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Manage stress and recovery to maximize performance

Good fortune smiled upon me in the summer of 2007. Extra slots opened up at the Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 mile. A friend wanted me to join him at his first ultramarathon, the Stone Cat 50 mile. Montrail needed another runner for its JFK 50 team. How could I say no when each event excited me? I didn’t.


This article appeared in our January 2011 issue.

In the span of 15 days, I ran all of those events and ran them well. Each 50-miler was faster than the previous with me clocking a 50-mile PR at JFK, the finale of this racing spree. Three weeks later I was racing the Hellgate 100K (why not?)‚ if you could call walking the flats an hour into an event “racing.” Every muscle, tendon and bone was in fine working order, but my body was crushed. For weeks afterward, I would collapse on any available soft, flat surface (couch, bed, car seat, trailside), barely able to move. I had succumbed to a horrible case of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

FOMO and overtraining are virulent in the trail-running community. It’s understandable. We find our enjoyment exploring the outdoors. The next great thing might be around the next bend or on a run with a buddy. We look up to idols who run unfathomable mileage and aim to follow in their footsteps. Ah, but too much trail-running fun can come at a big cost.

Take, for instance, high-mileage-king Anton Krupicka. In previous years he’d ramp up to 225-mile weeks. Why? “Mostly, for the sheer joy of it,” explains Krupicka. He now admits, “In the past, I’ve let my life get out of balance with too much time and energy spent on just running for running’s sake.” All that running led to frequent injuries.

This year, a moderate reduction in Krupicka’s weekly mileage has led to more consistent, injury-free training and excellent race results. Krupicka sagely notes that while positive benefits of his slightly reduced training are a “no-brainer to any outsider … the physical, emotional and mental experiences of actually implementing restraint is always more difficult.”

Even if you can’t say, “No‚” to the next run invitation or give in to your urge to run long twice this weekend, you can recognize the warning signs of overreaching and overtraining and set a proper course for recovery.

Overreaching versus Overtraining

To be sure, you stress your body to improve your running. More accurately, it is stress and your recovery from it that makes you stronger. To reach your fullest potential you may need to push yourself to the verge of overreaching, which is simply doing too much in the short term. An extended period of stress-recovery imbalance or an extreme imbalance may lead to overtraining. The primary differentiator between overreaching and overtraining is the amount of time it takes to recover. Otherwise, the signs of and recourse for the two states are similar.

The first signs are persistent fatigue and, perhaps, heavy legs despite a few recovery days. You may feel like sleeping more than normal, but, at the same time, have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Some athletes also experience weight loss, drop off in athletic performance and uncommon thirst.

Your training may take a more consistent hit. For instance, it’s a red flag if  “you’re ramping up training effort, but your results are worse,” notes Dr. Jeffrey Rocco, an orthopedic surgeon with an interest in sports medicine.

Symptoms can also be psychological. If you experience increased anxiety or depression, consider changing your routine. Likewise, do the same if you experience inappropriate fears or anxiety about your running performance. According to Dr. Rocco, another classic sign is having a hard time getting out the door for a run when it’s normally easy.

There are two classic physiological signs that you can use to confirm if you are overreaching or overtraining. First, check to see if your heart rate is elevated before getting out of bed in the morning. A heart rate that is elevated by at least 10 percent for three or more consecutive mornings suggests that you are at least overreaching. Second, if you wear a heart-rate monitor, a higher heart rate for a given pace is another sign that you’ve pushed too hard.

In the end, the best diagnosis is having a coach or experienced runner look at your training and lifestyle.

Rest and Recovery

If you find yourself overreaching or overtraining, Dr. William Henderson, a physician and exercise physiologist, suggests, “Since overreaching and overtraining are a mismatch of stress and recovery, you must fix the balance by both decreasing stress and increasing recovery.”

To recover, initially assume that you are overreaching. However, don’t completely stop training. Instead, reduce your training volume by 30 to 40 percent. Dr. Henderson notes, “You can keep the intensity in your training. It’s all about reducing volume.”

If two weeks’ recovery doesn’t have you feeling better, then more rest is likely warranted. You are overtrained. Continue to modify your training as you did during the first two weeks of rest. Full recovery from overtraining can take months or even years in extreme cases.

Also, examine other aspects of your life. Diet and sleep are crucial for recovery; many of us, however, often skimp here. Aim for at least eight hours of sleep. To meet your caloric and nutritional needs, eat enough fat and protein, emphasize whole over processed foods and hydrate well during and after workouts.

Don’t stop there, though. Work life, a troubled relationship and other life-related stressors can hold back your training. No matter how difficult, address big issues, too.

The Finish Line

Most serious endurance athletes have experienced one of the fatigue states described here. But the conditions are “as common or more common in amateur athletes as in professional athletes,” says Dr. Henderson. “They don’t have the ability to focus on stress or especially on recovery that professional athletes do.”

The good news is that 90 percent of runners who think they are overtraining are only overreaching. Therefore, most of the time a burnt-out runner can be back training at full volume in half a month if he or she reduces stressors and increases recovery during that time. Sometimes that will mean saying, “No.”

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