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Overtraining is a full-grown grizzly bear, throwing massive, mauling haymakers that can ruin your day-to-day life.
Overreaching, meanwhile, is a bear cub. It’s mostly harmless on its own, but momma grizzly could be close behind unless you act quickly.
Trail-running training is a constant process of introducing stress that causes your body to adapt positively. Sometimes, the body doesn’t heal as quickly as it should. That “overreach” can be caused by high-intensity training, a big increase in training volume or even the way running interacts with your life outside of short shorts (things like lack of sleep, too much work or inadequate nutrition).
No matter what causes an overreach, you need to recognize it immediately and know how to react. Continuing normal hard workouts through overreaching symptoms causes the workouts to suffer, and things could progress into overtraining syndrome, a disastrous array of maladies that sometimes ends running careers.
The science on the overtraining spectrum is incomplete, so it’s essential to listen to your body. Here’s how.
There is no clinical diagnosis I have as a coach that makes me go, “Oh shnikes, time to back off.” But there are some symptoms you should never ignore.
1. “Clenching” Quads in the Evening
There is a difference between soreness (which is usually fine) and deep fatigue (which could put you in deep shnike).
If you are lying in bed and your legs are uncomfortable on a cellular level— difficult-to-pinpoint fatigue that feels deeper than run-of-the-mill soreness—your body may be having an adverse reaction to training stress.
On a related note, if you find yourself involuntarily flexing your legs throughout the evening, it’s time to back off.
2. Difficulty Sleeping or Difficulty Staying Awake
Hard training produces the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol can throw your sleep rhythms off. For some athletes, dangerous overtraining manifests itself as an inability to sleep deeply at all.
The key is avoiding that point at all costs, since it starts a self-perpetuating cycle that has left many runners up shnike creek without a paddle.
3. Abnormal Fatigue Walking Up Stairs or Running Up Slight Hills
If a broken escalator is a great personal setback, your training is taking too much out of you. Deep fatigue seems to be impossible to ignore on inclines.
4. Abnormal Heart-Rate Readings
If you monitor your heart rate, always be on the lookout for big deviations. An overreach can manifest in just about any abnormality you can think of. Pay special attention to an elevated resting heart rate and a too-high or too-low heart rate during activity.
A less scientific but equally tell-tale signal is your heartbeat at night—watch for a strange awareness of your heart beating through your temples. It didn’t end well for Edgar Allen Poe’s protagonist, and it probably won’t end well for you either if you ignore it.
5. Abnormal Fatigue or Lack of Motivation
If you are a highly motivated person, respect any dips you perceive in your focus—they are usually singing a song that your physiology is writing. (If you are lazy, then suck it up unless you have one of the other indicators above.)
In a hard three-month training block, I might feel the above symptoms once or twice; overreaching slightly is a natural byproduct of quality training.
What sets people apart is not so much avoiding it altogether, but responding swiftly using whichever of the below methods works best for you.
1. Slow Jogging
The week before the 2016 Way Too Cool 50K, I was running with trail-running stud Dylan Bowman and my wife Megan, also a top runner, when I had extreme difficulty keeping up. The next morning, Megan and I drove to our favorite trails, and I could barely move.
I had symptoms (1), (3) and (5) above—painful legs at rest that only got worse on a slight incline, accompanied by an urge to say “fudge this shnike.” So I jogged at 10-minute pace with our dog until I felt better, just in time for the biggest race of my season.
The father of running training, Arthur Lydiard, used to have his athletes run painfully slow when they demonstrated similar symptoms. His direction was something along the lines of running at the pace of an elderly person pushing a shopping cart. In other words, slow down until you don’t feel resistance from your body, and run at that pace (up to 90 minutes each day if you’re an advanced athlete).
2. Complete Rest
Even slow running can be a stress, so if you feel especially bad, don’t even do that. Let your legs completely recover, doing some push-ups or other upper-body lifting if you need to burn off steam and get your hormones pumping. Using the sauna is a good way to sweat without much stress.
3. Easy Running Plus Fast Strides
Sometimes, an overreach isn’t too worrisome, and is accompanied by just minor symptoms. In that case, you can run low effort and add in some fast strides at the end. Strides are smooth 20-to-30-second accelerations that max out at 800-meter race pace. You can do them on hills to work on power, even when you feel a bit weak.
However, no matter what, don’t push yourself in moderate or hard workouts if you’re experiencing the symptoms above.
Lifestyle is highly individual. These tips are merely guidelines that address possible precipitating factors of overreach.
Often, an overreach can be caused by inadequate nutrition and hydration. If an athlete eats meat, I usually recommend a burger or a steak each day until the symptoms go away. If an athlete doesn’t eat meat, I just advise them to eat a lot of something rich in fat and protein.
Never skimp through an overreach, even if activity levels decrease. Some people theorize that overtraining is usually accompanied by lack of calories (especially fat). While the science is still out on many of the overtraining theories, there is a general consensus that inadequate fuel can make the engine go bad.
Another thing to monitor is your iron. Almost all the high-volume runners I know (especially women) take supplementary iron or vitamins that contain iron. Be extremely careful with any supplement, and always consult a doctor before use.
You heal when you are asleep. At its core, overreaching is insufficient healing. So make time for shut-eye! (Here’s more on why sleep is essential to runners.)
The body doesn’t differentiate too much between sources of stress—the cortisol can come from hard running, hard parenting or hard dancing. Account for all sources of stress, and aim to limit them whenever you can. Also, make time to put your legs up for 10 minutes a day, meditating while your legs levitate. Use compression gear on your legs if you are going to be stationary for a long time while working.
Most of all, chill. Life is not a race, and even if it is, very few people are eager to reach the inevitable finish line. So slow down and take your time, whether it’s with training or other life goals. The joy is in the journey. By making smart decisions, you can get the most out of your body—and avoid getting eaten by a self-created grizzly bear.
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.