[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
“More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more.” ― Barbara Benedek
I was probably sixteen the first time I experienced overtraining; training too hard for too long, on too many consecutive days, with not enough rest. Overtraining starts with overreaching-training hard for several consecutive days that results in feeling run down, increased muscle fatigue, and decreased performance. Overreaching can be reversed with a few days of rest. Overtraining occurs when you ignore the muscle fatigue, decreased performance, and rundown feeling that occurs with overreaching, and continue to push hard. More hard days does not, however, produce a stronger athlete. Rather, more hard days produces weaker results and eventually, a weaker athlete.
When I was sixteen, I simply took a break. I stopped running or working out, and I knew I was overtrained because I'd lost my desire to run. I'd lost my desire to move much as well. I'd trained so hard for so long that my body wasn't the only thing to burn out. Eventually, with enough time and rest, my body and mind recovered, but I hadn't learned my lesson well. I would dip my toe into overtraining again in college, and again when I started running ultras, and even again last winter. I didn't stop until I needed to, injuries sidelining me for weeks. Rest is training, too, and it's important to take rest days seriously.
If you think you might be overtrained, here are some signs and symptoms:
- Unusual muscle soreness that persists and doesn't go away
- Unable to train at a previously manageable level
- Heavy feeling legs, even if you're taking it easy
- Performance decreases
- Increased recovery times
- Increase in tension, anger, or depression
- General fatigue and poor-quality sleep
- Lack of motivation and enjoyment from something you once loved
- Increased illnesses or head colds
- Increased resting heartrate
- Decreased appetite and/or missed menstrual cycles
How to Recover from Overtraining
Rest: The most obvious and important step is to stop doing whatever you're doing. Absolute rest is important, and the amount of time you might need to rest can vary from weeks to even months, depending on how deep you dug yourself.
Nutrition: Make sure you're eating healthful foods, hydrating, and supplementing if necessary. Many female athletes suffer from iron deficiency, which can lead to prolonged fatigue as well. Work with a certified dietitian to make sure you're meeting your nutritional needs.
Mental Health: It can be hard to take a break from training, especially if it's a big part of your life. Seeing a mental health professional or engaging in practices such as mindfulness, meditation, or visualization can help.
How to Avoid Overtraining in the First Place
1. Listen to your body. I recently wrote about our over-reliance on devices (GPS watches, heartrate monitors, etc). Sometimes your device will show that you're recovered but you won't feel it, and that can cause you to push harder than you should. Sometimes your device will tell you to rest and you feel fine. If you listen to your body, you'll know when you're overly tired, and if you do want to measure fatigue somehow, resting heartrate is a great measure. Take your heartrate every morning, and if you notice a jump in resting heartrate, chances are you need to rest.
2. Keep a training log. And not just for distance. If you use Strava, you can add personal notes to remind yourself how your run felt. You can also use their "perceived exertion" tool, and you can see your weekly, monthly, or yearly progress. Keeping a training log is also a good way to keep track of how much you're increasing training. The old rule of thumb (increasing your training load no more than 10% each week) holds true, and dictates a slow, steady increase in training.
3. Balance hard workouts with rest. Adequate rest is not a sign of weakness. You need at least one rest day a week. I prefer two harder workouts as well as a day of active recovery each week, and my weekly mileage will increase or decrease depending upon my ability to handle a specific training load.
4. Focus on eating high-quality food. Nutrition is incredibly important not only for performance, but for recovery as well. After my last 100 miler, I focused on sleeping and eating more protein than I normally would. The influx of rest and high-quality protein (primarily organic chicken, bison, and eggs) helped me feel strong and healthy in less than two weeks and reduced muscle soreness significantly. I strongly recommend working with a dietitian if you struggle with getting adequate nutrition.
5. Drink more water. Dehydration contributes to muscle fatigue and mental fatigue. Especially when training in heat, hydration is extremely important. Drink more hydrating liquids (water, coconut water) and less liquids that have dehydrating effect such as caffeinated/alcoholic beverages.
6. Consider the impact of stress. Life stressors outside of working out can leave you feeling tired and worn down. Jobs, relationships, grief, etc, can all add to your mental and physical fatigue, so if you are highly stressed, you might benefit from lower-impact exercise. If you're chronically stressed, you might benefit from the help of a mental health professional.