Avoiding Overtraining: Don't Let Hard Workouts Slow You Down

Avoiding Overtraining: Don't Let Hard Workouts Slow You Down

By Mike Broderick

Runners as a whole tend to be a driven and determined bunch, and this is particularly true for those who run for reasons other than just fitness. Just be careful not to let the pursuit of whatever your running or racing goal is interfere with your long term health and participation in the sport.

Overtraining is the term used for a syndrome marked by many symptoms, and is the result of subjecting the body to higher cumulative levels of stress than it is adapted to tolerate. For runners, this is typically the result of too much hard effort training and not enough time for rest and recovery. In pursuit of faster times, increased fitness, weight loss or whatever the fitness-related goal may be, we continually increase the amount of training we do. We run faster, drop our 'easy' recovery runs, take fewer days off and eventually overwhelm our bodies' abilities to adapt to the demands placed on them. Finding the right mix of hard work and recovery is essential to avoiding this common training error.

Remember that hard work in the form of training provides the stimulus for the body to adapt and get stronger, but the actual process of adaptation and strengthening occurs during the period of rest and recovery after the hard workout. How much recovery time is necessary will vary depending on the individual and the intensity and duration of the hard workout. The main thing to remember is that if you do not allow for that period of recovery, your body will not adapt by getting stronger, it will eventually break down. So, for starters it is always prudent to structure your training based on the 'hard-easy' principle. Always follow a hard workout with a rest day or easy workout to allow for recovery time. Remember that 'hard' workout can be a short distance run at a face pace or a longer distance (20% or more of your total weekly mileage) run at a slower pace. Each of these workouts puts a significant stress on the body. So if you do a harder workout or long run one day, run shorter and slower the next day or take a day off to recover. 

Not all fatigue is a sign of overtraining. It is normal after a hard workout to have some localized muscle soreness and acute fatigue. Eating a diet high in healthy carbs and taking in sufficient fluids, along with some rest, will resolve this type of fatigue and soreness. This is just the body's normal process of adaptation to training stress. When too many hard sessions are done in succession and the fatigue begins to linger, then the situation begins to change into an overtraining situation. 

How do you know if you are at risk of overtraining syndrome? There are a number of well-recognized signs and symptoms which may be indicative of a problem. I urge all of my runners to monitor their resting heart rate in the morning (check your pulse before getting out of bed) so that they are aware of their normal resting heart rate. One great sign of improved conditioning is a gradual DECREASE in resting heart rate as the heart becomes stronger and does not have to beat as frequently to pump the same amount of blood. If, however, you notice that your resting heart rate in the morning has INCREASED by more than 5 beats per minute and consistently remains elevated, this is a sign that there is a problem. Other common signs of overtraining include:

- General apathy or loss of enthusiasm for training
- Race times getting slower, while training harder
- Persistent fatigue, lethargy or tiredness
- Unusual irritability, anxiousness, depression or boredom
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased sex drive
- Excessive thirst
- Unusual loss of weight
- Unusual or persistent muscle or joint pains
- Digestive disturbances - particularly diarrhea
- Increased susceptibility to allergies, colds, infection

If you think that you may be showing signs of overtraining, you should immediately cut back on your training and take some extra time off. If caught in the early stages, it may only take a few days to a couple of weeks to allow for your system to recover without any further ill effects. Don't justify a delay by telling yourself that you'll take time off after that 10K in a month. If you have symptoms now - you must act now to resolve them. If allowed to progress too far, it may take up to two to three months or more of complete rest to resolve.

Keeping a daily running log is a great way to help you avoid overtraining. Keep track of your workouts each day and be sure not to do back to back hard workouts. Record your subjective feelings each day - how did you feel during your run and was anything unusual (BE HONEST!)? If so, write it down. And most importantly, go back and reread your entries at least once a week to see if there are any patterns developing that might alert you to a lingering or developing longer term problem.

Training hard and achieving goals provide us with well earned satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Just be sure that you train smarter while you are training harder, and don't let yourself be sidelined by failing to incorporate sufficient recovery into your training schedule to allow for adequate adaptation to your training load.

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