Overtraining In Runners

What Is Overtraining In Running, What Causes It, And What Can We Do About It?

Overtraining In Runners: An Introduction

With Coach Alexa, Online Running Coach for We Run and the We Run Virtual Running Club

Hi team We Run, Coach Alexa here. This article collects together four videos discussing the topic of overtraining in runners. We start with an introduction to the concept of overtraining, and how it can affect runners, before moving on to consider how physical factors and stress can impact on overtraining, and then wrapping up with the all-important discussion of what we can do to avoid overtraining as a runner.

In simple terms, overtraining occurs when the challenge our body faces through training exceeds its capacity to recover. This might happen across various activities, including running, when insufficient recovery time is provided. The key is to strike a balance between training stimulus and recovery time.

Recognising Overtraining

Overtraining can be tricky to identify as it manifests in various ways. Keeping a written training diary is highly beneficial. This diary should not only cover your running but also life, family, and work aspects. Overtraining can manifest through several indicators:

  1. Sleep Patterns: Changes in your sleeping habits, such as sleeping more or less than usual, or difficulty in sleeping
  2. Post-Run Recovery: Taking longer than usual to recover after a run
  3. Energy Levels: Feeling unusually tired, struggling to get out of bed, or struggling to concentrate
  4. Mental State: Struggling cognitively or feeling easily overwhelmed
  5. Appetite Changes: Eating more or less than usual

These indicators feed into a broader picture that also includes your training balance, energy levels, and eating habits. It’s crucial to understand your personal patterns so you can identify any significant changes.

Personal Experience and Insights

From my own experience while training for a 24-hour race, I learned how external factors like stress at work or personal life can contribute to overtraining. These factors can disrupt your sleeping patterns, meal timings, and the quality of your food intake, all of which are crucial during endurance training.

Key Takeaways

I really encourage my runners to maintain a written training diary. Documenting your runs, feelings, energy levels, and eating habits can help you understand your baseline and spot any deviations that might indicate that you’re overtraining. Our running training doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so it’s essential to adapt your training to your life circumstances to avoid falling into a pattern of overtraining fatigue.

Overtraining & Running: Physical Factors

Understanding Overtraining in Running

In this second video of my series, we’ll explore the physical and training-related aspects that contribute to overtraining, how to avoid it, and strategies to recover if you think you might be overtraining.

Key Factors in Managing Training Load

Managing your training load is crucial in preventing overtraining. There are three big levers we can pull in our running training; the number of runs per week, the total run distance, and the pace/effort level/training zones we’re training in. Other factors such as running surfaces and elevation can also be important, especially if you live in flat or hilly areas.

The Bigger Picture: Other Physical Activities

Although obviously very important, running isn’t the only activity that contributes to your overall physical exertion. It’s important to consider other physical activities in your weekly routine. This could include walking your dog, cycling, walking to work, or even having a physically demanding job, like in the medical profession, or a job which involves lots of lifting and carrying, for example. There’s also your non-running training to consider, such as strength and conditioning, yoga and pilates.

Effectively, overtraining is doing too much, or ramping things up too quickly over a long enough period of time, without enough recovery.

Integrating Rest and Recovery

An often overlooked aspect of training is rest and recovery. This includes getting adequate sleep, eating nutrient-rich food, and ensuring you have enough carbohydrates for fuel and protein for recovery. We all know that vitamins and minerals are also essential for the body to rebuild and adapt to our training load, so ensuring we stick to a healthy diet which includes vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables will also aid in recovery.

Balancing Stress and Recovery for Progress

If you’re working with a running coach, they ought to be able to assist in ensuring you’re balancing your training load, not just in running but in all physical activities, including your job. Planning for down or ‘deload’ weeks, recovery weeks, and rest days is often overlooked by recreational runners, but is critically important. Remember, the stress from training, plus recovery, equals progress. Too much stress or too little recovery only hinders progress and leads to overtraining.

Conclusion: Finding the Right Balance

In summary, overtraining occurs when there’s too much physical stress without adequate recovery. By balancing training load with rest and recovery, you can make consistent progress without overtraining. 

Overtraining In Runners: Stress

I want to dive deeper into lifestyle factors that can impact the balance between training and recovery, leading to overtraining.

The Training vs. Recovery Seesaw

In my last video, we discussed the training stimulus, likening it to a seesaw. On one side, there’s the training we do for our sport, and on the other, the rest and recovery time needed to recover, adapt, and improve. When the seesaw prioritises training over rest, it can lead to overtraining.

The Effects of Stress on Recovery

A crucial aspect of recovery is dealing with life’s stresses, such as being busy at work, personal life challenges, or dealing with a family member’s illness. These stressors, especially emotional ones, make it harder to disconnect and can pervade our bodies, impacting recovery.

When we’re stressed, our bodies stay in a fight, flight, or freeze mode, with elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels. This state is suitable for short-term responses, like speed training sessions, but can be harmful if prolonged. Continuous stress keeps the body in a state of readiness, deprioritising non-essential systems like digestion and immune response, which are vital for recovery.

Managing Stress for Better Recovery

While for most of us it’s likely not possible to eliminate all stress, there are ways to manage it. Improving our work-life balance, allowing the body to relax, and using downtime effectively are key strategies. Activities like reading a good book, listening to calming music, or engaging in creative tasks help your body to be physically inactive but mentally calm.

It’s also important to manage our exposure to stress-inducing activities like excessive phone use or watching action-packed TV shows. Engineering times in your day for relaxation and seeking external help for managing anxious thoughts can also be beneficial.

Conclusion: Balancing Life with Training

I hope this provides context on how various aspects of life can significantly impact your training. Remember, effective recovery is not just about physical rest but also managing the mental and emotional stresses of daily life.

Overtraining: What Can We Do?

In this fourth and final video on overtraining, we’re focusing on what to do if you find yourself in an overtrained state.

Understanding Overtraining Causes

A lot depends on how you got into this state. If it’s purely training-related, like doing too much for an extended period or too quickly, the solution is to get your training under control. You might need a substantial recovery block, doing very little training, to allow your body time to rest and recover.

Recovery Essentials

Important factors in avoiding overtraining are still applicable in recovery. Prioritise rest, being physically inactive and mentally calm, and ensure lots of recovery-focused time in your training program. The emphasis should be on recovery, not training progression.

Nutrient-rich foods will help restore balance. Our team at We Run can assist with this.

Dealing with Other Factors

If there are psychosocial elements, like work stress, family problems, or personal issues, the situation gets more complicated. Good rest, sleep, and balanced recovery are vital. Take time for yourself, enjoy things that help you escape from life’s pressures, and focus on good food.

The Role of Professional Support

Sometimes, it’s crucial to talk to a doctor, especially if there’s stress or anxiety involved. Getting help from a physical or mental doctor can be part of unraveling this puzzle.

A Holistic View on Overtraining

We are whole beings; our training and work aren’t separate from our overall health. They impact our brains and bodies in cumulative ways. Pay special attention if your energy levels are affected, or you’re feeling lethargic, sleeping a lot, or struggling to sleep. In such cases, professional support can be crucial.

That’s it for this mini-series on overtraining, I hope you’ve found it useful. Happy Running!

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