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SYMPATHETIC VS PARASYMPATHETIC OVERTRAINING: Understanding & Recovery Strategies for Athletes:

Improving Understanding and Recovery Strategies for Athletes


Athlete availability and durability are crucial outcomes in a successful sports performance program. To achieve these goals, sports performance professionals must design and implement programs with appropriate exercise selection, acute variables, and the right environment for adaptation. It is also essential to apply proper progression to continually enhance performance levels.


One critical aspect of program design is mitigating factors that can interfere with optimal performance and potentially cause injuries. One such factor to watch out for is overtraining.

Overtraining is not limited to elite athletes; anyone engaged in a training program can be susceptible. It occurs when there is an imbalance in various factors:

  1. Training : Recovery

  2. Exercise : Exercise Capacity

  3. Stress : Stress Tolerance

Overtraining can be explained as excessive frequency, duration, volume, or intensity of training sessions, leading to the body's inability to recover and adapt. There are two major forms of overtraining: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Recognizing the differences between the two can help professionals select appropriate recovery modalities to support their clients or athletes.


Sympathetic overtraining is associated with high amounts of anaerobic activity. Besides obvious performance decrements, symptoms may include restlessness or excitability, disturbed sleep, weight loss, accelerated resting heart rate, and delayed recovery. For athletes experiencing sympathetic overtraining, parasympathetic recovery techniques should be employed.


Parasympathetic recovery techniques include modalities such as meditation, relaxation techniques, massage, hot tubs, and deep water floating. Taking daytime naps and engaging in light intensity resistance training are also recommended. These methods can help reduce the chance of exercise burnout and facilitate proper recovery. Athletes should avoid stimulants during this time.


On the other hand, parasympathetic overtraining is associated with high volumes of aerobic activity. For athletes experiencing this type of overtraining, focus on sympathetic recovery techniques. Low intensity active recovery options are still suitable choices. However, recovery programs can be augmented with modalities such as electric muscle stimulation (EMS), cryotherapy, contrast baths, saunas, or cold water swimming.

Symptoms of parasympathetic overtraining include depression, decreased heart rate, fatigue, and decreased performance. Unlike sympathetic overtraining, individuals suffering from parasympathetic overtraining often have undisturbed sleep, maintain a constant weight, and recover well from normal training sessions.


Progressive and appropriate overloading is necessary to achieve specific adaptations for optimal performance. Planning for rest and recovery is crucial as adaptations occur during these periods. While injuries may be unavoidable, managing workload appropriately, planning effectively, and utilizing progression methodologies can reduce the likelihood of setbacks due to overtraining. By implementing these strategies, sports performance professionals can help athletes stay available to coaches and stay on track towards their personal performance goals.

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