How to Avoid Overtraining in Running

Athletes need to train, but training too much can lead to problems.
Athletes need to train, but training too much can lead to problems.
Polka Dot Images/Thinkstock

Many runners don't realize that resting is just as important as working out when it comes to improving running performance. Running and other training put stress on your muscles and tear them down. Rest rebuilds them stronger. Hard workouts without enough recovery time can put you in danger of overtraining.

A condition generally referred to as Overtraining syndrome (OTS) occurs when prolonged, hard training produces negative physical and psychological effects. The effects include frequent injuries, slower times and a sense that running has become all work and no fun [source: Budgett].

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You can experience OTS even if your individual workouts aren't excessively long or hard. It's the lack of recovery that's the problem -- there is no specific level of training that will result in the ailment. If you are getting enough rest and recovery time, hard training does not mean overtraining. OTS does not develop from a single workout or a few days of heavy work. Instead, it's a cumulative imbalance in your training over weeks and months.

OTS can affect both beginners and experienced runners if they exceed their training capacity and neglect to schedule enough recovery time. The problem can be difficult to diagnose -- some of the symptoms are similar to those that any runner experiences after bouts of hard training, such as soreness, fatigue and lack of enthusiasm for the next workout.

It's important to remember that overtraining is an individual problem. Two runners can follow the same training schedule: One experiences the symptoms of overtraining, the other does not. Each runner's overall fitness is a factor. So are additional life stresses -- you are more likely to experience OTS if you are having a tense time at work or difficulties in a relationship. The same level of exertion that was fine for you a few months ago may be overtraining now. You may not be able to maintain the level of training today that you could when you were younger.

On the next page, you'll read about why many runners are vulnerable to OTS and what factors can cause it.

Why Overtraining in Running Happens

Many runners have a personality and an attitude toward their sport that can push them to overtrain. Here are a few of the factors that often lead to overtraining:

  • Competitiveness -- Runners overtrain because they want to win races or at least show continual improvement in personal times.
  • Habit -- Attached to a regular schedule, runners continue to train even when an injury or illness means they should scale back.
  • Overcompensation -- A runner tries to make up for a poor performance in a race by increasing training. He or she may need more rest, not more running.
  • Denial -- Accustomed to pushing through pain, runners fail to recognize the early signs of OTS because they don't think they're susceptible to overtraining.

Doctors are not sure of the exact causes of overtraining syndrome, but it's usually connected to steady, hard training without enough time to recover. One of the most common mistakes that leads to OTS is a rapid increase in workout intensity or volume. If you start running farther or harder without adequate preparation, you become a prime candidate for OTS. A common rule of thumb is to never increase your training mileage by more than 10 percent in one week [source: Hadfield].

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Another factor in overtraining is too much anaerobic training. The intense, short-term effort that runners put out during interval training (running shorter distances at faster times) is great for building strength and speed. But too much of it can lead to overtraining [source: Taylor].

Poor nutrition can also play a role in overtraining. Some runners, especially those who are conscious of their weight, tend to eat too little. You need to replenish the calories you burn during workouts. One rule is to aim for 60 percent of calories from complex carbohydrates, 25 percent from fat and 15 percent from protein [source: American Running Association].

Finally, a lack of enough rest or sleep can be an important contributor to overtraining. You rise early to get in your morning run, you lead a busy day at work and you don't get to bed until late. Over time, you build up a sleep deficit that contributes to OTS even if you haven't increased your training intensity.

Move on to the next page to learn the symptoms of overtraining.

Symptoms of Overtraining in Running

To avoid overtraining in running, look for early signs and take steps to modify your workout schedule. Overtraining is a syndrome defined by a collection of symptoms rather than one specific ailment.

There is no definitive test for overtraining. Some athletes show hormonal imbalances, including an excess of the stress hormone cortisol, which can be revealed by blood tests [source: Maffetone]. But these expensive tests are not usually the best way to know when you're experiencing OTS. Instead, look for a cluster of symptoms that do not go away quickly.

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The physical symptomsof overtraining start with how you feel when you run. Do your legs often feel heavy? Do you become fatigued more quickly? Has your performance during workouts been declining? Have you failed to improve your times over the past few races? All of these indications can point toward overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining may show up after your workouts. The common soreness or muscle ache that follows a workout doesn't go away. You fail to recover as quickly between workouts. Another common symptom of overtraining is frequent injuries. Aches and pains are common among runners, but if you can't seem to get over one injury before you have another, you may be overtraining.

A lack of appetite or weight loss may be a clue to overtraining. Some runners find that they feel clumsy or awkward. A general fatigue you can't shake should set off alarm bells that you may be suffering from OTS.

