Today we welcome back one of our guest writers, Hanny Allston to our pages. In today’s discussion, Hanny chats about overtraining, something I think many ultrarunners can be guilty of. Here she looks at what it is, why it happens, what the warning signs are and how you can overcome it.
Preparing for endurance running events requires a supreme level of fitness that stems from consistency, quality and adequacy of training volumes. Each day we hit the trails or gym to strengthen our fitness, we are creating micro levels of muscle damage. When periods of rest are factored into the training cycle, our bodies regenerate with greater strength and endurance.
Overtraining becomes an issue when we stress our body systems over and over again without allowing for adequate rest and repair. From a physical perspective, consistent training causes a buildup of micro muscle and tissue damage. This can eventually lead to a physical & psychological crash marked by excessive fatigue and a sharp decline in performance.
However, overtraining is not as black and white as just ‘physically overdoing it’. Feeling tired or running like a wombat in your local trail race doesn’t necessarily mean you have been churning out too many miles. Training or racing are just a couple of sources of stress amongst a plethora of stressors related to living in the modern world. Every source of stress in our lives, such as, commuting in heavy traffic or working a stressful job, needs to be accounted for. Irrespective of whether the stress stems from physical or psychological efforts, they are all processed in similar ways and cause hormonal and chemical changes that affect our ability to recover. It is this summation of all our stressors, otherwise known as allostatic load, that determines ‘overtraining’.
Overtraining can also be known as Overtraining Syndrome. This is usually the verdict given by medical professionals who have ruled out all other organic factors at play, such as anemia or B12 deficiencies, and who have determined that the allostatic loading on our body is greater than its ability to adapt. Research varies on the frequency of overtraining amongst runners. Whilst estimates range from 50-61% of runners experiencing overtraining at some point in their running career, what we can determine from these figures is that is happens to many of us.
Causes of overtraining in runners
Simply speaking, overtraining is caused by inadequate recovery from stressors. The most common causes of overtraining are:
1. Reaching too far in one training cycle and placing greater physical loads on the body than it is ready for. A common cause of this is increasing the mileage too fast.
2. Not taking adequate recovery following races. Research indicates that for every 10km raced at maximal intensity we are looking at 4-7 days recovery, the time period it takes for a healthy body to repair the micro muscle damage caused by racing hard.
3. Too many intense speed workouts especially without an adequate aerobic base to support this anaerobic training. Another common error is to combine too many speed sessions amongst extra high mileage.
4. Not factoring life’s stressors into your training load. This often occurs when work or family situations become hectic. We start squeezing in those extra sessions to the detriment of sleep and recovery.
The signs of overtraining
The effects of overtraining are varied and the following list of signs and symptoms should not be considered in isolation, but rather in combination.
1. Fatigue – This is the most classic symptom that over trained runners experience. We all have our tough days and weeks but you shouldn’t be feeling physically tired for weeks on end or suffer from mental lethargy that inhibits clarity of thinking. Furthermore, you should not feel like you are dragging your body along a trail on your easy runs or dread the concept of starting that next tough session. If you are, consider if some more of the following signs and symptoms are at play and if your body is shouting at you to rest.
2. Mood – Are you more irritable than normal or feel flat? Have you ‘lost your spark’? A change in mood can often spell signs of trouble. Sometimes we deny overtraining so it may be wise to listen to your friends or family when they suggest we are getting grumpier.
3. Sleep – Are your normal sleep patterns disrupted? Despite sleeping deeply, are you still waking up feeling tired and ‘out-of-sorts’? Are you waking up during the night and having trouble falling asleep again? Changes to your sleep patterns on a longer-term basis generally suggest that your body’s ability to recover is impaired and hormonal changes are at play.
4. Motivation – If you are dragging your feet around your day-to-day tasks and the thought of heading out for a training session feels like a huge effort, chances are your body is pleading with you for more rest.
5. Sluggishness – Is your enthusiasm strong but your arms and legs feel sluggish all the time?
6. Body weight changes – Most commonly an over trained athlete notices a drop in their body weight. However, overtraining can be associated with a gain in weight.
7. Inconsistency – If one day you feel like a Kenyan marathoner and then next day you can barely get off the couch then you are probably entering the danger zone. This likely indicates that your adrenal system is under stress and your body is trying to compensate, taking every bit of reserve out of our hormonal systems.
8. Susceptibility to illness or injury – Do you seem to catch every cold that roves your workplace? Are you always the one carrying the niggles? It is normal for stress to make way for adaptation. But if it repeatedly suppresses the immune system and breaks down our body structures then your body’s repair process cannot match the loads you are placing on it.
9. Stagnation – Despite months or even years of hard work, have you plateaued and no longer see gains for your training efforts?
10. Heart rate changes – Your resting heart rate can be an indicator of overtraining. Variations of 5-20 beats above your basal heart rate would indicate a stressed body. However, if you are looking at this as an indicator, outside factors such as stress, hydration, caffeine, sleep and illness need to be taken into account.
What can you do to avoid overtraining?
To prevent overtraining, the biggest change you can make to your training and lifestyle is to ensure you take adequate rest. When we discuss rest, we are referring to a range of active and passive recovery techniques that will help your body to decrease its stress response and begin to repair the micro-muscle damage that has been caused by your training.
Passive rest activities, at a minimum, should be factored in a couple of times a week. These include rest days, extra sleep, ‘couch time’, social activities and general relaxation. It is during these times that our body will achieve its greatest repair.
Active recovery includes factoring in activities that ‘prepare the body to train’. These include gentle jogging, swimming, walking, commuting on your bike and visiting allied health services. For instance, physiotherapy, massage, hot/cold therapies and other such activities will help to flush toxins from the body and relax the muscles in preparation for latter training sessions.
Creating a training structure that allows adequate active and passive recovery techniques is paramount. A Wave Structure of training will help with this. Every hard or long day of training should be followed by an active or passive training day. If the load of lifestyle stressors increase then it is also critical to factor in extra recovery to avoid too great an allostatic load on the body.
Following multiple weeks of alternating easier and harder training, an entire week should be set aside for rest and repair. Whilst elite athletes can train for up to 6 weeks before needing a true recovery week, most recreational runners should never exceed 2-3 harder weeks in a row.
Further to this, it is critical that you generate a buffer of quality aerobic and strength training before you get stuck into your hardest intensity training sessions. Quality, lower intensity aerobic training stimulates physiological adaptations in the muscles’ oxidative capacities that triggers greater strength and endurance gains. Conversely, fast anaerobic style training quickly degrades muscle tissues and should be approached with caution and only after a base has been built up.
Recovery from overtraining
If you have failed to prevent overtraining and find yourself needing to jump out of this hole, start by taking a week of active and passive recovery. Cut right back on the volume and remove any intensity from your training until you feel your body’s routines returning to normal. Use this time to reflect on your training methods and spend time determining ways of loading the body more appropriately. If, after this period of rest, you are still feeling fatigued, then further days or weeks may be required until you are jumping out of your socks once again.
In summary, optimal athletic performance is a result of both hard training and adequate recovery. A failure to recognize the significance of recovery in the training process will only lead to fatigue, injury and a decline in performance. The greatest tip that I give to athletes whom I coach if this:
HARD = EASY
That is, for every amount of hard training you do, you need the same amount of recovery. One hard day of training or intensive stress calls for a day of recoup. It can be as simple as that.