Overtraining. It’s a word that strikes fear into the hearts of runners everywhere. Researchers estimate that 61% 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.
We all know there are many health benefits offered by including running in our training programme but we do need to be careful not to go too hard and put ourselves at risk of injury or fatigue.
What makes overtraining a concern is that runners have very few tangible ways to identify and measure whether they are overtraining. Overtraining isn’t like a stress fracture, which elicits pretty distinct pain, or as clear cut as running out of energy during a long run. 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.
Want to learn how to effectively plan your training programme for your next marathon? Take a look at this comprehensive guide by Sport Fitness Advisor.
While the signs and symptoms of overtraining aren’t always obvious, it is possible to identify which activities present the greatest danger to overtraining, recognise 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 adequate rest and recovery periods, researchers have identified a few training situations that make runners more vulnerable to overtraining.
Reaching too far in one training cycle
Perhaps the most common cause of overtraining I’ve come across is where athletes 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 asses 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 London marathon 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, Jack 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.
Not taking a break between training segments
Another common cause of overtraining is not giving your body enough rest between training cycles. Often runners may 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 for 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 the fatigue with them and drastically increase the chance of overtraining.
To improve long-term running performance, 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. You can look at examples from elite athletes in our sport to realise how important a break between training cycles is. Matt Fitzgerald blogged about the need for downtime after Dathan Ritzenhein was forced to withdraw from the London Marathon following a running injury brought on by a long training stint.
Alberto Salazar, coach to top runners such as Olympic medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp advises that each recovery period should begin with two weeks of no running whatsoever followed by two weeks of unfocused easy running before the resumption of a structured training schedule.
Too many intense speed workouts
Finally, performing too many speed workouts or VO2max 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 8 weeks or more of speed work is the result of a rise in pH levels (too 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, our coaching and basic membership plans are focused on building your aerobic endurance and lactate threshold and then using speed work as the icing on the cake.
Symptoms of Overtraining
As mentioned previously, it can be difficult to accurately determine if you are overtrained without a lab coat and fancy equipment. However, you can use some clues 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, 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 body’s natural 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 none 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. Let your coach know or post your concern on the activity stream and we’ll help you determine what the best course of action may be.
Planning an Effective Recovery
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 may differ 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 would 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 things up
To speed the recovery process up, you should continue to focus on maintaining a healthy diet – eating plentiful nutritious food as well as undertaking 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. It’s also why you have me, your trusted trainer and physical therapist here at FIMLCoach to help keep you on the right path. Don’t hesitate to let me know your concerns or if you’re experiencing any of the overtraining symptoms – I’m here to help.