Find out how to avoid overtraining and how to recognise the signs that you might infact be heading for runner’s burnout.

Running and exercise can be an addictive pastime and with that comes a danger of doing too much and overtraining. Burnout or overtraining syndrome can seriously impact on your exercise regime and day-to-day life.

Overtraining syndrome is characterized by a number of symptoms including feeling rundown, not being able to complete your usual workouts, constantly catching colds, aches and pains becoming the norm, poor motivation, fitness declining or being stuck on a plateau.

If you share some of these symptoms, then it's possible you may just be slightly under the weather, but it is possible that you are suffering from workout burnout or overtraining syndrome. The problem when these symptoms arise is that people tend to push harder rather than back off, in an attempt to make up for the loss in performance, which only compounds the issue.

Overtraining not just for athletes

Now before you protest that you ‘only’ go to the gym for an hour a time or only run five days a week so you can’t possibly be overtraining, bear in mind that this is not a problem exclusive to elite athletes. Yes, their overall training volume is far higher than yours, but not only are such athletes genetically gifted, they also schedule ‘down time’ into their programs.

Athletes rest , they eat properly and they train correctly – and even then, most of them don’t get through the year without injury. And, of course, they have the expertise of coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists and sport scientists to support them. (And they don’t have to contend with late nights, hangovers, full-time jobs and other commitments, like the rest of us.) In other words, the only stress on their system is exercise, while for the average recreational exerciser; stress bombards us from all angles.

Cause and effect of overtraining

Overtraining is usually caused by training errors, despite the media frenzy over exercise ‘addiction’. The most common mistake is a badly devised program, such as one which includes too rapid progression, or inadequate recovery and rest. Every person has their own physical and psychological limits to the amount of training they can tolerate. Step over this threshold, and you may enter the realms of overtraining.

Overtraining is usually caused by training errors, despite the media frenzy over exercise ‘addiction’.

And don’t be fooled by thinking ‘I could cope before, so why not now?’. You may have been laying the foundations of overtraining for some time. And besides, your capacity to train isn’t set in concrete. Five training sessions a week might be okay for you most of the time, but it can become too much if the kids are at home for the summer holidays, if work is particularly stressful , or if you’re sleeping badly.

Keeping a training log is one way of tracking any mood disturbances or physical changes that may be the first signs. You also have to listen to, and respect, your body’s opinion. Okay, so your schedule might require a threshold run or a spinning class tonight, but if your body is screaming ‘no way!’ you would be wise to heed its advice. One clue of burnout is a resting heart rate that is consistently five beats higher than normal, so you could note that in your training log, too.

Running on empty

Poor diet, particularly inadequate calorie intake, and insufficient carbohydrate and water consumption, is another important factor. Many exercisers don’t cater for the demands that intensive training puts on the system and end up lacking energy for the next session.

Even if you are trying to lose weight, you need to keep your body adequately fuelled and hydrated. Many experts also now recommend that heavy exercisers take an antioxidant supplement to support the immune system.

Tips to avoid overtraining syndrome

The warning signs of overtraining can be physical or psychological. Read through the following statements and tick those that you think apply to you.

List 1:

  • I don’t look forward to exercise.
  • I often feel moody and irritable.
  • I feel relieved when my workout is over.
  • I feel guilty about taking a day out of my exercise schedule.
  • I don’t get the same joy I used to from exercise.
  • I’ve lost my appetite (without changing my diet).
  • I have experienced more muscle soreness than usual.
  • My limbs often feel heavy.
  • I sometimes feel I can’t complete the workout I set myself.
  • My normal sleep pattern has changed recently. 

List 2:

  • I have lost a lot of weight recently without dieting.
  • My periods have stopped or become irregular.
  • I have recently suffered ‘overuse’ injuries.
  • I have experienced more colds, sore throats or stomach upsets than usual.
  • My resting heart rate has increased noticeably (by five beats or more, consistently).

If you’ve ticked three or more from the first list and one or more from the second list, and your doctor has ruled out the possibility of injury or illness, you are a likely candidate for overtraining syndrome. Of course, everyone has down days, but if you’ve experienced a consistent dip in your fitness that can’t be put down to illness or injury, and if you dread training sessions that you used to enjoy, it’s likely that you are suffering from burnout.

Breaking the pattern of overtraining

The first thing anyone will tell you to do if you are overtraining is to ease off. Try halving your usual regime for a minimum of four weeks and see whether you regain your energy and enthusiasm for exercise.

Don’t fret about the sessions you are missing – why not focus on improving your mobility and flexibility...

Try to spend this ‘down time’ eating healthily, getting plenty of rest and enjoying the break. Don’t fret about the sessions you are missing – why not focus on improving your mobility and flexibility for a couple of weeks?

When you begin to feel better, get back to training cautiously. Don’t wear a heart rate monitor or watch to start with, and don’t obsess over goals for the time being. You may also want to consult a personal trainer or coach, to ensure that your future fitness programs are well balanced and sensible.

Keep it in perspective

If you fear that you’ll ‘lose’ your fitness by cutting back, try to think about it rationally. Okay, if you don’t lift a finger for two weeks, you’ll make some losses – but forgoing two to three sessions each week? No way. In fact, many runners report achieving personal best times after an enforced layoff, due to a break, a busy period at work or an illness.

If missing even a single day makes you feel physically bad, guilty or depressed, you may be moving into the realms of exercise dependence or addiction. Commitment to a healthy habit is one thing, dependence is another. If you are working through fatigue and pain because you’re not getting the results you want, you have to admit to yourself, it’s not for the sake of your health. You may need to seek professional help.