Overtraining is a huge problem that results in disappointment, injuries, and frustration for runners. I will explain what it is, how to recognize the symptoms, who it affects, and how to prevent it.
Overtraining, also known as overtraining syndrome, is training too much with too little rest. A better name would be ‘under-resting’ because it occurs when you get into a pattern of stressing your body without giving it adequate time to recover and repair.
Your body gradually starts to fight back. It gets broken down. You may get away with giving your body inadequate recovery time once in a while, or for a short time, but that’s a bad idea because it defeats the purpose of stressing your body with training.
How Training and Recovery is Supposed to Work
We train to elicit a recovery and repair response, which leads to our bodies becoming stronger, capable of performing at a higher level the next time. We should never ask our bodies to perform at a higher level without allowing them to recover because it is during the recovery phase that conditioning occurs. That is when we become more fit. Ideally, you want to push your body enough to stress it and then give it sufficient time to recover. That pattern will cause you to become more and more fit with each workout/recovery cycle. The magic occurs when your body is recovering from training.
What if You Interrupt or Forego Recovery?
Imagine a time when you were in school, and you studied a subject for a week. Then you took a test. The test was the means for you to demonstrate what you knew and what you didn’t know. Would the teacher give you another test over the same – or harder material – the next day, in the hope that you’d do better? No, of course not. You wouldn’t have had time to learn what you didn’t know, and you certainly wouldn’t have had time to learn new material. First, you’d need to have time to study the information you missed. Then you’d be ready to consume the next level of knowledge. After a few days, you would have more success with the same or a similar test, or even a test with more advanced information.
Well, think about training. You stress your body, you need to let it repair. If you stress it again without giving it time to recover, it will not cooperate. It will rebel. This is not something that ‘might’ happen; it will happen. It will.
The first sign – or sometimes the most obvious sign – is that you stop improving. You plateau. Then, your performance will even start to slide backwards. The likelihood that you will experience injury is greatly increased.
The Principle of Overload and Recovery
The paradox here, is that if you don’t understand the principle of overload and recovery, you will likely decide that the reason you’re not improving is that you’re not working hard enough and actually try to train harder. Imagine how much that can accelerate your decline.
If you don’t let your body recover, then no amount of speed work, hill repeats, strength training, or cross training, will make you a better runner because lack of training is not the problem; the problem is lack of recovery or inadequate recovery. If you try to fix your lack of success with more and harder workouts, the results will be a much more serious situation, one that will require more time to correct.
My goal here is to help you recognize when you’re overtraining, or better yet, avoid ever allowing it to happen in the first place.
Understanding and Recognizing the Stresses on Your Body
Stresses in your life, besides running, add to the strain on your body, and you must consider these stresses as well. Any stress is a drain on your body. This kind of stress could be a work schedule, situations with the family or a spouse, caring for sick relatives, the loss of a relative, and more.
Think about how you feel after a hard or long race; then think about how you have felt after the most intense emotional experiences of your life, good or bad, weddings, deaths, divorces, job changes, moving. All these factors contribute to overtraining. That’s why it should be called under resting. In all the above-mentioned situations, you likely will actually train less or with less intensity; however, great stress is still being placed on your body.
So, what was a reasonable training schedule might not be reasonable the first few weeks of the school year when you have young children or the month or so when you’re moving to a new town and adjusting to a new job, or coping with anguish of being laid off. If you push too hard at those times, you’ll have the symptoms of overtraining to make your life more difficult on top of the other stress. It will be a slippery slope, and you’ll be sliding down fast.
More often than not, the culprit is actually too little recovery for the running training that you’re doing, but do keep in mind that all life stresses do add to the physical stress caused by the training.
Runners experiencing the first hint of overtraining may not realize this is the issue, and they will step it up, training even more, and so it goes. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it is.
Your Great Work Ethic May Be Part of the Problem
The work ethic that got you straight A’s in college may be the work ethic that’ll get you discouraged and sidelined with injuries as a runner.
Here are 8 signs you may be overtraining:
1. You’re tired much of the time; you feel sluggish and run down. Your legs may feel heavy.
2. You’ve stopped improving as a runner. Your times may even be getting slower.
3. You get sick often with colds, flu and such.
4. Your resting heart rate is going up or is higher than normal for you.
5. You’re experiencing more aches, pains, and injuries than you used to, and when you get sore, it lasts longer.
6. Your motivation is low.
7. You’re having trouble sleeping.
8. Mood changes. You’re not your usual cheerful self; you may even be feel depressed. Sometimes family members are the first to notice this.
If you are experiencing even a couple of these symptoms, it’s may be a sign you’re overtraining. If you’re experiencing several of them, you probably are. Tim Noakes book The Lore of Running (2001), contains a whole chapter on overtraining, and it is thorough at 29 pages; he provides 28 symptoms of overtraining.
Here is a quote from that book: “Rather than suffer additional damage that would result if the body were allowed to continue training in this depleted state, the body responds by making training impossible.”