One symptom that's often overlooked is more frequent colds and upper respiratory infections. Overtraining can affect your immune system, and a cold that you have trouble getting over should alert you to the possibility that you're overtraining.

Psychological symptoms can also point to overtraining. A common one is the loss of enthusiasm for running. Workouts become a chore, not something you look forward to. You don't get any pleasure out of racing. It's just not fun anymore.

That loss of enthusiasm might carry over to other activities. You show signs of depression and mood swings. You become tense and irritable, have trouble relaxing and suffer from insomnia. All of these can point toward overtraining.

OTS is not something runners should take lightly. On the next page you will learn some of the dangers of overtraining.

Dangers of Overtraining in Running

Over time, untreated symptoms of overtraining can cause serious health problems.
Over time, untreated symptoms of overtraining can cause serious health problems.
John Howard/Getty Images

Overtraining can have serious consequences for your running and for your health in general. To begin with, overtraining is a common cause of runners' injuries. Pulled muscles and blisters are only the beginning. More serious injuries include runner's knee, shin splints and plantar fasciitis, a painful foot problem. All of these ailments can be caused or aggravated by too much training with too little rest.

Just as training stresses muscles, tendons and ligaments, it also causes wear on bones. Continued overtraining can lead to stress fractures, small cracks in your bones. These injuries are serious and need plenty of time to heal. Pushing ahead with your training makes them worse [source: Mann].

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Overtraining interferes with running performance. OTS often leads to slower recovery from each training session, so the runner fails to make progress. Race times grow slower. Chronic overtraining can keep a runner from ever reaching his or her running potential. In the worst cases, it may end a runner's competitive career [source: Meehan].

The symptoms of overtraining may be confused with those of more serious medical problems. If OTS symptoms persist, you should consult a doctor who specializes in sports medicine. A physician can check for other causes of your condition. Anemia, some viruses and thyroid problems can all produce some of the same symptoms as overtraining. What you assume to be overtraining may actually be depression or chronic fatigue syndrome [source: Empfield]. A doctor can help you get a clear picture of what's going on in your case.

If you ignore the symptoms of overtraining, they may lead to more serious problems over time. Hormonal changes can affect many systems in the body. Anemia and iron deficiency often accompany overtraining. Overtraining can lead to chronic insomnia or depression. Colds, flu and other infections become more common as overtraining weakens your immune system. Some runners experience a loss of libido. Women may suffer from menstrual irregularity or the absence of their monthly period [source: Runbritain.com].

In some cases, severe overtraining has been shown to affect the responsiveness of the runner's heart. It no longer speeds up properly during exercise. This "tired heart" syndrome severely restricts running performance [source: Empfield].

You can avoid the dangers of overtraining by preventing the syndrome in the first place. Read on to find out how.

Prevent Overtraining in Running

The only real cure for overtraining is a long rest, followed by a gradual buildup of training intensity. Overtraining is like digging a hole. The longer it goes on, the deeper the hole and the longer it takes to recover. A three-week layoff from hard training might be enough to remedy a relatively mild case of OTS. Some severe cases can require as much as three months' rest [source: Runbritain.com].

Prevention is clearly the best route. Plan a workout routine that's within your current capacity, depending on your fitness, age and any recent injuries. Make sure you ramp up your distance and intensity gradually. Balance work and rest: Schedule a rest day once a week, and each month take a week in which you reduce your training by 30 to 50 percent [source: Hadfield].

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Don't schedule hard workouts on successive days -- alternating heavy and light training will give you the best results. Incorporate cross training into your program. Things like swimming, cycling and stretching help build fitness while taking the stress off your running muscles.

It's a good idea to train by effort rather than just calculating your distance and time [source: Hadfield]. You'll need a heart-rate monitor. Determine the best training based on your current level of fitness. If you find you're maintaining the same heart rate but your times are increasing, it's time to cut back and rest.

Eating well can help head off OTS. Your calorie intake must keep up with training level -- as you run more, eat more. Running can help you lose weight, but don't try to drop the pounds too quickly. Eat a snack or small meal within 30 minutes of a hard workout to give your body the nourishment it needs [source: Sinclair]. Make sure you drink enough water before and during training.

Get plenty of sleep. You may find that you need extra sleep during periods of heavier training. Keep in mind that resting is really part of your training. Don't skimp on it.

These preventive steps will help you to avoid the problems that come with overtraining. Just as important, they'll help keep running a rewarding and enjoyable activity for years to come.

Move on to find out more about running and ways to avoid overtraining.

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Sources

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  • Empfield, Dan. "How Much is Too Much?" (July 28, 2010)http://www.slowtwitch.com/mainheadings/coachcorn/overtraining.html
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