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Cumulative Fatigue in Athletes and Fitness Enthusiasts

What is Cumulative Fatigue?

Cumulative fatigue is the build-up of fatigue over time due to excessive physical stress (for example, a demanding training plan) combined with inadequate recovery. This leads to physical and mental strain, with athletes experiencing reduced physical performance, excessive muscle soreness, trouble sleeping, loss of motivation to train, mood swings, and stomach discomfort. 

What Factors Contribute to Cumulative Fatigue?

We can boil down cumulative fatigue to a combination of two things: too much physical stress and not enough recovery. There could be numerous factors leading to cumulative fatigue within that:

  • High training volume – doing too much training can lead to excessive muscle damage, metabolic stress, and systemic fatigue that take longer to recover from
  • Poor sleep – not getting at least seven hours of quality sleep each night can severely limit the body’s ability to recover
  • Low calorie intake – not getting enough calories (such as when trying to shed fat) means the body doesn’t have as much available energy to use for muscle repair
  • Low protein intake – in addition to energy intake, getting enough protein is crucial for muscle recovery; a high calorie but low protein intake can still impact recovery
  • Life stress – handling all of life’s emergencies can put a toll on a person’s mental health and generate fatigue that can impair recovery and affect workout motivation
  • External factors – extreme heat and humidity, high altitude, and jetlag are some factors that can affect sleep and work capacity, leading to more fatigue

How Does Cumulative Fatigue Affect Athletes

Depending on the severity, cumulative fatigue can have effects ranging from mild and barely perceptible to debilitating and quite noticeable. 

  • Performance decline – fluctuations are normal, but a downward trend should be alarming. Our strength coaching platform allows you to easily examine your clients’ performance to see how they are doing.
  • Persistent muscle soreness and nagging joint aches – these typically result from too much training.
  • Loss of motivation to train – if an athlete doesn’t feel the same urge to stay consistent with their training plan, it could be because they feel too tired.
  • Impaired immunity – overexertion coupled with poor recovery can suppress the body’s defense system, making athletes more susceptible to illnesses, such as the common cold.

Ways to Limit Fatigue

Limiting cumulative fatigue is a matter of tipping the scale in favor of recovery. Here are some coaching tactics that work:

  • Adding deload weeks – scheduling a deload week for every six to eight weeks of hard and consistent training is generally a good idea. Experiment to find the ideal frequency for each of your athletes.
  • Limit back-to-back workouts – having rest days is a no-brainer, but how you schedule them can also have a positive effect. It’s generally a good idea to include a recovery day between sessions (particularly more demanding ones) than to string several workout days followed by a long rest period.
  • Consider autoregulation – give athletes some flexibility to self-select the difficulty of each workout based on daily readiness. This tactic works particularly well with in-person training because you can closely monitor your clients.
  • Periodize athletes’ training – program periods of more intense training followed by stretches of less demanding workouts. This can be a great way to control fatigue and allow for some supercompensation to occur.


1. Is cumulative fatigue only a risk for high-level athletes?

While high-level athletes tend to be at a higher risk, amateurs and fitness enthusiasts can also experience cumulative fatigue if they don’t focus on proper recovery.

2. Does nutrition affect cumulative fatigue?

Nutrition can have a profound positive impact on one’s ability to recover from and adapt to intense training. It also plays a role in reducing fatigue that’s already accumulated.

3. How can psychological stress contribute to cumulative fatigue?

Excessive psychological stress can place the body in a perpetual ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, leading to poorer sleep, anxiety, and loss of motivation to train.

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