How to Correct the Problem
The good news is that this is a relatively easy situation to remedy. You won’t need medication, and the treatment is downright pleasant, but if you’re the Type A personality type, it may be much more difficult than the training, itself, has ever been, because your drive will need to be redirected.
The Easy, Simple, Inexpensive Cure
The cure for overtraining is giving your body what it hasn’t been getting, which is, in fact, what caused the problem. You just need to let it rest and recover. How long you ask? Well, if you catch it early, a few days off will be all you need, but if you’ve been in this state for a while, you’ll need a few weeks, perhaps 6 to 8. Be careful here, because if you go back to running too soon, you’ll be right back where you started, and you’ll have to start all over. Better to err on the side of caution and rest.
When you return to training, ramp up very gradually to a sensible training plan that focuses on base-building, just easy miles with no speed, no intensity, and make sure you give yourself plenty of rest. I recommend two full days off per week. This is a great time to learn to love your runs again. And you’ll need that, because when you are overtrained, nothing is fun.
After several months of those easy, base-building miles, gradually ease into the training program for your next goal race, but make sure you have a professional quality program. Don’t try to get by with making a schedule, yourself. You’re bound to overdo.
How to Prevent Falling Into the Overtraining Trap Again
If you overtrained before, you’ll likely do it again; maybe not at first, but you have the tendency. I recommend getting a coach. This is critical, as a coach will see what you don’t see and make sure you’re training wisely. If you push yourself too much or too often, your coach will fire you as a client. That’s right, because if you overtrain, you will not perform well. You will be uncomfortable, you won’t enjoy your runs, you won’t achieve your goals, and you will likely experience injury. That makes your coach sad, and it makes your coach look bad. There is no point in having a coach if you don’t heed her advice. Her goal is for you to achieve your running goals, and if you over train, that will never happen, but more upsetting than that, for your coach, is that you’ll be courting injury.
How to Rest
Now let’s talk about what to do when you’re resting. It’s really pretty simple, mainly, rest, but also do these things: Get plenty of sleep. Your body recovers and rebuilds faster when you’re asleep. Eat a healthy diet. If your diet wasn’t great before, then use this time to do some research and find out what works best for you. Since you’re not running, this is a good time to transfer your focus to nutrition. You might even hire a nutrition coach. Continue with other usual selfcare, such as massages. Yoga might be a good idea at this time.
Use Your Resting Heart Rate as a Measure
To help you identify over training, check your resting heart rate every morning before arising. Keep a record. If it starts to creep up, that should be an alert. Of course, some variability is normal, but Tim Noakes, says to watch for increases of 5 10 beats per minute. This may be an indication of overtraining. However, it could also be caused by other factors. If you record your resting heart rate each morning, you’ll know when something is up. One of the things you need to do if you do believe you might be over training is to assess whether there could be some other physical issue. Keep that in mind.
No One is Immune, Not Even Beginners
If you think this can’t happen to you, you’re wrong. It can happen to any runner. This can happen just as easily to beginner runners because what they do is every bit as stressful on their bodies. A new runner, running his first miles, will be stressing his body as much as an experienced runner doing 6 miles or much more in each workout. It is every bit as critical for the newer runner to allow plenty of rest and recovery as the veteran. If that’s you; if you are a newer runner, one way to keep this in perspective is to avoid comparing yourself to veteran runners. If you compare yourself to experienced runners, you’ll feel like you’re not doing much and, therefore, don’t need much rest. The more accurate perspective is to compare yourself to the past ‘you’ when you weren’t even running. Then, you’ll realize that you’re doing a lot.
How to Prevent Overtraining?
Working with a coach is probably the very best way. If you can’t do that, then try to work with an online coach. Many online coaches, like me, do online coaching calls. This gives you a chance to self-evaluate under the coach’s guidance. If you can’t do that, make sure you’re training with a professionally prepared schedule that is appropriate for you, for your daily life, for your experience, and for your health.
Even then, it’s not as good as having a coach because a coach will be able to evaluate your condition on a regular basis and will notice the first signs of overtraining. A coach will likely recognize the added stress from other elements of your life, as well.
The number one thing you can do is to build in two rest days into every week. Many people only take off one day, and that may work for you, but two days is better and will go a long way to prevent overtraining. And if you even start to feel ragged and tired, give yourself an immediate 3-day vacation from training.
It’s fine to walk; walking is great exercise, but that’s it. Nothing more stressful. Do that at any sign of overtraining, and you’ll save yourself much more missed training, later. Another wise training pattern is to either alternate hard and easy weeks or insert a very easy week every third week. Say you normally run 30 miles per week; every third week, drop it down to 20.
A third piece of advice is to put two rest/recovery days off back to back at least once every few weeks. This provides time for much more recovery. Now, if you want to better understand the physiology of what happens when you over train, please check out the resources at the end of this post.
Knowledge is power. Hopefully, this information will prevent you from ever falling into the overtraining trap.
“Heart Rate Variability: What it is and how it helps with training and racing” by Dr. Phil Maffetone
The Lore of Running by Dr. Timothy Noakes “Are You Overtraining?” by Christie Aschwanden, Runners’ World, 2007,