My Story of Overtraining

In 2018, Mark Callaghan embarked on a wild journey of running all six World Marathon Majors, followed by the Comrades 89km ultramarathon.   In this guest blog, he recounts the story of a year of travelling the world running – and the running overtraining issues he faced in running back-to-back events. He talks about the unexpected symptoms and knock-on effects of burnout, and what he learned.

Mark goes deeper into his training journey, coaching methods, and running overtraining in our in-depth interview as part of the Ultra Runner’s Playbook.

Visit Mark over at Adventures In Running.

 * * * 

Fatigue and energy deficiency were not issues I had encountered during my first six years in endurance sport; I had routinely raced between two and four triathlons or marathons a year for several years.

In November 2017, I agreed a sabbatical from my job in London and applied for all six World Marathon Majors and pencilled in my first attempt at Comrades Marathon.

After surprisingly being accepted for pretty much everything I had entered, I was about to embark on a ‘challenging’ schedule. 

By June 2019, I would have raced 9 times in 39 weeks: an 89km ultra, four marathons and two half marathons.

My Story of Overtraining 1

Running Overtraining: The Onset

I can probably trace the root of the issue back to Spring 2018.

I had sustained a knee injury whilst running Boston and London marathons within six days of each other in April.

I returned to light training in July with three World Major marathons in three months looming large.

Berlin and Chicago Marathons

I sensibly built what mileage I could with limited time, keeping things at relatively low intensity. I used Berlin marathon in September as an easy long run and although rusty and short of endurance, managed to make it round fairly comfortably. I then introduced some higher intensity and track work for Chicago three weeks later, where I attained a Boston Qualifying time.

So far so good.

As I prepared for New York, I started to experience some issues with sleeping. I’ve never been a great sleeper so this was nothing new but the problems were becoming more frequent.

Additionally, I’d started to feel occasional dizziness, my recovery times were lengthening and I was feeling heaviness in my legs during track sessions and hill work. I put these symptoms down to my challenging schedule and undeterred, proceeded with the New York marathon. 

New York City Marathon

In the first mile of the race, as I climbed the slope of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, I didn’t feel in a good place physically or mentally. During the build up, I hadn’t felt the marathon buzz and surge of nervous energy that I normally get in the final few minutes before the start; especially a big city marathon like New York. As I began running, I was also feeling unusually anxious and short of breath.

I was working too hard for a pace I was normally comfortable running at. I finished but it was a constant struggle.

Something wasn’t right.

After a couple of lower mileage weeks in an attempt to freshen up, I moved back into training for Boston. I began to feel stronger again. I was training hard, remained free of injury and increased my mileage to new highs.

Purely looking at my numbers, I felt confident that I could do something special.

Boston Marathon

On race day, at mile 16, I moved into the famous Newton Hills and on the first major climb it was game over. My legs turned to jelly and the remainder of my race was uncomfortable and distressing. 

After a week of feeling sorry for myself, I began preparing for Comrades, convincing myself that the key to overcoming the issue was removing the high intensity sessions I’d struggled to execute.

Related: Is Overtraining Actually Just Undereating? Here’s The Compelling New Evidence

My Story of Overtraining 2

Comrades Marathon – 89km

At Comrades Marathon, the World’s oldest and largest ultra marathon and a race that I had been looking forward to for years, the same loss of focus and intensity was present.

I was uneasy at the start line and not feeling comfortable at all.

My objective had been to complete the ‘Up’ run (with 5745ft of elevation gain) within eight hours. I spent the first 40km battling gastrointestinal issues and overwhelming negative thoughts, falling well behind pace.

My day was rescued by running the next 40km with a lovely chap named Glenn who’s experience helped calm me down and refocus on breaking the remaining mileage into chunks.

After briefly flirting with the sweeper truck in the early stages, I finally crossed the line in 9 hours and 33 minutes.

My Story of Overtraining 3

Running Overtraining: Pushing It Too Far

Ten days later came the run that finally pushed me over the edge.

I got over excited whilst in the trail running heaven that is Cape Town, spending a long, wonderful day running 20 miles to the summits of both Lions Head and Table Mountains.

 The next day, all the symptoms I had been experiencing previously returned: feeling utterly exhausted, heavy-legged, restless, unable to concentrate and demotivated.

Where I had previously been dragging myself out for training sessions for the next big event on the horizon, this time I had nothing in the calendar and absolutely zero interest in getting out there again.

It wasn’t just that the energy wasn’t there, but also that the desire had disappeared.

The drive to meticulously plan the long journey to a goal race, to get up early every single day and execute tough sessions to the letter, to push yourself beyond your perceived limits. I’d lost the motivation to do any of that.

So I stopped running.

This decision was a bit of a Catch 22.

Being physically active and getting outside to run has always been my way of staying well and (relatively) mentally balanced but I now had no interest.

This feeling is something I’d read about other people encountering but not something I had personally experienced so came as a bit of a shock.

 Reviewing my training diary after the event, there were eight entries in my diary in the build up to Boston around tiredness, weakness in legs, lack of sleep and dizziness.

Orange shaded blocks (where I had not executed the planned session) were scattered throughout the plan. The six weeks between Boston and Comrades read the same.

I was dragging myself out of the door for 70 mile weeks, totally ignoring the warning signs and blindly pushing through regardless.

On my return to the UK, friends commented on my loss of weight. I weighed myself for the first time in several months and discovered that I had lost 10lbs. I went for a series of blood tests, the results of which came back absolutely fine. The explanation I was given was that a calorie deficit was probably the cause.

It was at that point that I decided I would take an extended break from ‘competitive’ racing and run just for myself on my terms. After three months of doing very little, I slowly plodded through some magnificent British countryside along the length of the River Thames from the source in Kemble, Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier in Charlton, London.

I covered 185 miles in five days and rediscovered my reasons for running in the first place.

Being outside with the sights and sounds of nature, moving under my own steam at my own rhythm and enjoying some mindfulness or simply enjoying the company of and conversation with friends.

My Story of Overtraining 4

Running Overtraining Symptoms  

  • Your rate of perceived exertion is increasing
  • During sessions that used to give you a buzz or enjoyment, you feel like you’re ‘going through the motions’
  • Mood swings and agitation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decrease in performance
  • Needing a longer recovery period than normal
  • Restlessness and loss of sleep

My Top Tips to Prevent Running Overtraining

  • Have a considered, ‘sensible’ and achievable race schedule – choose which races in your calendar will be max racing effort and which will be training effort or just for fun. Ensure you have allowed enough recovery and gradual rebuild time between your max efforts.
  • Allow sufficient time off from high mileage & intensity after a significant physical and mental race effort.
  • Understand the signs of overtraining/exhaustion – noted above – and know when it’s time to back off and reassess.
  • Review your diet including calorie intake and nutrients – are you consuming what you need for the amount of work you are doing?
  • Know what feels like a healthy weight range to you and if you drop significantly below this weight, review your diet and training.
  • On returning after a break, start slowly and enjoy just running for fun again. Monitor your progress with a diary and check for warning signs or worrying trends before returning to a structured training plan and higher intensity training or racing.
Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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