Is It Fatigue or Cranky Athlete Syndrome?

Athletes are no strangers to feeling tired. But there’s a definite difference between the “normal” fatigue you feel as your training increases and the excessive fatigue you might feel from overtraining, or what I like to call Cranky Athlete Syndrome.

Athletes are no strangers to feeling tired. But there’s a definite difference between the “normal” fatigue you feel as your training increases and the excessive fatigue you might feel from overtraining, or what I like to call Cranky Athlete Syndrome.

How can you tell the difference between fatigue and overtraining?

After a solid week of training you might feel a little run down and like you need a break (that’s what recovery weeks are for!), but in general you have no trouble sleeping, you still feel motivated to train, and you’re eating fine.

The problems come as you toe the line between effective training and becoming a cranky athlete. Unfortunately it’s not as straightforward as one day you wake up and you know something is wrong. It usually creeps up on you a few symptoms at a time and before you know it you crash. It also is really easy for a lot of us to explain away some of these symptoms as “just a normal part of training,” but if you have even just a few of the symptoms of Cranky Athlete Syndrome, it’s time to reevaluate your goals and your training.

Symptoms of Cranky Athlete Syndrome

Symptoms of Cranky Athlete Syndrome include fatigue, a decrease in performance (usually gradual), inability to elevate your heart rate at hard efforts and an increased heart rate during rest or easy efforts, no motivation, insomnia, mood changes (such as irritability, being easily agitated, depression, or anxiety), restlessness (you know how you feel during a taper...but when you’re not tapering), elevated blood pressure (hypertension), decreased appetite, weight loss, difficulty concentrating, and unexplained muscle soreness.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of diseases that have the same symptoms as overtraining or Cranky Athlete Syndrome, so figuring out what exactly is going on if you’re feeling off can be a challenge. It’s probably safe to say that you have Cranky Athlete Syndrome after you’ve determined that there isn’t something more serious happening. Some of the diagnoses to rule out are anemia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome (this is a big one and is typically something that has been going on for a long time), and depression.

If you have Cranky Athlete Syndrome, it’s unlikely that it’s just due to training. Most of the time there is other stress in your life (yes, training is stress) that contributes to your decreased ability to cope with or tolerate increasing training. It’s also very common for there to be a stressful event that when combined with too much training and not enough recovery creates the perfect storm that is Cranky Athlete Syndrome.

A triggering stressful event, along with the chronic overtraining, pushes the athlete to start developing symptoms of overtraining syndrome, which is far worse than classic overtraining. Overtraining can be a part of healthy training, if only done for a short period of time. Chronic overtraining is what leads to serious health problems, including adrenal insufficiency.

How Do You know if you’re becoming a cranky athlete

As I mentioned, it can be difficult to differentiate between the normal fatigue of training and the downward spiral into Cranky Athlete Syndrome. Here are some common things to be on the lookout for.

You start to feel unmotivated.

For most athletes, motivation isn’t an issue. Whether you’re competitive or just love the training process, you don’t have an issue getting yourself out the door. When you start to feel like training is a drag and you can’t get yourself onto your bike or out the door for your swim or your’s time to pay attention. Lack of motivation in training isn’t an indication that you’re lazy, it’s most likely a sign that you are stressed and fatigued.

Your immune system starts to let you down.

You catch every cold that your kid brings home or you get sick any time anyone in your office so much as sneezes. This is a sign that your immune system is on overdrive. If you only get sick a few times per year, then it’s not a big deal, but if you get sick more than normal, pay attention!

Your resting heart rate is high or your max heart rate is low.

In the short term, neither of these things is a big deal. If you have one or two days a week where your resting heart rate is higher than normal, it’s most likely due to some acute stress (a harder than normal training session, work, life, etc.) or even something you ate before bed. The same goes for your max heart rate. If it’s hard to elevate your heart rate during a hard effort once in a while, that’s fine. Especially as you get closer to a recovery week. But if either of these occur consistently, or if you notice and upward trend in your resting heart rate (or a downward trend in your max heart rate) and is not fixed by a few days off, then it’s time to consider that you might be developing Cranky Athlete Syndrome.

