Underrecovery Syndrome

In sports, optimal performance is only achievable if athletes recover after competition. Recovery and intense exercise must also be balanced with everyday life. Additionally, sufficient physiological and psychological recovery protects against overtraining.  However,  it  is  just  a  small  step  from  regular daily  practice  to  a  high  frequency  of  demanding events, which complicates the process of recovery for athletes. Teams of the American basketball and ice hockey leagues play 82 games during the regular  season;  players  travel  thousands  of  miles  per month.  Reaching  the  playoffs  adds  more  games and  travel  to  the  already  demanding  schedules. One game per night in a city is daily business for athletes  like  LeBron  James  or  Corey  Perry.  For example, the Miami Heat played basketball games in  Portland,  Salt  Lake  City,  and  Los  Angeles,  on three  consecutive  nights.  In  the  National  Hockey League  (NHL),  the  Anaheim  Ducks  played  six hockey games in a row in different cities within 11 days in November during the 2011–2012 season. Thus, the questions arise, how much recovery time is necessary between games and what kind of consequences result if there is not enough time to rest?

Athletes  need  recovery  to  perform  better.  If the  time  of  recovery  is  too  short  or  disturbed  by certain  several  circumstances,  underrecovery  may occur.  Underrecovery  is  defined  as  the  imbalance of recovery periods and daily life demands of a person. These demands can be intensive practice, competitions, and all stressors linked to the sport and everyday life of an athlete. For example, distance from family because of extensive travel can be an important  stressor  disturbing  adequate  recovery before  and  after  games.  Additionally,  mistakes  in the  training  structure  can  overstrain  the  athlete and  increase  the  need  for  recovery.  Examples  of these  mistakes  include  monotonous  training  programs, too long training sessions, ignoring training principles, or training periodization (not including rest days or periods of lower intensity).

Recovery processes depend on previous activities and the type and duration of stress. The interrelation between recovery and stress can be illustrated by a scissors model. Within the scissors model, it is postulated that stress and recovery change independently from each other, meaning that reducing stress  may  not  necessarily  result  in  an  enhanced recovery. Adequate recovery, however, reduces the experienced level of stress. When external factors prevent adequate recovery, the imbalance between stress  and  recovery  may  increase.  Conversely, per  the  scissors  model,  athletes  need  to  follow increased efforts with a longer period of recovery. Thus,  it  is  important  that  athletes,  and  especially coaches, are aware of the importance of recovery and its relation to stress and performance.

The recovery process is gradual and cumulative. The  total  recovery  time  depends  on  the  previous activities  and  the  type  and  duration  of  stress.  In general, if practice is completed in a high-training volume phase, recovery usually takes longer than if practice is completed in a taper phase. Recovery finishes  when  a  psychophysical  state  of  restored efficiency  and  homeostatic  balance  is  reached.

Mostly,  the  process  of  recovery  is  linked  with  a change, reduction, or a break from activity, but the process needs to be applied individually. A sauna may  be  a  favorite  recovery  strategy  for  one  athlete  but  would  not  be  a  strategy  to  be  deployed by  an  athlete  who  feels  stressed  by  sitting  in  a small  room  with  high  temperature.  The  recovery process can be reached passively, actively, or proactively.  Passive  strategies  comprise  a  cease  from activity,  such  as  rest,  massage,  sauna,  and  hot  or cold  baths.  These  strategies  initiate  physiological  reactions  through  external  stimuli  (e.g.,  heat, cold, pressure) affecting blood flow, breathing, or muscle  tone.  Active  and  proactive  strategies  are self-initiated  processes  by  the  athlete  to  reestablish  psychological  and  physiological  resources. Active  strategies  include  activities  implemented immediately  after  practice  and  competition,  such as  cool-down  activities  like  stretching  or  slow running.  Proactive  strategies  comprise  additional self-initiated activities independent of practice. For example, relaxation techniques (muscle relaxation training) optimize recovery by supporting metabolism  mechanisms  for  dealing  with  blood  lactate. Other  activities  can  be  described  as  proactive regeneration.  If  an  ice  hockey  player  experiences housework (e.g., ironing) as a regenerative action, it  could  be  used  for  recovering  from  an  intense exercise. This example illustrates how individualized recovery can be implemented. Thus, proactive recovery  also  contains  time  with  friends  (social recovery)  and  can  compensate  for  less  time  of physiological regeneration.

Although  it  sounds  very  easy  to  refill  empty energy stores, from a practical point of view, there are  many  determinants  affecting  the  quality  of recovery.  Coaches  must  be  aware  of  situational and  environmental  conditions  like  heat,  noise, or sleep, reducing the quality of rest. Eight hours of  sleep  at  night  during  a  training  camp  could be  enough,  for  example.  But  if  the  athlete  has  to share  the  room  with  a  snoring  roommate,  in  an uncomfortable bed, the athlete may feel absolutely exhausted  the  next  day.  Disturbances  and  irritations  during  rest  could  prevent  fulfilling  psychological and physiological needs, affecting athletes’ performance.  Furthermore,  while  travel  time  is  a break  from  exercise  and  competition,  the  stress associated  with  travel  does  not  provide  adequate regeneration.  These  circumstances  could  have negative consequences if a state of underrecovery stays at a high level for a longer period. However, short  underrecovery  episodes  could  be  compensated. For example, if an athlete goes out to party, he may lack sleep before next morning’s practice. Although the amount of sleep would not be enough for an optimal regeneration, the positive energy of the  social  night  with  friends  may  compensate  for the  feeling  of  tiredness.  However,  problems  arise if  the  imbalance  of  demands  and  regeneration  is maintained over a long period of time and results in a state of chronic underrecovery.

