The great Norwegian distance runner Grete Waitz, had a well known phrase that “overtraining is wasted training”. Whatever we are training for and whatever our sport, it is always possible to overtrain. If we overtrain, it can lead to a downward spiral of injury, illness, missing the key event we have been training for, or simply losing the enjoyment of running we once took for granted.
Whether our goal is just starting out on our running adventures with a couch-to-5k programme, or we are targeting our first marathon or even ultra marathon, the warning signs are the same. I have certainly been guilty of overtraining at times. I have also observed it in other runners I know or have helped to advise. It is a question of finding a balance between pushing yourself to improve even modestly, and not ending up in the physiotherapist’s couch or in hospital.
What are the causes of overtraining?
There are generally acknowledged to be three key causes of overtraining:
Increase in the training load, or training to an excessive training load
We can all be guilty of increasing the workload suddenly either by increasing our total mileage or hugely increasing the effort of our hard training days. Increasing the workload is indeed essential whatever your standard and whatever your sport to make progress, but increasing the workload unnecessarily or not allowing oneself adequate recovery before the next session is a recipe for future disaster if done regularly.
What are the warning signs to look out for?
Are you feeling tired?
Tiredness and fatigue are in some ways healthy signs that you are training well and able to cope with increases in your training. With adequate rest, hydration and food, plus a dose of stretching and foam rollering, the body is able to recover fairly quickly.
If you are feeling breathless during or after a run, but recovery is rapid after a few minutes, this is normal. So are tight and tired muscles after training, which, with a bit of TLC and rest, can recover in a day or two. Chronic fatigue, if not recognised and dealt with, can result in a lay off for weeks or months. The feeling of being exhausted where you are constantly tired, day in day out, even after a good couple of rest days, should flash a minor red light at you.
How can we recognise the classic overtraining symptoms?
There are physical signs we can monitor. An increase in early morning heart rate is a classic indicator your body isn’t 100%. You don’t need an expensive heart rate monitor to measure this. Simple counting of wrist pulse at rest for 15 seconds and multiplying by 4 (or 30 seconds x 2) will give you your heart rate in beats per minute. If you record this fairly regularly along with the miles in your training log, say 3 times a week minimum, it should be easy to detect a pattern and know if your resting heart rate has increased.
The inability to complete short runs or training sessions coupled with leg muscles still being sore and sluggish 24/48 hours after training is another simple indicator.It is in some ways your body’s in-built way of saying, “Treat me gently please.Wait another day or so before training again!”
Thirdly things going on in your life at work or home can create subtle stresses that mean you are not 100% paying attention to your running and it is just becoming automatic with no joy or enthusiasm. Moving house or job, family or personal sickness, exams, stressful relationships, can all use up our energy in subtle and unsubtle ways leaving less energy for training. Also using running and even running more to deal with stress can be counterproductive.
Is any of this sounding familiar?
There are also emotional signs like:
Loss of enthusiasm
The inability to concentrate on simple tasks for very long
Changes in sleep patterns
Easily irritated by small things
Other physical signs can be:
Gradual weight loss or swelling of the lymph glands
The constant catching of small colds and infections
Should I worry?
Not initially. Many of the symptoms in a mild form are part and parcel of life and trying to improve ones fitness for whatever reason. They can be easily explained and as stated can go away with a day or three rest.
If any symptoms persist for more than a week, then they need addressing in some way. Don’t live in denial that all will be well tomorrow. Make an appointment with a practitioner such as physiotherapist if it is a mechanical or muscular issue, or your doctor if you feel there is an underlying health issue.
A common mistake runners often make is to confuse overtraining with under performing. Say a couple of days even of moderate training feels more difficult, or a race goes badly. One can easily fall into the trap of feeling “I must train harder to overcome this” when in reality the opposite is true, and a few days rest is really the best advice a coach or trainer will offer.
The moral of this story is: less training or more rest can produce better results.
Summary: 6 tips to train without overtraining
- The 90 percent rule
Train hard but always feel you have a little left in the tank
- Enjoy the easy runs
Sounds too simple, but just enjoy easy running with low heart rate and enjoy the scenery!
- Respect the rest days
Rest days in your schedule are indeed rest days, not sneaky extra training days
- Follow the hard day, easy day rule
Don’t train hard two days running
- Cross train
Alternate exercise is good for you and helps you build strength and flexibility – it also makes you realise there is more to running than running
- Balance your life
Train hard but sleep more, eat well, drink well, rest well
Get the balance right, and you will cross the finish line of your next race, maybe not in first place, but with a smile :-)
This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises/advice, stop and consult your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding this subject.