Overtraining and burnout in elite athletes: when physiology meets psychology

Por: D. Treasure, G. C. Roberts, J. Stray-gundersen, K. Matt e P. N. Lemyre.

Athens 2004: Pre-olympic Congress

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Burnout has been defined as a state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion brought on by persistent devotion to a goal, the achievement of which is dramatically opposed to reality [1]. It has been suggested that "motivation gone awry" may play an important role in the onset of burnout [2]. Two main achievement goals have been identified and found to operate in the social context of sport: a task goal orientation and an ego goal orientation [3].  When task oriented, success and failure are judged by whether one has mastered an activity. When ego oriented, the athlete’s main concern is to demonstrate normative ability. The state of goal involvement is a product of both personal dispositions and situational factors such as the motivational climate. The aim of this study was to look at how motivation and hormonal changes in elite athletes can better predict together burnout at season’s end. Overtraining and burnout share diagnosis characteristics like performance loss, fatigue, exhaustion, and mood disturbance [4]. However, when an athlete is overtrained, motivation remains, whereas the burned out athlete will typically show signs of sport devaluation and express cynicism. Chronic stress and overtraining are expected to cause increases in basal cortisol, a possible indication of metabolic problems [5]. Variation in basal cortisol was hypothesized to predict burnout when combined with maladaptive motivational dispositions.


An elite swim team (f=21; m=32) participated in a protocol of 6x200m intervals in 2 daily training practices. Venous blood was drawn before and after each set of intervals, and the following morning. Blood was assayed for cortisol by RIA. This protocol and questionnaires assessing motivation were used at the easy (September; T1), very hard (November; T2) and peaking time (March; T3) periods of the season.


Results indicated that variation in basal cortisol from T1 & T3 predicted (p<0.05) total burnout at T3. Difference in basal cortisol from T1 to T2 predicted burnout at T3 (p<0.05). Perception of a mastery oriented climate (p<0.05) and perception of a performance oriented climate (p<0.05) predicted levels of exhaustion at season’s end. Athletes high and low in satisfaction with season performance differed in basal cortisol levels at T2 (F=7,841; p<0.05). High and low levels in perceived exhaustion at T2 and T3 were respectively predicted by differences in basal cortisol from T1 to T2 (p<0.05), and from T1 to T3 (p<0.05). 


Basal cortisol and achievemtn goals were found to be strong predictors of burnout in elite swimmers. Results demonstrate the value of a multi-dimensional approach to understand overtraining and burnout in elite athletes.



[1]. Freudenberger, H. J. (1980). Burn-out. New York: Anchor Press.

[2]. Gould, D. (1996).  Personal motivation gone awry: Burnout in competitive athletes.  Quest, 48, 275-289.

[3]. Roberts, G. C. (2001). Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise (p. 1-50).  Human Kinetics, IL.

[4]. Kenttä, G., & Hassmén, P. (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[5]. Steinacker, J.M. & Lehmann, M. (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.



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