Differences Between Underrecovery and Overtraining

Underrecovery   and   overtraining   syndromes seem  to  describe  the  same  state  of  an  athlete  of being tired and unable to perform on a high level after  periods  of  inadequate  recovery  and  intense practice.  At  first  sight,  it  appears  that  both  syndromes  are  characterized  by  the  same  symptoms and  causes.  However,  on  closer  examination,  it is  obvious  that  underrecovery  and  overtraining syndrome  are  different.  On  one  hand,  there  is the  state  of  underrecovery  caused  by  imbalance of  various  demands  and  regeneration.  Too  much physical (intense exercise, density of competitions) and  psychological  (conflicts,  traveling,  disturbed recovery)  stress  and  inadequate  recovery  (breaks, social  recovery)  over  a  long  period  of  time  lead to  a  feeling  of  exhaustion.  The  accumulation  of fatigue  develops  over  time  into  an  underrecovery syndrome.

On the other hand, the overtraining syndrome describes  the  result  of  the  imbalance  between too  much  practice,  competitions,  or  nontraining stress factors, and a lack of recovery. Mistakes in training structure additionally cause tiredness and reduce mental freshness. Thus, underrecovery is a precondition  for  overtraining.  Originally,  muscle fatigue  is  the  goal  of  intense  practice  in  order  to achieve training effects. This kind of overreaching, also  named  short-term  overtraining,  is  a  regular part of athletic training. Nevertheless, when overreaching  is  too  profound  or  is  extended  for  too long, short-term overtraining turns into long-term overtraining.  The  problem  arises  when  recovery needs  are  neglected  by  the  coach  or  athletes  and chronic overreaching occurs over a long period of time (at least for three weeks). Missing periods for refilling  energy  stores  can  cause  athletes’  performance to drop or plateau. Athletes may train even harder in the attempt to improve, but this can lead to a deeper state of underrecovery. Accordingly, a feeling of staleness can be the consequence of longterm  overtraining;  staleness  describes  the  state in  which  the  athlete  has  difficulties  in  maintaining  standard  training  regimens  because  of  physical  feelings  (e.g.,  stiffness,  tiredness)  or  decreased motivation.  Other  consequences  include  feelings of  depression,  general  apathy,  emotional  instability, restlessness, disturbed sleep, and an increased vulnerability to injuries.

Consequences and Prevention of Underrecovery

Short  periods  of  underrecovery  can  be  compensated by the athletes’ use of other recovery strategies  like  relaxation  techniques.  However,  chronic underrecovery  leads  to  short-term  and  long-term consequences. Short-term consequences include the feeling  of  tiredness  and  exhaustion,  lethargy,  less motivation,  and  development  of  negative  cognitions toward upcoming activities, which negatively influences future performance. Less concentration and body tension during practice can also increase the  risk  of  injuries.  Additionally,  in  contrast  to the  overtraining  syndrome,  underrecovery  also impacts  daily  routines.  A  reduced  level  of  energy will be noticed during daily activities and can reinforce  long-term  consequences,  including  feelings of  depression,  emotional  instability,  weight  loss, increased  resting  heart  rate,  hormonal  changes, disturbed  sleep,  and  increased  vulnerability  to injuries  and  respiratory  diseases.  Underrecovery may  also  lead  to  burnout—the  psychological, physical,  and  emotional  withdrawal  from  a  formerly  enjoyable  or  motivating  activity.  Burnout is  an  exhaustive  psychophysiological  response  to massive  chronic  stress  and  often  requires  a  long break from activity to recover. If an athlete reaches the  state  of  chronic  underrecovery,  small  periods of  regeneration  or  spontaneous  interventions  are ineffective,  requiring  a  longer  rest  period  (from several weeks to months) and professional help by doctors or psychologists.

To  prevent  the  extreme  state  of  exhaustion, coaches  and  athletes  need  to  incorporate  sufficient  and  high-quality  periods  of  regeneration into  training  regimens,  ensuring  that  recovery periods  are  long  enough,  with  minimal  disturbances.  A  good  athlete–coach  relationship  has a  preventive  effect.  The  athlete  can  talk  about private  stressors  (e.g.,  problems  with  relevant others,  financial  problems),  disturbances  during recovery  periods  (e.g.,  a  snoring  roommate),  or problems  during  practice.  Discussion  can  reduce interpersonal  stress  with  the  coach.  Additionally, a well-structured training and competition schedule  is  an  important  step  to  prevent  monotonous training.  Adequate  time  management  and  planning of breaks and travel could reduce stress level. Furthermore,  it  is  important  that  athletes  are aware of their preferred recovery strategies, being able to use at least two or three.


Recovery  helps  refill  athletes’  energy  stores  and refresh the mental state for challenges. Too often, however,   the   recovery   element   is   overlooked as  an  essential  aspect  of  any  training  regimen and  periodization  of  a  season.  Insufficient  time between  competitions,  long  distances  between tournaments,  intense  physical  demands,  and  the load  of  daily  hassles  can  cause  athletes  to  insufficiently  regenerate.  Underrecovery  dramatically impacts  the  performances  and  health  of  athletes. Consequently, athletes and especially coaches need to  be  aware  of  the  danger  of  disregarding  necessary recovery periods. By maintaining the optimal balance between overreaching, recovery, and stress management, positive training effects arise and the competitiveness of athletes will be preserved.


  1. Kellmann, M. (Ed.). (2002). Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(Suppl. 2), 95–102.
  3. Kellmann, M., & Kallus, K. W. (2001). The RecoveryStress Questionnaire for Athletes: User manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  4. Kenttä, G., & Hassmén, P. (2002). Underrecovery and overtraining: A conceptual model. In M. Kellmann (Ed.), Enhancing recovery: Preventing underperformance in athletes (pp. 57–79). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


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