Overtraining: It’s Real, It Sucks and It Can Happen to You

Just because someone else can handle it all doesn't mean you can. Image via wikimedia.org.
Just because someone else can handle it all doesn’t mean you can. Image via wikimedia.org.

Salty runners are strivers. We train hard, we aim high and we’re tough. These are the qualities that enable us to succeed and blow the lid off what we ever thought was possible.

But sometimes these qualities are the exact thing that gets us into trouble. Sometimes we train too hard. Sometimes we aim too high. And sometimes we are even too tough. I think most of us understand this, but the line between striving for our best and overtraining can be a bit blurry.  Even when we think we’re doing everything right–even not doing as much as we’ve done in the past–even then, we might be pushing too hard for our current selves.

Overtraining is a serious condition that can have lifetime repercussions. Every single serious runner should know what overtraining is and what signs and symptoms to look for so she can nip it in the bud before it becomes a chronic problem. Overtraining is not isolated to those running over 100 mile weeks, those training to make the Olympic team or the super fast among us. It can happen to any of us. It happened to me.

What is overtraining?

The term ‘overtraining’ describes the point when you’ve pushed your body beyond its limits and inhibited its ability to recover.  This occurs when you’ve applied so much stress to your body that you’ve overtaxed your immune system, endocrine system, and neurological systems. This inability to recover will affect an overtrained athlete’s mood, willpower, enthusiasm, as well as her running performance. At worst, it can be a lifelong recurring condition preventing an athlete from ever training at a high level again. It can lead to increased propensity for depression, illness and injury. It’s no joke.[pullquote]Just because you used to be able to handle more, even a lot more, does not mean you are immune from overtraining when you do less now.[/pullquote]

There are two different kinds

There are two types of overtraining syndromes: Sympathetic Nervous System Dominance and Parasympathetic Nervous System Dominance (Parasympathetic Overtraining). Most long distance runners should worry about Parasympathetic Overtraining. Unfortunately, most running sources discuss Sympathetic Overtraining, which is far more common in sprinters than distance runners. While there is a lot of overlap of symptoms between the two, there are some very important differences.  But first, a quick anatomy lesson:

Your autonomic nervous system are the nerves and parts of your brain that control your body’s unconscious actions, like breathing and blinking and heartbeats.  It is divided into two parts:

The sympathetic nervous system, which is your stress system that causes you to go into flight or fight mode when stressed, which can be a bad thing or a good thing.  Think about what it feels like right before a big race starts; it can feel like there’s an electric current running through your body, and it gives you an extra boost of energy to go faster.  Sympathetic dominance overtraining occurs when these parts of the nervous system go into overdrive. People who experience this type of overtraining feel stressed all the time.

The parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s ability to rest and digest.  When you suffer from parasympathetic dominance overtraining, your sympathetic nervous system is suppressed, so your parasympathetic nervous system dominates. Therefore, you will have a difficult time getting aroused, getting pumped up or “digging deep.” Because most running sources discuss overtraining in terms of Sympathetic Overtraining, we will discuss the symptoms for both. But before that …

Who is susceptible to overtraining?

Every serious runner is at risk. It’s important to understand that there is no set amount of training stress that will overtrain everyone. What will overtrain you is very specific to you–and to where you are today. Just because you used to be able to handle more, even a lot more, does not mean you are immune from overtraining when you do less now. Also, just because someone of similar race times can handle a particular training load does not mean you can.

The only way to know what will overtrain you is to go there and you really don’t want to! That’s why it’s important to understand who is most susceptible and what the symptoms are so you can attack overtraining head on, should you feel like you’re on the verge.

While it can happen to any of us, these groups are at particularly high risk:

1. Runners increasing their volume, intensity or both as they strive for big PRs in a short time.

This is probably who we all think of as the person who’s going to overtrain herself. The athlete who overtrains herself runs relatively high mileage, runs all her easy runs too fast, her track workouts too hard, way more miles than she’s ready for, and never takes a break. The harder she forces herself to get into shape and the bigger the PR she chases in one season, the more likely it is that she will cross the line into overtraining. Injuries suck, but avoiding overtraining is a big reason why the running experts suggest gradually increasing mileage and intensity over a long time. Big jumps in volume and intensity can lead to big problems. Also, not taking downtime between training cycles can be a huge problem. If in doubt, it’s better to undertrain and be healthy than overtrain and be either chronically injured or miserable.  Or, more likely, both.

If you're planning a wedding, consider that stress as you make your training plans.
If you’re planning a wedding, consider that stress when making your training plans.

