Overtraining is a real risk for athletes, both professional and weekend warriors. For most of us, trying to fit in your running training around your work, family, and other commitments can be very challenging.
Unfortunately, this can lead to some runners searching for shortcuts to improvements in their fitness and perhaps consistently choosing fast interval sessions over low intensity aerobic runs.
This will eventually leave the body exhausted and may lead to what is commonly known as overtraining or overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining can be defined as physical stress created by high training loads, coupled with inadequate recovery.
Overtraining can occur at any stage of your running journey – it´s not only a thorn in the side for newcomers to the sport (a bit like the stitch!) but can also affect experienced runners as they use a rushed approach to improvements.
A lot of the top elite athletes will tell you that the move from amateur to elite level is not always about training harder and doing more intense training sessions.
They would say that the major difference between being a full-time athlete (and not needing to balance work with their training) is that you’ll have more time to rest and recover between sessions.
She had worked as a senior civil servant in London for many years before going full-time, so had been used to having a demanding, mentally challenging and stimulating job.
However, she soon realised that most of her contemporaries in her training group spent most of the time between training sessions watching TV and movies. So, they were essentially mentally switching off and they considered it vital to their recovery.
Less is more.
The East Africans employ a similar approach to their training and recovery. It is not uncommon for them to run in the morning, have some food, and then go back to bed for a few hours. They will also fit a nap into their afternoon before undertaking their second session of the day.
Now as amateur athletes we don’t have the luxury of being able to take multiple naps per day, so we need to ensure that we have a good strategy for rest and recovery.
Let´s consider the usual signs or symptoms, common causes, and recovery strategies either to avoid or help you to overcome the dreaded overtraining phenomenon.
Overtraining – The 8 Most Common Signs and symptoms
- Tiredness – feeling sluggish and unusually fatigued
- Resting heart rate elevated (if you notice that it is 3-5 beats higher than usual)
- Lack of interest in training (not feeling like going to training)
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Aches/pains persistent
- Body taking longer to recover
- Hard to concentrate and focus on work/studies
- Common cold-like symptoms – body defences are low.
Common Caused Of Overtraining: What To Avoid
1. Too much too early
This is when you’ve increased the volume of your weekly running or indeed have introduced more high-intensity sessions.
The key is not to increase your volume by more than 10% per week as this will allow your body to adapt slowly to the extra training demands.
2. Not taking a rest day
It´s amazing to think about how many runners don’t take a rest day. Remember it is not about constantly pushing your body to perform better, but the key to building fitness is allowing your body time to recuperate and absorb the extra training load.
Taking at least 1 day off per week will reduce the risk of you burning out.
This is especially true when training for a marathon or other distance event where your training mileage is constantly increasing.
3. Racing too often
It´s only natural to get hooked on racing.
Not only do you get a chance to prove or find out how your training is progressing, but there are huge social benefits as the race atmosphere is quite enjoyable.
Yet, trying to push your body to the limit week in week out will eventually lead to burnout. The races will not only take their toll physically, but you´re likely to feel mentally exhausted too.
4. Not getting sufficient sleep
The general rule of thumb is that each adult should be looking to get 8 hours of sleep per night. For some who are regularly training, the advice would be to get a little bit more.
Therefore, try to ensure that you are getting sufficient sleep especially if you have included high-intensity sessions into your programme.
5. Not allowing 48 hours between hard sessions
However, the stress that you put your body under during these sessions cannot be taken too lightly and it is recommended that you allow at least 48 hours between these hard sessions. Any less and your body will not have sufficient time to rest and recover.
6. Not eating properly post session
One of the well-known theories from sports science research is that you should maximise your body’s recovery from a hard training session by paying attention to the 30-minute window post-workout.
If you stick to this and eat a small snack such as a banana, a peanut butter sandwich, or indeed drink a milkshake, you’ll effectively kick start the body’s recovery and help to replace depleted glycogen stores.
7. Not drinking enough water
Your performance during a training session will partly depend on how hydrated you were before starting. It’s recommended you drink 3L of water a day.
If you’re doing a hard session in the evening, you could consider consuming a small quantity of isotonic drink 1 hour before starting the session to ensure you are as hydrated as possible and not beginning sessions in a dehydrated state
8. Racing every repetition in training
This is akin to doing too many races that we spoke about earlier.
Most runners are competitive by nature and like to push themselves in training, but it is not advisable to go as hard as you can in each repetition.
It’s always better to finish a training session feeling that you had some gas left in the tank.
Strategies to help avoid or overcome overtraining
1. Hot bath
You can use this to help relax the muscles and generally help the body rest with the soothing nature of the hot water. Putting some Epson salts into the bathtub is a tried and tested method.
A light activity that can be fitted in either early in the morning or in the evening. It not only helps to stretch those tight muscles, but by engaging in the breathing techniques you will learn to relax the body and overcome feelings of stress and unease.
3. Light stretching
This can really aid the recovery and repairing of your muscles. Aim to focus on the major muscle groups first – hips, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip-flexors and lower back. You may also find that some targeted stretching of the glutes will leave you feeling more supple and loose.
4. Walk in nature
Going for a scroll and gentle walk in nature can really help you reconnect with the natural environment. The relaxing and calming experience of listening to the sounds of nature like the chirping of the birds or the flowing of a small stream can lower levels of stress. It´s a chance to switch off from the usual hustle and bustle of city living!
This is a great exercise, and many runners try to include this into their weekly schedule as an active recovery day or a form of cross training. The water will help take pressure of your legs and you will get an upper-body boost at the same time.
6. Light bike ride
Hopping on the bike and going for a short spin will allow you still to work aerobically, but with the added advantage of taking pressure off your ankle and knee joints.
7. Reduce intensity or volume of training
By reducing the intensity of your training runs and spending some time enjoying the simple nature of just running, you´ll give your body the chance to recuperate. Also, a decrease in volume (run less days than normal or shorten the length of your runs) can help significantly.
If you normally wear a GPS watch and like to track your pace, then maybe leave it at home and simply enjoy the experience of running without having to stress or worry about hitting a certain pace. You´ll experience of great sense of liberation and it will once again help you focus on your recuperation.
Avoid Overtraining: Listen to your body
This is a fundamental skill and is something that you´ll get better at gauging with time, but it is an incredibly useful ability to develop.
No one knows your body better than yourself, so take the time to listen to it and pay attention to aches and pains.
The ability to listen to your body will improve with time as you get better at understanding the optimum mix of low intense aerobic running and high intensity interval type sessions that you can handle without burning out.
After all, the continued joy of running, remaining injury free, and consistency are things that most runners should prioritise.
Keep an eye out for the common signs and enjoy the relaxing and restorative nature of the alternative activities outlined above.