You gain or lose weight even though your diet or exercise levels haven’t changed.

This can be an indicator of chronic stress and hormonal balance. Your hormones are affected by stress (among other things) and if this is something that’s happening to you, you might need to take some time off to get things under control. For this issue, you’ll want to work with a healthcare provider to figure out exactly what’s going on and help to get you back on track.

Your sleep sucks.

Or an increased reliance on caffeine to get you going in the morning. Long term or significant changes in your sleep pattern is a sign that something isn’t right. This can also be tied into your hormones and stress levels. If you have an occasional night of lousy sleep or you take a few extra naps one week, that’s not a huge concern. It’s when these changes become the new normal that there is reason to pay attention.

Your performance declines.

If you are training harder than you’ve ever trained before but you aren’t seeing an improvement in your performance, something is wrong. This can often be the first and most subtle sign that something is wrong since most athletes don’t truly get to test their performance unless they are racing. One bad race can be explained by many things, but the second bad race is more of a cause for concern.

You get injured more frequently.

This can be another tricky one since most athletes are used to a niggle here and a nagging something there. If you notice that you are more sore than normal or that you have more things that hurt more often, pay attention to them. Injuries don’t have to be serious like a sprained ankle or broken bone. A new pulled muscle or aches in a different spot every week is a definite red flag.

Your mood changes.

This is something you might need to tell your family and friends to watch out for. These changes are unique to everyone but I most commonly see people becoming more irritable (and cranky), anxious, and depressed. These mood changes are often one of the later signs of Cranky Athlete Syndrome.  

How to Fix Cranky Athlete Syndrome

Finding the sweet spot in your training can be challenging, especially if you’re prone to fatigue. As someone who suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it has taken me years to find the right balance and right approach to my training to keep me from developing Cranky Athlete Syndrome (there’s a definite difference between the two).

Effective training involves overloading your system just enough and (more importantly) pairing that training with adequate recovery. If you underdo it on either, you won’t improve. If you overdo the training and underdo the recovery, you’ll end up a cranky athlete.

It’s pretty hard to overtrain, but it’s extremely easy to under recover.

If you are concerned that you might be developing (or already have) Cranky Athlete Syndrome, the best thing you can do is take some time off and reevaluate your goals.

I realize that telling an athlete to stop training is futile. I’ve been there.

When I was feeling my worst, my doctor told me to stop training since there was nothing else wrong with me. I must be tried because I was running too much and not sleeping enough (neither was true). That experience was actually my biggest for becoming a nurse practitioner. You can’t have it all, but you can keep doing what you love and feel good so long as you’re willing to make some adjustments.

Remember that professional athletes are getting paid to train and recover. Most of them don’t have many other responsibilities to take away from that.

Do you want to win? Or do you want to do the best you can and be healthy and functional in the process. Sure winning might be fun, but at what cost? If you’re not getting paid to train (and recover) and winning comes at the expense of your health and well-being, is that really worth it?

If you want to do the best you can and stay healthy, then when you start to experience the symptoms of Cranky Athlete Syndrome, it’s time to take a short break, consult a professional, and move forward carefully. My motto has become “when in doubt, recover.”

I trained for a 50K race a couple of years ago by running twice a week. One long run and one shorter run (I also swam once a week). Was I fast? Not really. Did I finish? Most definitely. Did I enjoy the process? Absolutely. And I had zero injuries and zero illnesses over the 16 week training cycle.

But my expectations were not that I would win, the goal was to enjoy the process and finish the race. Both of which I accomplished.

If you are able to come back to training after your time off with a more balanced focus, then you don’t need to take a lot of time off in most cases. But if you are the type of person who has to go all out or not at all, then you might need some more time away to get your body back on track.

If you think you might be a cranky athlete and you’d like some help, feel free to email me! You can also get the Cranky Athlete’s Guide to Endless Energy by entering your email below!