2. Runners training hard who also experience significant physical and mental stress from their non-running life.

The body reacts to all kinds of stress similarly.  When thinking about what your body can handle you have to consider not just the stress from your mileage and hard workouts, you have to also add in stress from work, home and the rest of your life. You also need to consider other physical stress.

Moms, in particular listen up! Pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and raising young kids is certainly mentally stressful, but it is also very physically stressful. I don’t think I have ever experienced more physically demanding years than these last 7.

Another common stressful event that is linked to overtraining is moving from sea level to altitude. Weird! Other common times of a lot of stress? Wedding planning, relocating, home renovations, etc. If you’re going through an unusually stressful time in your life, consider cutting back on your training stress too!

3. Runners who have experienced overtraining before.

That hard truth is that once you experience overtraining you are far more likely to experience it again than someone who never has. Once you do that to your body, your body remembers and will shut down with less stress than it did the first time. This means the line between training hard and overtraining for someone who has overtrained in the past will be forever a little lower than it was before she was overtrained. The best way to avoid overtraining is to never overtrain yourself!

What are the symptoms of overtraining? 

The most comprehensive list of Sympathetic Overtraining symptoms I have ever seen comes from Dr. Timothy Noakes in his runners’ bible, The Lore of Running (every serious runner should have this book! You can purchase a copy here). He breaks down the symptoms into emotional or mental symptoms and physical symptoms. The symptoms of Parasympathetic Overtraining are similar, but with a few key differences, as you can see in the following chart:

overtraining

If your sweet tooth is uncharacteristically off the chain, you might be overtrained. Image via wikimedia.org.
If your sweet tooth is uncharacteristically off the chain, you might be overtrained. Image via wikimedia.org.

Most notably, I think, is that most of us know to be on the look out for an elevated resting heart rate–or a heart rate that’s noticeably higher than normal–on easy runs, but likely when we’re overtrained the opposite could be true! We usually think a lower heart rate is an indication of fitness. It can be, but it can also be a sign of overtraining. Crazy! Also, while an overtrained athlete usually loses all joy from running, she might also find herself feeling addicted to running and feeling unable or unwilling to quit even when finding little to no joy in it and knowing she’s overtrained.

You do not need to have all these symptoms to be overtrained; having just a few may be enough of an indication.  The more symptoms you have and the more severe your symptoms are, the more severe your case of overtraining.

If you are overtrained what should you do? 

First of all, back off! This can be very very difficult for even the most exhausted and unenthusiastic overtrained runner. As I mentioned above, it’s very common for overtrained athletes to be addicted to running and to be petrified of giving it up. But unfortunately, a break from running (and all exercise, at least initially) is the only cure.

How much and for how long you will need to back off will depend in large part on how severe your symptoms are and how long you’ve had them. For Parasympathetic Overtraining it’s important to back off on both quantity of mileage (or time running) and the intensity of your running. You may be able to get away with recovering while doing easy runs for a few weeks or you may need to stop all exercise for a month or two. A full recovery for a mild case can take a few weeks while the recovery from a more severe case can take months or a year or more!

As for cross-training during recovery, remember your body interprets all exercise as stress. If you feel you must cross-train, the less stressful the cross-training activity the better. Walking or easy swimming would be the least stressful. Strength training might be another good option, but throwing yourself headlong into crossfit during recovery is probably not a good idea.[pullquote]How much and for how long you will need to back off will depend in large part on how severe your symptoms are and how long you’ve had them.[/pullquote]

It’s important to wait to reintroduce running until you feel better. You should feel more rested, refreshed and excited to run again. When you do go back to it, ease in. Start with short jogs. Keep the effort very easy and the duration short. Take days off. Listen to your body. Slowly build back up your time running this easy pace. When you can handle an hour and feel good, then you can think about reinitiating a formal training plan.

But always remember that once you experience overtraining you are forever at an increased risk of overtraining again. It’s important to examine your training and your lifestyle to pinpoint what led to your overtraining so you can correct the mistakes that led you there.

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As for me, I will be writing about my experience with figuring out I was suffering from overtraining, what my warning signs were and how I plan to recover in future posts, that will all eventually be found at this link along with all our other posts on the topic.

Have you ever suffered from overtraining? What were your symptoms? What did you do about it?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your story! I have had a couple nasty bouts with overtraining myself- tired all the time, night sweats, no energy, mentally exhausted, but no lab results pointing to anything else (my doctors tested for everything!). It’s definitely real, but the hardest part was trying to explain to other people what was going on. Looking forward to reading about your recovery!

  2. Thank you for putting together such a comprehensive overview on an important topic, a topic I think we tend to sort of avoid. Looking back, it appears my burnout was more on the sympathetic end- more jumpy, anxious, lost weight, etc. That chart is helpful.

    Here’s to a healthy recovery, Salty!