Overtraining. It’s a word that strikes fear into the hearts of runners everywhere. Researchers estimate that 61 percent of all serious runners will go through a period of overtraining at least once in their running career. That’s not an encouraging statistic when you’re pushing the limits to reach your goals.
What makes overtraining scary is that runners have very few tangible ways to identify and measure whether they are overtraining. Overtraining isn’t so black and white like a stress fracture or so painfully obvious as when you run out of energy during a long run—there is no pain associated with overtraining and there are few clear signs.
Researchers can measure advanced physiological factors such as catecholamine excretion and neuromuscular patterns to determine if a runner is overtraining, but us runners on the road have little conclusive evidence to determine if we’re just tired from training or going over the edge. While the signs and symptoms of overtraining aren’t overt, it is possible to identify which activities present the greatest danger to overtraining, recognize subtle signs that suggest you’re approaching the precipice, and discuss how to come back if you believe you are overtrained.
Causes Of Overtraining
Overtraining is a result of not properly recovering between workouts on a repeated basis. Some types of workouts and training will make you more susceptible to overtraining, but the underlying cause is always a lack of recovery. While all driven athletes are prone to pushing too hard without properly recovering, researchers have identified a few training situations that make runners more vulnerable to overtraining. They are:
Reaching too far in one training cycle
Perhaps the most common cause of overtraining I encounter as a coach is by athletes who attempt to break their personal bests by too much in one training segment. While it can be especially difficult for a beginner runner or someone who is rapidly improving to assess what their potential might be, it’s important that every runner approach improving on a step-by-step basis. Skipping a step or trying to make the jump from a 3:20 marathon to a 3:05 to qualify for Boston in one fell swoop will often lead to overtraining.
Jack Daniels has been a pioneer on appropriate training levels and progression thanks to his VDOT tables, which give runners the opportunity to measure their training and racing performance. In his best-selling book Daniels’ Running Formula, he insists that runners train at their current race fitness until they record a new personal best that proves they have taken the next step in their fitness. In my experience, I have found training at your current fitness level, indicated by your most recent personal best, to be the safest and most consistent way to improve and avoid overtraining.
Not taking a break between training segments
Another common cause of overtraining is not giving your body enough rest between training cycles. I work with many runners who want to jump from one training cycle to the next with little or no rest between. Many runners tend to finish a tough training segment where they pushed their bodies to new limits and raced well and immediately jump back into hard training toward the next goal. In doing so, these runners never give their bodies a chance to fully recover and absorb all the training from the last segment. They carry that fatigue with them and drastically increase the chance of overtraining.
To improve long-term, it is absolutely critically that you give your body a substantial rest period after long training segments and big races. I suggest one week off for a 5K training cycle, 1-2 weeks off for a 10K or half marathon, and a full 2 weeks off after a marathon. It might sound like you would be holding yourself back by being so cautious, but your long-term progression will actually benefit. Even elite athletes realize how important a break between training cycles is.
Too many intense speed workouts
Finally, performing too many speed workouts or VO2 max training sessions in one training cycle has been proven to increase the risk of overtraining symptoms. From a physiological perspective, researchers have hypothesized that the increase in overtraining symptoms by runners who performed eight weeks or more of speed work is the result of a rise in pH levels (to be effective, speed work should actually bring your pH levels down) and a stagnation in blood lactate levels. To buffer yourself against the possibility of overtraining from too much speed work, make sure you’ve developed and maintain a solid foundation of aerobic conditioning in your training.
Symptoms Of Overtraining
As I mentioned previously, it can be difficult to accurately determine if you are overtrained without a lab coat and fancy equipment. However, here are some clues you can use to help you determine if you’re recovering properly.
During overtraining, you may have a higher than normal heart rate while resting and while sleeping. Record your heart rate each morning as soon as you wake up and before you get out of bed. Keep a small notebook by your night stand where you can record the data each day. If you find an extended period of time where your heart rate increases in the morning, you could be suffering the effects of overtraining.
Caveat: Heart rate can be affected my numerous factors outside running fitness or your training state. Stress, hydration, caffeine and hours of sleep are just some of the variables than can effect heart rate. Don’t get too worried about small fluctuations, instead look for ongoing trends.
Overtraining can lead to a decrease in hormone production, specifically the hormone catecholamine, which can influence the sympathetic nervous system. This can lead to increased feelings of stress and moodiness. If you’re feeling increasingly irritable or stressed, it might be a sign that you’re training too hard.
Susceptibility to sickness
Overtraining impairs the immune system, which leaves you more susceptible to contracting colds, the flu, and other viruses. If you find yourself getting sick more than usual, especially repeated bouts of the same virus, it could be a sign of overtraining.
Disturbed sleeping patterns
Finally, overtraining interferes with the bodies circadian rhythms, which can cause you to have trouble sleeping. Symptoms include waking up much earlier than normal or trouble getting or staying asleep.
Caveat – circadian rhythms are also effected by seasonal changes in the amount of daylight available. If you’re having trouble sleeping during a change in seasons, it could be a natural reaction to when the sun rises and sets.
While non of these symptoms should be taken as a clear indication of overtraining on their own, if you find that you’re experiencing three to four of these indicators, it could be time to take a little rest.
Digging Yourself Out
While I’ve spent a good amount of time discussing the causes and symptoms of overtraining, the treatment will be much shorter. You’ve probably even guessed it already—rest. If you’re overtrained, you need to focus on rest and recovery.
How long to rest?
Researchers and coaches vary on the exact amount of time you’ll need to fully recover from a bout of overtraining. Primarily, the rest period will depend on how severe your symptoms are and how quickly your body responds. I suggest taking at least three weeks before you even think about running again. More than likely, you’ll need at least 6-8 weeks of complete rest before you’re full recovered. It’s critical that you listen to your body and be patient or you’ll find yourself right back in an overtrained state within a matter of weeks.
Speeding up the process
To speed the recovery process up, you should continue to focus on maintaining a healthy diet–eating nutritious food and eating plenty of them, as well as the typical recovery protocols such as stretching, massages and getting plenty of sleep. By educating yourself about the most common causes of overtraining and recognizing the symptoms early, you can prevent yourself from stagnating in training and setting yourself back weeks, if not months.