Somehow, last week I ran more kilometers than I had done in quite some time. I wasn’t really planning to push myself or increase my mileage, but on various days I had to be somewhere a few kilometers from home, and I figured that jogging to those places with Maria in the stroller rather than taking the bus or go walking would a) save me money and b) save me time. Crazy, I know…
I think pushing your limits is a great way to become stronger. Whether it is a hard-core interval workout or upping the mileage of a long run, if we never challenged ourselves we would not become better runners. What determines whether you succeed or fail, however, is not so much the intensity of your workouts but rather the quality of your recovery, which mainly entails rest and food.
If you fail to recover properly, you risk overtraining, and the longer you overtrain yourself, the more time it will take to recover from it. In the worst case, you may have to take a break from running for several months – a nightmare for most runners. If you, on the other hand, keep an eye on overtraining signs and take action as soon as you start noticing some, one day off from running or simply postponing that hard workout may be all you need to recover.
As with so many things, prevention is better than cure, and therefore I like to take a recovery week every four to five weeks. They keep me fresh, motivated and eventually make me a stronger runner. They are also great for getting some extra sleep, something I don’t always get enough of with a nearly six-month-old. But even before being a mom I used to decrease my mileage every month or so to recover from my workouts and prevent injuries. I don’t really follow any rules during the recovery week and do not even always need to reduce the intensity of my workouts. I do, however, make sure to decrease my mileage by at least one third.
Although overtraining syndrome (also called OTS) is not easily detected without expensive equipment and blood tests, there are clear indications that tell you to slow down. Each of them could happen for reasons other than overtraining, but if you experience several of the following you better take a proper break to allow your body to rest and recover AND eventually become a stronger runner of course.
1. Dreading going out for a run
Everyone has those days on which you don’t feel like going for a run at all, but if you are dreading every single workout your body might be telling you to take a break, especially if you don’t feel more motivated 10 minutes after you start running or you can’t be bothered to give your 100 percent during a workout.
2. Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
The more you train, the more important it becomes to get enough sleep but ironically, insomnia often hits when we are training harder than we should. Feeling anxious or stressed, you may have trouble drifting off or wake up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep. Your body is in that “fight mode” and does not allow you to rest peacefully. I’d say time for a break until you feel relaxed and sleep well again.
3. Feeling fatigued during the day
Not only may the lack of sleep (due to overtraining) lead to increased fatigue during the day, the amount of training may leave you feel lethargic and sleepy even if you do sleep enough. Perhaps you also feel like you are getting a flu or cold, which is another sign of overtraining (see point 8). If your sleep is fine but you are still very tired a running break could be just what you need.
4. Having niggling aches and pains
Does that old injury strike up again? Feeling new muscle aches and pains? You may be overtraining. If your body does not get enough rest to recover before you begin your next workout, injuries are often the result. A break of several days or weeks could be all you need to heal old injuries as well as new aches.
5. Feeling irritable or stressed
According to this website, it is the decrease in hormone production, specifically the hormone catecholamine, that can cause increased irritability or feelings of stress and moodiness. As far as I know, the effect of training too much on hormones is a bit more complex, but in summary, you could say the combination of an increase in stress hormones and a decrease in feel-good hormones leads to a grumpy runner. If you feel this way for several days without a clear reason for your moodiness, cutting back on running may be the solution.
6. Loss of appetite
As appetite and satiety are also regulated by hormones, overtraining can lead to a loss of appetite, which in turn harms recovery even further. As with the other signs, a loss of appetite could be caused by so many factors, but if you have been running intensely yet feeling less like eating the culprit could be too much training.
7. Changes in heart rate
Many coaches advise runners to train by heart rate zones rather than set paces or distances, as a certain pace may be comfortable one day and challenging the next, depending on how well rested you are. I often notice that when I am tired, my heart rate does not go up as fast as when I am fit. If I, for instance, train with a heart rate of 160, that may feel comfortable one day but quite hard the next. On the other hand, fatigue may lead to a higher heart rate at a certain pace. Confusing, right? One clear sign of overtraining, however, is an elevated resting heart rate, and many trainers recommend runners to measure their heart rate first thing in the morning when they wake up to measure their level of recovery. If you notice a higher resting heart rate for several days you could try to take your running regime back a notch.
8. Suffering from recurring colds or respiratory infections
Perhaps you just feel like you are getting a cold or flu, but it is possible as well to be suffering from repeated colds or respiratory infections. Overtraining leaves your body more prone to picking up any viruses due to a weakened immune system. If you suffer from recurring colds or cannot seem to get over one, give your body some well-deserved rest instead of trying to sweat it out.
9. Decreasing performance
Despite your hard work you actually seem to lose fitness. You struggle doing your intervals or tempo run at the pace you used to, or your race times are disappointing. It could be that your body is begging you to give it a break! Take a few days (or weeks) off and see if you feel better afterwards.
We all experience some of these signs from time to time, and they do not always mean you are overtrained. But if you notice several symptoms, have a look at your training log. Have you increased the mileage and/or intensity of your workouts drastically? Are your goals a tad too ambitious? Is there any other area in your life that makes you feel stressed or takes a lot of your energy? If so, consider taking a break from running.
One last remark, though: Several times I suspected suffering from OTS, while it turned out I was anemic. The signs and symptoms are indeed very similar, and so I always recommend to have your blood tested to rule out any other causes. For tips on how to deal with anemia check out this post.
For more info on OTS, see the following websites:
- Are You Overtraining? (Runners’ World)
- Overtraining: Why It Happens, How To Spot It & How To Dig Yourself Out (Competitor.com)
- How to Avoid Overtraining in Running (HowStuffWorks)
- How to know if you’re overtraining (World Running)
(DISCLAIMER: These signs are based on my own experience in addition to articles on overtraining I found online. I am not a medical professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition, diagnosis, or treatment.)