If you’re anything like me, it's a huge buzz when training is going well and the urge to push even harder and see where it takes you is irresistible. You’re feeling great, so you figure that you can squeeze in another session or a few more miles. I’m definitely guilty of this-my plan says 15K and often I’m so thrilled at the achievement I’ll carry on for a few more. And the feeling is that good I decide to get out there the next day too. And that’s okay. Occasionally.
Too much, too often though, and it’s easy to slip unwittingly into overtraining.
What is overtraining?
In simple terms, overtraining is under-resting. It occurs when you don’t allow enough recovery time between workouts on a repeated basis.
And it’s surprisingly easy to fall into the trap.
For a little while, my husband had been suggesting that I might perhaps be overdoing the running a little. It was the fact he added ‘at your age’ that got my goat.
‘It’ll all end in tears,’ he insisted.
I was livid.
‘Of course it won’t!’ I protested. ‘I know what I’m doing. Stop spoiling my fun! Don’t interfere.’
We were spending a little time in Cyprus and before the winter arrived here and everything closed down, we decided to squeeze in a short trip to Northern Cyprus. I booked our favourite accommodation in Dipkarpaz.
As we packed up the car for the trip I felt simply dreadful; acid stomach, nausea, tiredness and headache.
‘Not in there!’ I snapped, as Pete threw something in the boot.
He looked up, startled. ‘What’s up with you?’
Cranky and sulking, I locked up the house and we pulled out of the drive in silence.
I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes for the journey towards the north to avoid having to talk.
We slowly made our way, stopping as planned in Famagusta at Petek’s Patisserie for a slice of one of their fabulous cakes which I’d been looking forward to for days but, in the end, couldn’t face. We reached our accommodation, Villa Lembos, where I promptly curled up on the bed and fell asleep.
I woke up from my long nap to the infuriating realisation that he’d been right. Somehow my 3 times a week running sessions had become 5 or 6 and I nearly always ran farther than I’d planned. I’d even read all about overtraining and then gone right on and done it. I’m invincible, you see?
I’d been running too much. Yes, I’d read about overtraining but I still thought it applied more to marathon runners and ironmen and the like. Not to me running a daily 5-10K. But it absolutely did. What made it worse was that I knew for sure that I didn’t cope well with running on consecutive days. I’d had plenty of strong signals during the last year; whenever I upped the weekly number of runs, I suffered. So why on earth had I chosen to completely ignore that?
What most people maybe don’t realise (and I didn’t at first) is that you don’t improve in fitness when you’re running, but when you’re recovering.
You improve when you recover
This is when our muscles and our heart and lungs adapt to the hard work we’ve put them through and get stronger.
And believe me, once you hit 50, it’s so easy to overtrain. But I know if I bother to take notice, the signs of overdoing it will be there way before I succumb.
How Do You Know If You’re Overtraining?
Listen to your body
Yes, I know that everyone says it but what the heck does it actually mean? What exactly are you ‘listening’ for? Basically, you’re looking for signals that you may be doing too much…
TEN Warning Signs:
- Elevated Resting Heart Rate
Get used to measuring your heart rate first thing in the morning for a couple of weeks so you can gauge your normal resting rate. If one morning you wake to find your heart rate is elevated, then don’t train. An increase of 10bpm or more can indicate that your body hasn’t recovered from recent training. Drop whatever session you had planned and rest until your resting rate (first thing in the morning) is back to ‘your’ normal. A raised heart rate indicates that the body is under stress and if you continue to push it you’re dicing with injury or maybe some sort of infection (for me it’s always a throat and chest infection) which cuts into your training anyway. Heed the signs and REST.
- Extended Muscle Soreness and Slower Recovery
lf you notice that any muscle soreness is dragging on for days on end and your legs feel heavy and tired then try taking a break.
- Persistent Fatigue
It’s obviously normal to feel fatigued, weary and achy after periods of hard training, but overtraining can cause a deep, dragging fatigue which doesn’t tend to lighten up between workouts.
If you’re feeling unusually tired it’s usually better to rest than continue your plan.
- Increased Irritability and Moodiness
You may feel unusually down in the dumps or increasingly irritable, snappy and moody.
- Loss of Motivation
This can happen to us all at any time but if you’re struggling to get your workouts started then be aware that this could be a sign you’re overdoing it, especially if you’re experiencing any of the other warning signs in this list.
- Changes in Appetite
Some people crave food (especially carbs) when their body is under stress whereas others experience a drop in appetite and subsequent weight loss.
- Sleep Disturbances
You may have an increased need to sleep or experience problems falling and staying asleep.
- Frequent Colds and Infections
This one is a big red flag for me. Overtraining weakens your immune system leaving you more susceptible to cold viruses and other infections. So if you find you’re suffering from repeated bouts, you may be overtraining. As soon as you realise, it’s important to stop and rest otherwise the infections will linger and lead to bigger problems. My colds invariably end up as bronchitis if I don’t take heed.
- Higher Perceived Effort
If you’re exhausted after an ‘easy’ run or you struggle to achieve a pace that you used to manage – it could be time to take some time out.
- Deteriorating Race Performances
Are your race times sliding? This is one we runners usually notice! Training harder accompanied with declining performance is something to watch out for.
While none of these symptoms taken individually are a clear sign of overtraining, if you find that you’re experiencing three or four of them, it could be time to think about taking a break.
You will get to recognise the signs in your own body. For me, I notice increasing tiredness plus a big dip in my mood. If I ignore these signs and continue I’ll likely succumb to a virus infection.
It’s really important to become your own expert on monitoring your body’s response to training. The top priority is to do the next workout only when you feel recovered, and not rely completely on any plan you’ve downloaded. At the first signs of overtraining-rest. Eat well and try and do everything you can to get enough sleep (which I do appreciate can be an issue, especially during menopause!)
How To Recover From Overtraining
Your focus now is on rest and recovery.
It’s difficult to put a figure on how long you’ll need to rest as it’s dependent on several factors-how long you’ve been overtraining, the severity of your symptoms, how your body responds to the rest period… One problem is that the first signs of fatigue and overtraining are often ignored.
Personally, I take at least three weeks before I even think about lacing up again. Then I try a light workout and see how my body responds. It’s crucial to allow yourself adequate time to recover or you’ll quickly find yourself back in the ‘overtrained’ boat.
And this enforced time out period is a great time to take a look at your running goals and any training plans to make absolutely sure you’ve built in enough rest. Don’t worry! It’s very common for runners in their huge enthusiasm to encounter overtraining and have to adjust. It’s just another valuable lesson in your amazing life as a runner.
What If Your Condition Doesn’t Improve?
If you’re not feeling much better after a period of rest then make an appointment with your doctor in order to rule out any other underlying conditions.
REMEMBER: If you don’t heed the first hints of overtraining (and I get it, you’re keen and your training has been going so well…) then you will ultimately end up having much more time away from running than if you’d stopped at the first signs…
Stay fit and well everyone!
Small business owner from Ringwood
Age group: 60-64