Runners are often at odds with trying to run enough to meet their goals and doing too much for their capabilities. When a runner steps over this line he or she runs the risk of over-training, which can mean an ugly feeling decline in performance. The question today is how do you know when you are over-training and what can you do about it?
Before we dive in to the signs and symptoms of over-training, let’s take a moment to differentiate a couple of things. First, over-training and over-use injuries are two different things. Over-use injuries happen when a particular body part, such as a knee or IT band is worked too hard and it essentially breaks. Over-training, as we’ll discuss, does not necessarily imply becoming injured, although the two often go hand-in-hand. Second, fatigue is a normal part of training. Many of the benefits of our workouts come from pushing into a zone that will leave us very fatigued. This again is different from over-training, which zaps us of our ability to recover and continuing making forward progress.
The best way to understand over-training is to define it and then break down the definition. My definition would be that in most instances, “over-training comes from doing too much and too intense an amount of work without enough recovery.” Now let’s deconstruct that a bit.
First, the words “too much” here are relative and can vary from person to person and even as it relates to where you are for your own fitness. It’s obviously pretty easy for a new runner to do “too much” when they are just starting out, but an experienced runner can do “too much” when they have taken time off, become inconsistent with their workouts, or are just coming out of a slack period such as a winter break. Often runners “jump back in” and try to resume what they were doing at a previous time and that may be too much for their current fitness level. Also, runners can be impressed upon by what they read in the press about elite athletes and the volume of their mileage without understanding what goes into those miles and they’ll just jump in and try to emulate the numbers they see. I hear people tell me all of the time, so and so “runs 100 miles a week, shouldn’t I being doing that?” The answer is that it depends on your level, your current fitness, your goals and (most importantly) the make-up of those miles.
Second, when I say “too intense” it may be that the runner is doing too much volume at too intense of a speed for their current capabilities. Again, a runner that says, “I used to run 7:00 miles, so that’s what I should be doing today” could be setting them self up for over-training. Why? Because the more intense the work, the longer the recovery needed. Running too fast FOR YOU at the current time can turn every workout into a speed work of sorts.
Third, perhaps most important, are the words “without enough recovery.” As I have already mentioned, the more intense the work the longer the recovery. But even more basic is the need for recovery at all. Much of the improvement from our workouts comes in the period after the workout when the body is recovering. This is the time when the body repairs damage and builds upon the workload you’ve thrown at it. If you are consistently training before you’ve recovered, you can easily put yourself in a situation where you are robbing yourself of your recovery and then can never complete that process.
So what does over-training feel like?
Typically when runners are over-training we see three things: first is an intense fatigue that doesn’t go away, even after warming up. If you feel like you just can’t “get warm” then you may be over-training. Second, is a drop in performance during workouts compared to what we might expect. For instance, if a person has been clocking 1:30 400M intervals and all of the sudden they are consistently running 1:35 per 400M without any other change in the environment that could indicate over-training. Third is when mentally the runner stops being able to push themselves in workouts. I often ask a person if they “feel like they are simply OVER training?” (meaning are they “over it”). That’s another good sign that they are not recovering or doing too much intensity for their capabilities.
What causes over-training?
To me, typically over-training starts by not having a training plan that balances everything that needs to happen for a runner. When runners are doing workouts “without a purpose” or “simply logging miles” they run the risk of over-training. This is true whether a person is running 20 or 100 miles a week. A good training plan would balance work at varying levels of intensity and give the runner enough recovery between the intense workouts to recover properly.
What should you do if you are over-training?
First, start by looking at what you’re doing. Are you getting a good balance of goal paced miles, speed work, cross-training and recovery work? Do you do many workouts at the same pace without much of a plan? Do you run everyday for a time goal (e.g. 2 hours every day)? Do you exercise every day without taking any days off? All of these things can lead to over-training, depending upon the circumstances.
There are a number of other problematic issues that can cause over-training we need to keep in mind. Eating disorders or addictive behaviors can be a cause of over-training, for example. If you have been diagnosed or you suspect that you have an eating disorder or are prone to addiction, you should talk with a nutrionist or other coach to see if they think that you may be using running and exercise to as part of deeper issues.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running-Advice.com & RUN Time Life