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Overtraining: Why It Happens, How To Spot It & How To Dig Yourself Out

  • By Jeff Gaudette
  • Published Jan. 22, 2014
  • Updated Jan. 22, 2014 at 8:21 AM UTC

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 properly recovering, researchers have identified a few training situations that make runners more vulnerable to overtraining. They are:

1. Reaching too far in one training cycle.

Perhaps the most common cause of overtraining I encounter as a coach is by athletes who 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 assess 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 Boston 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, he 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. In my experience, I have found training at your current fitness level, indicated by your most recent personal best, to be the safest and most consistent way to improve and avoid overtraining.

2. Not taking a break between training segments.

Another common cause of overtraining is not giving your body enough rest between training cycles. I work with many runners who 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 toward 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 that fatigue with them and drastically increase the chance of overtraining.

To improve long-term, 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 realize how important a break between training cycles is. Dathan Ritzehein blogged about the need for downtime after a long training stint and Alberto Salazar confirmed that star pupils Galen Rupp and Mo Farah would be taking two weeks off from running after their successful track seasons.

3. 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, make sure you’ve developed and maintain a solid foundation of aerobic conditioning in your training.

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Jeff Gaudette

Jeff Gaudette

Jeff has been running for 13 years, at all levels of the sport. He was a two time Division-I All-American in Cross Country while at Brown University and competed professionally for 4 years after college for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. Jeff's writing has been featured in Running Times magazine, Endurance Magazine, as well as numerous local magazine fitness columns.

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