How runners can avoid overtraining

Recognising the symptoms of overtraining

Overtraining is a common pitfall many runners face. And although those long night's pounding the pavement are packed with good intention; fail to give your body adequate rest, and you could seriously damage your health in the long-term. Take overtraining seriously - here are the symptoms to watch out for.

While heavy training in a running programme is an essential factor in order to promote progress, it is important to know how much training is too much. Overtraining is generally characterised by your improvement slowing down and being constantly tired. These main symptoms of overtraining are:

  • Fatigue and muscle soreness or tightness
  • Frequent colds and flu
  • A fall or plateau in performance
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Poor motivation and mood swings
  • Reduction in appetite and corresponding weight loss
  • Cessation of periods (for women)
  • Increased in injuries
  • Increase in resting heart rate (RHR)

If not identified early, overtraining can develop into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which can take a year or more to recover from. Basic overtraining can be overcome in a matter of weeks with proper rest. Overtraining can also be associated with eating disorders, especially among women. The combination of running, cessation of periods and anorexia can be a serious health risk and can lead to conditions such as osteoporosis.

The body often undergoes physiological changes in order to accommodate the extra training load that is brought upon it by overtraining. Hormone levels can be seriously affected; oestrogen levels are often lowered, affecting menstrual cycles and decreasing the cardio-protective effect provided by oestrogen. Lower oestrogen levels also impact on bone density, leading to the increased risk of osteoporosis.

During heavy training the body increases adrenaline output in order to increasing heart rate and pump more blood to the working muscles. As a result, the body becomes desensitised to adrenaline, so more and more is needed to prodcue the same response. A regular increase in adrenline levels inhibits white blood cell production — the very things that are responsible for fighting off infections. Overtraining also decreases serotonin and dopamine production leading to irritability, anxiousness and sleep problems.

Overtraining can lead to cellular level damage in the muscles, thus increasing the chance of injury. Iron stores can also be severely compromised with a loss of iron caused through repetitious heel strike which breaks down red blood cells carrying iron. Calcium stores are also affected, which can also contribute to osteoporosis.

Why does overtraining occur?

Emotional stress has a big impact on the potential of a runner to develop overtraining syndrome. Runners with a large or increased amount of stress are far more likely to overtrain than someone who does the same amount of training but doesn’t have the same life pressures.

Physically, overtraining occurs through a combination of factors including: excessive mileage, regular, excessively hard workouts, and lack of variety in training.

How to deal with the symptoms of overtraining?

Once you have identified some of the symptoms of overtraining in yourself, the simple solution is rest. You should do no training whatsoever for at least two weeks.  However, a few short walks will not do you any harm. If you are in a more serious state of overtraining, perhaps approaching chronic fatigue, this will take a lot longer than two weeks to recover from.

First, consult a doctor or Sports Medicine Practitioner in order to confirm a diagnosis. They should be able to advise you on matters relating to hormone status, iron and calcium supplementation and referral to a dietician.

To avoid overtraining syndrome, include some of these recommendations in your weekly routine:

  • Cross-training — include some swimming, resistance training, cycling, yoga or similar in your schedule for both psychological and physical variety.
  • Schedule time off from running — allow for some recovery time, perhaps after a major event.
  • Allow for hard weeks and easy weeks — your schedule should factor in this. Any decent training plan should build up your training to a peak point a week or two before your main goal, and should be tapered to allow for pre-event recovery (and also post event recovery).
  • Vary your running training week to week — your training should not be the same every week. Some weeks, your focus should be on mileage, whereas other weeks should be about intensity.
  • Rest — always have at least one day off running every week.
  • Decrease the stress in your life — stress will negatively affect your training so learn to deal with it. Why not try some meditation to cope with it better? If stressed, you will need to adjust your training schedule accordingly.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet — on long training sessions (an hour or more) replace lost glycogen with carbohydrate solution or supplements part way through your run and after it. Make sure you eat in the first 30 to 60 minutes after training to replenish your muscle glycogen stores. After long training sessions, vitamin C supplementation has been shown to decrease the likelihood of developing the cold and flu-type infections common in runners.

It is vitally important to adjust your training schedule to fit in rest and recovery. This will allow you to focus on other aspects of your life that are often negelected due to training. Use the time you free up to balance your life with activities other than training or sport, and this will help avoid the dreaded overtraining syndrome, as well as making you a more well-rounded individual.

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