When you've run enough races, when you've read enough running books, when you've listened to enough running friends, you know that there are a couple of irrefutable rules of running training.
One of them is this: If you overtrain, you will be sorry! If you are lucky, your only consequence will be that instead of continuing to improve, you will start to feel a bit draggy, and your times will get slower. If you are not so lucky - and this is far more common - the consequence will be more tangible in the form of an injury.
So, don't do it.
That sounds so easy, but as a coach, I'll tell you, I've told many people that they are overtraining, that they need to cut back, that they need more rest, that their bodies are not getting enough recovery time, that it will be okay to take a couple of days off, that they can skip their long run this week, that it's too close to their goal race to do yet another long run, but time and time again, they do it anyway.
I have a name for it, training inertia.
The problem is that when runners get in their groove, when they've been sticking to their schedule, they cannot stand to disrupt their momentum. Well, that's understandable, but when they need to cut back because their body is telling them they're doing too much, they need to listen. They forget that the end result of optimal fitness is the goal - or maybe a PR is the goal. Either way, overtraining will move them away from their goal, not closer to it.
The point is that the training is not the goal, sticking perfectly to a schedule is not the end goal, running a certain number of miles per week is not the end goal. Running schedules are arbitrary. What works best for one may not work best for another, and what works best for one person one season may not work as well the next. There are too many variables.
Training is the means to the end goal. It takes great discipline to stick to a training regimen, but it is harder yet to depart from that oh-so-carefully laid out plan. Yet, optimal training requires that you perform the most appropriate quantity and intensity of running and cross training throughout training, and to do that, you almost certainly will need to depart from the plan - or more correctly - alter the plan, from time to time, based on your body's feedback. Don't think of it as cheating on the plan; think of it as personalizing the plan to your own body. Isn't that ideal?
The wise runner follows his schedule only until his body says, "Whoa, too much, back off!"
Now, that won't always happen, but it often does, and the runner who turns a deaf ear is just plain foolish. That runner has lost sight of the purpose of the training. The wisest runner, on the other hand, is a keen observer, always checking for any sign that the body needs something different. It's much easier to blindly follow a schedule, but those who quickly respond to their body's needs will be rewarded in the end.
As in virtually every facet of life, more is not necessarily better. There is a fine line between pushing your body to achieve new goals and pushing your body just a bit too hard.
In the next post, we'll look at the signs of overtraining.