and leads to quicker and greater fatigue.

Training - Inadequate recovery time between training or matches will not allow the body's regenerative processes to take place. Also, excessive high-intensity training, sudden changes in exercise load (intensity, frequency, duration...) or intense strength training may cause problems.

Injury - Overuse injuries can occur and reduce performance capacity. Hard grounds, incorrect pre-season preparation as well as stressful training methods such as plyometrics may all lead to insufficient repair of muscle tissue.

Stress - Hard training and frequent matches increase the production of stress hormones such as glutocorticoids. These affect the immune system and leave the body open (especially straight after intensive exercise) to illnesses of the upper respiratory tract (colds, glandular fever..). Click here for a detailed look at respiratory illness.

Psychological & social factors - Various factors such as loss of drive, motivation and confidence as well as anxiety can lead to psychological staleness. Tedious training programs may not help matters. Players who feel they are not achieving their goals can try even harder and increase the risk of overtraining.

Insufficient sleep and not enough rest can also play a role in leading to overtraining. Fitting frequent competition and travel around one's lifestyle (work and family commitments) may lead to problems due to insufficient time spent in recovering correctly.

Age & gender - Younger and inexperienced players are susceptible to overtraining because of their lower tolerance to strenuous training or frequent matches. Older players may simply struggle due to their age. Female players (read article) may also need to be carefully monitored for signs of burnout.


An overtrained individual suffers from prolonged mental and physical fatigue and will under perform in both training and competition. Fig 1 shows the three major effects resulting from overtraining.

We can see that both physiological and psychological problems may occur which will lead to diminished performance levels. The player will struggle to keep up with the squad, require a greater amount of time to recover and their technical skills will suffer. The various physiological symptoms may be described as:

- Elevated morning pulse rate heart rate at rest, during and after exercise
- Fluctuations in blood pressure
- Increase in number of injuries
- Chronic muscle soreness or weak-feeling in muscles
- Weight loss or fluctuations
- Appetite loss
- Gastrointestinal disturbances (diarrhoea and nausea)
- Frequent and increased susceptibility to infections and illness
- Excessive sweating
- Chronic fatigue
- Hormonal changes, e.g. cortisol-testosterone ratio
- Headaches
- Menstrual irregularities

As well as these physiological factors, both emotional and behavioural symptoms may be shown by the player. These are listed below:

- Poor concentration
- Decreased self-confidence
- Apathy
- Insomnia

- Inability to relax

- Loss of purpose, energy, competitive drive, enthusiasm,
- Poor attitude, confusion and lack of interest
- Feelings of helplessness and being trapped in routine
- Emotional instability
and mood changes (irritability and anger)
- Loss of libido
- Increased anxiety and depressive feelings

The chronic fatigue experienced by overtrained soccer players is linked to the stress placed on the central nervous system. There are three major stages in this process. Firstly, the alarm phase is where an athlete may sense and feel they are struggling. When the stress is maintained, a resistance phase occurs where the body tries to cope and adapt. If the overtraining can be caught in this stage then damage can be reduced. However, if the stress is presented too often the body moves into an exhaustion phase where it can no longer can or adapt.

Although there is no single one physiological or psychological component to indicate overtraining, the symptoms when considered together give a fair idea that a player is either suffering from overtraining or is approaching this stage.

Click on next to read about how to avoid and treating overtraining syndrome.