Avoiding Overtraining

It isn’t exactly a newsflash that we runners are an awfully disciplined, highly motivated group of achievement-oriented, dedicated people. Maybe too dedicated. At least some time we are.

To run a marathon or even a half marathon, obviously takes a lot of dedication to put in all the training miles. But many of us tend to do too much and run too many miles, hills, long runs and speed work. If you do, you certainly can get in great shape, but once you go overboard, all the work you put in can develop into overtraining and it’s just as serious a problem for marathoners as training too little. Maybe even more so.

Overtraining is easy to define: A runner has trained too hard for his/her level of fitness for too long. Doing so, leaves the runner chronically fatigued, injury prone and running more sluggishly and slower than normal—just the opposite of what elevated training is supposed to accomplish. Dead legs can result. Making it even worse, once you’ve gone over the edge, getting back to normal may take weeks before your body has recovered.

Exactly how many miles, long runs or how much speed work constitutes overtraining is different for every runner. A world-class marathoner may easily handle 100 miles a week or more, while a recreational marathoner may be overtrained by doing less than half of that.

Determining how much training stress your body can handle is key to avoiding overtraining, but finding that level of just the right amount of training to get maximum results without going over the edge takes recognizing the warning signs of overtraining.

Clearly, the more miles you run (and the greater number of long runs) makes you more susceptible to overtraining. That’s why almost all training programs have rest days built into it and limit long runs to just one a week–if not one every two weeks. And that’s why all training programs recommend a gradual buildup of miles to allow your body to adapt to the higher stress loads.

Here are some tips to avoiding overtraining before it nails you:

1. Add an extra day of rest to your weekly schedule. If the training program you are following leaves you tired and beat up, it may be too much. Scale back by giving yourself an additional recovery day.

2. Keep careful track of your mileage and hard workouts. Record your weekly and monthly mileage. If it increases too quickly and leaves you wiped out, you’ll have a record of it and can reduce the total. Don’t do more than three hard workouts a week. If three is too much, only do two.

3. Pay attention to your sleep patterns at night. If you aren’t sleeping well and are restless, your heart rate may be elevated which is a sure sign of overtraining. Cut back on the training, not the sleep.

4. Monitor how you feel when you wake up in the morning. If you wake up tired, you may have underdone it. Also, if you’re sore and in a rotten mood for running, don’t bother with a run.

5. Never force yourself to run. If you just don’t have the energy (mental or physical) for it, your body is telling you to take the day off. Don’t try to be a hero by running when you don’t feel up to it.

6. Schedule one easy week a month. You should take at least one or two easy days a week and you should also take a recovery week every month when you cut back your weekly mileage by 30 to 50 percent. During this week, also cut back on speedwork and if you are scheduled to do a long run, reduce the length of it. Give yourself a break and regenerate your legs and body.

7. Lower overall miles, but maintain the quality. Run fewer miles when you feel yourself getting stale or tired, but still do your speedwork.

8. Take complete rest on a rest day. If you are exhausted and badly need the rest, don’t run. But don’t cross-train or do much of anything else stressful. Just chill out with a good book. Get off your feet as much as possible.

9. Stay hydrated. Emphasize staying as hydrated as possible—especially in the summer. If you are continually dehydrated, it can lead to the same lethargic symptoms of overtraining. Just because it isn’t hot, doesn’t mean you can’t be dehydrated.

10. Run fewer long races. Racing is high stress. If you’re already stale and listless from increased training, a difficult race is the last thing you need to do.