Posted by: Dean Hebert | July 22, 2008

Training: How much is too much of a good thing? Over-training and Plateauing with runners

A reader named Nilla wrote in to ask a question that is symptomatic of many runners. After a period of time their workouts may appear to stop having a positive impact or they just might start to struggle doing the same workouts that they’ve been doing for a long time. This can be frustrating and difficult to understand. Coach Dean tackles the issue of overtraining and plateauing in this article.

Here’s Nilla’s question:

I have been running for 8 years now. I’ve run comfortably at an 8:30 mile pace and have consistently run 35-40 miles per week. I have participated in several races including a couple of half marathons. But for the past 5 months, running has been very difficult for me. It is a struggle just to get in an easy run. The first mile is okay but the remaining miles are awful. My legs get tired, my lungs hurt and overall I feel terrible. By the end of an easy 6 miler, my body is spent! My enjoyment in running is dwindling because of this and I have tried to determine what is the cause. Nothing has changed that I can tell. I have tried starting my runs off slower to save energy and taken more days off during the week but it hasn’t helped. I’m a 5 ft. 9, 30 year old female who eats healthy, gets lots of sleep but is I am still at a loss! Can you please give me some advice?

This is a common question, so first, let me reassure you that you’re not alone. Every athlete goes through these spells at one time or another. Usually these issues boil down to either over-training or what we call plateauing.

Before we jump into those issues however, it’s important to rule out any other physiological causes. Stress, for instance, is one cause that is ofter overlooked. Also Low grade infections or other disease processes may be having an impact on your performance. Allergies can also foster these same symptoms. For women, I strongly recommend evaluation for iron deficiencies.

In addition to these more typical issues, the on-set of more serious diseases could be draining you of your energy. So, a first step is to get to a doctor and eliminate any physical causes or illnesses.

Another common reason cause of a serious loss of performance and energy is a low level of chronic dehydration -– especially since we are in the middle of summer. Hydration zaps people of their performance and may go unnoticed over the course of time. If you don’t do hydrate properly then everything else I suggest could end up pretty meaningless.

Now, assuming you have no biological or hydration-related reasons for feeling this way we then need to look at the training itself. You don’t detail the type of workouts you do so I’ll need to keep my comments somewhat general and hope to hone in on the possible causes and solutions for you. Five months is a long time to suffer through this “phase.” Struggling to get easy runs completed and given your experience and background, those 6 milers should not feel so bad.

A red flag for me is your statement that you run “consistently run 35-40 miles per week .” Your mileage is more than just your average everyday run-for-health runner. And if it is done week in and week out it may be a compounding the issue. At this level of mileage it becomes important to vary workouts and move through phases of training during the year. After 6-8 weeks our bodies have generally extracted most of what we can out of the current workouts. If you do not change them, you get stale. You can even start to feel worse instead of better.

The result — if you run this mileage year-round without training phases — is that you may be plateauing or even over-training.

Here are some issues that I should clear up about over-training:
– Over-training is not just from running “hard” all the time –- though it can be.
– Over-training is not just from racing a lot –- though it can be.
– Over-training is not just from doing too many long runs –- though it can be.
– Over-training is not just from doing too many track workouts –- though it can be.
– Over-training can also be from doing consistent above average miles without variation regardless of pace.

Plateauing isn’t the same as over-training. You “plateau” as a result of having maximized your current training routine and you are no longer progressing. Symptoms for over-training and plateaus can be similar: lethargy, lack of enthusiasm for workouts, chronic aches for little or no reason, no improvement in running or racing, workouts that formerly were achievable now seem impossible, out of breath or labored breathing even with slower paced runs, mentally drained, frequent colds or illnesses.

Luckily the cures are similar. Here are some suggestions to help get you out this rut:
1. First and foremost – back-off. This can be anything from a couple weeks completely away from running to running only 2-3 days a week easily and cross-training the other days.

2. Only after you mentally feel like getting back to running, then proceed to running.

3. Infuse variety in your training. Change venues. Change terrain. Change scenery. Change paces. Change distances. Change efforts within the same workout. Run with someone. Run with someone different. Cross-train and get away from running every day.

4. Establish phases of training. Pre-season, racing season, post season or strength & hill training, race pace training, and recovery time. Each phase changes the nature of what you do along with the miles.

5. If you don’t use formal phases to your training then change your weekly mileage by having a low week (20-25 miles) alternating with a higher mileage (40-45 miles) week. And, change your efforts (paces) regularly. See #2.

6. Set goals. The mental component to over-training and plateauing is very real. Establish goals that excite you again. Create a mental focus for your workouts. They should have purpose and contribute to progressing to a worthwhile goal.

And finally, you may want to join a running group or start working with a running coach. There are subtle intricacies involved when you run consistently over the longer term. A coach can help you build a workout plan that helps you stay healthy and happy in your training.

Try some of these suggestions and remember to mix it up. Getting out of this rut may just require some variety. Variety is — as they say — the spice of life.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News


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