Overtraining can bring running performance to a halt.
Every seasoned runner has been there. You can’t shake that feeling of fatigue and lethargy. Daily runs feel like a monumental effort. Race times are getting slower even though you feel like you’re putting in more effort. Nagging injuries keep popping up. You wonder if you have the flu or maybe a bad case of the common cold. While individually these symptoms can be the result of a number of culprits, collectively, they often signal overtraining syndrome.
Optimal athletic performance is a result of both hard training and adequate recovery. In training, you break your body down again and again. Necessary for both the cardiovascular and muscular systems, periods of rest allow them to regenerate and come back stronger each time. Overtraining becomes an issue when you stress those systems over and over again without allowing for adequate recovery. At some point, your body and mind burnout and say enough is enough.
Fatigue is one of the most common signs you may be overtrained. While it is normal to feel tired after hard workouts or high-mileage weeks, you shouldn’t be feeling tired for months on end. Mental lethargy can also accompany a burned out body. While we all have our bad days, when a highly motivated athlete begins to show a consistent lack of interest in training, it may mean the brain is trying to tell you to back off.
Mike Hamberger, founder of DC Running Coach and a sport psychology instructor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., says that decreased performance is another obvious signifier of overtraining.
“When training becomes stagnant, you may be doing too much,” he explains. “It’s normal for stress to make way for adaptation, but it repeatedly suppresses the immune system and breaks down muscles. When you’re not letting them recover, you see a reduction in performance.” Trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and flu-like symptoms are also issues that may accompany overtraining.
Indeed, watch post-race interviews with the pros and you’ll notice a common theme. Many say that it took them years to figure out that they couldn’t run hard day in and day out. Adequate rest and a strategic approach to training can make all the difference. Since every athlete has a unique response to training, it is important to listen to your body and tailor recovery accordingly. Just because you may need one more day off than your training partner doesn’t mean you’ll be slower come race day. In fact, that extra day of rest may actually contribute to a better performance.
Hamberger says he builds in a recovery week for his athletes every four to eight weeks depending on their training and experience. “This doesn’t mean you should be a couch potato though,” he says. “Do other types of activities, hang out with friends and family, catch up on work, and let the body recharge.” Instead of running six days a week, you could jog three days, cross-train two days, and take the other two days off. If you have a vacation planned, you could take the whole week off of running so you can enjoy swimming in the ocean or hiking in the mountains. These recovery weeks can easily be customized to fit the other things going on in your life so both your body and mind can enjoy a well-deserved break.
Avoiding overtraining syndrome is relatively easy when you are following a pre-planned training program. By charting periods of hard training and recovery, you will build toward peak fitness without burning out or getting injured. Striking that delicate balance between doing enough and not doing too much often comes with experience and mistakes made along the way. It’s all about listening to your body, having patience, and trusting that small triumphs along the way will equate into big payoffs in the end.
This piece first appeared in the PacWest edition of the January 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.