Are You Overtraining?
A little bout of fatigue can develop into training overreach, which can blossom into overtraining syndrome. Here's how to know the difference.
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Trail running has a funny way of making us feel like a five-year-old one moment and a 95-year-old the next. That ability to stuff all of life’s experiences into bite-sized morsels is part of what makes the sport so great. But sometimes, the balance gets out of whack. Here’s how to know if you’re overtraining.
We all know the feeling. Your legs ache, stairs are impossible, the smallest tasks take monumental effort and you start looking up apartment listings in the closest nursing home. That fatigue could be a normal part of training, especially if you had a hard effort in the last 48 hours. But, if fatigue persists for more than a couple days, something is wrong.
A little bout of fatigue can develop into a training overreach, which can blossom into full-blown overtraining syndrome (OTS). Be on the lookout for abnormal fatigue, loss of motivation, extreme hunger, reduced libido or reduced mental clarity lasting two or more days. If symptoms mount and don’t resolve, follow these steps.
Here’s how to know if you’re overtraining.
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1. Put your training plan on hold.
The goal of hard training is to perform close to your maximum capacity to spur adaptations in power output, oxygen-processing capacity, aerobic efficiency and other variables. However, it is a misconception that fatigue should be ever-present during a training cycle. In most instances, unless you have a specific plan of back-to-back workouts or long runs, running moderate or hard through fatigue is not physiologically productive. Train at less than your best, and you’ll eventually adapt to become less than your best.
If everyday runs become excessively tiresome, take a break.
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2. Rest completely until energy returns, then “yog” it out.
The most important moment in stopping the progression of OTS is to rest completely so that your body can reach stress equilibrium. Wait to run again until the fire of motivation returns. I recommend that athletes don’t think like a runner at all in this time—no cross training, no stretching … nothing. Instead, live like a normal, active person. Walk 30 to 90 minutes a day (but not hiking), eat well (but not perfectly). In most instances, one to three days does the trick.
Once you get over the hump, don’t hop right back into your training plan. Arthur Lydiard, the father of running training, advised his runners to ease back in by running at a pace so slow that someone pushing a shopping cart would pass them going up a hill. I call this a “yog”–so slow it doesn’t even amount to a jog. You’re ready to resume training when you finish a yog feeling like a racehorse at the starting gate, chomping to be set free.
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3. Get a blood test.
The most frustrating fueling-related quip I hear constantly from athletes is, “I get everything I need from my diet.” Unless you get a blood test, you have no idea.
Runners put a lot of strain on their physiological systems, and that strain can cause insufficiencies in biomarkers that non-runners might not share. Most commonly: iron. Runners lose iron in a number of ways, mainly through sweat, foot-strike hemolysis (blood iron degrades due to the impact forces of foot on ground) and menstrual cycles. Studies indicate that performance suffers before an athlete is officially classified as anemic. So for many runners—especially female runners—an iron supplement is essential.
And what is the main symptom of iron deficiency? You guessed it—fatigue. Getting blood tests can set up a baseline that lets you track your health over time, and make healthy decisions about diet and supplementation. You can get your blood tested through a doctor or a company like Inside Tracker, which provides athlete-catered testing services.
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4. Schedule extra sleep.
The best way to attack the fatigue monster is with sleep. Sleep is basically an evolutionary stress- and anxiety-coping mechanism, a caveman’s Xanax. So prioritize sleep in any way you can, including taking away running time temporarily. One of the athletes I coach even reserves his office conference room for important meetings occasionally, where he shuts the door, closes the blinds and naps for 15 to 30 minutes. While that isn’t possible for most people, you should respect his sleep swag and try to adopt it as much as you can with your own sleep decisions.
5. Eat enough.
Combine chronic underfueling with hard training and physical disaster won’t be far off. So when abnormal fatigue first appears, ask yourself about your nutrition in recent days and weeks. Were you eating enough? Did you wake up starving? Are you being overly restrictive, or demonstrating disordered eating thoughts?
Those questions can have really complicated answers. But if you’re worried you’re underfueling, simply reverse the trend for a couple days by eating more than enough—the initial rest or yog period is an ideal time. All of my athletes practice “Burger Sunday” (or the vegan equivalent), where they eat their favorite, greasiest food to cap off a big training week. The goal isn’t to be gluttonous, but to de-stigmatize food, since it takes a lot of food to build a strong trail runner.
Hard training can be a dangerous game, involving self-inflicted pain that ultimately leads to the pleasure of great runs and races. But sometimes, the game can get out of hand. Employ these tips and you’ll have a “safe word” that you can use to prevent yourself from getting hurt.
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David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.