What Overtraining Taught Me About Running

Slack for iOS Upload-15There is no PR, no amount of running success, no breaking of the tape worth the constant physical and emotional pain of overtraining. Running is a joy, a gift and a symbol of health, vitality and humanity. Running is like the brightest sharpest Instagram filter for life. Or it’s supposed to be.

When overtraining starts creeping, every run hurts. Wincing in physical pain through many many miles is one thing, but, perhaps worse, is the nagging feeling that no step she takes is good enough. The gnawing of failure is the thing that keeps an overtrained runner from seeing the truth of what is happening to her. She continues to claw and scrape and scratch trying to get away from failure’s grip, which only tightens it.

What the overtrained runner views as failure is her body’s plea for mercy. “Stop!” it screams as it sends pain coursing through her body and blankets her with exhaustion that no amount of caffeinated gel or pump-up music can correct. “STOP!” it screams as it sucks the joy out of every step and triggers negative thought loops through even the easiest of runs. But she plugs on believing in the power of her will. “It’s just soft tissue,” she tells herself. “Maybe my iron is low,” she thinks. “I’m just not tough enough,” she reasons. She hurts to walk. She hurts to sit. She hurts to lay in bed. She feels like she doesn’t belong with her team. She feels like she’s a fraud, that anything she ever achieved was a fluke or didn’t really happen.

The lucky ones get injured and are forced to stop before the mental stuff gets really bad. But the unlucky ones go on unless a coach, a friend, a loved one sees the signs and can get through to her, which can take weeks, months, even a year or more. There is no blood test or x-ray or MRI to show her what the real problem is. It’s very hard to see and even when she finally sees it herself, others might question her conclusion or continue to tell her all those lies that got her to this point to begin with. The most damaging lie of all might be that she’s not tough enough.

In that lies a deep irony, because the overtrained runner is often very tough. She’s the one who trains through constant pain for months at a time. She’s the one who wages war and wins against the little voice telling her to quit. She’s the one who is persistent, tenacious, and patient, so much so, she persists to a fault.

I had to accept myself on a whole new level and learn to reincorporate running into my life in a healthier way.

Having that experience and now, finally, being on the other side, I see it all so clearly. No one can know exactly when they crossed the line from training to overtraining, but looking back I flirted with overtraining several times before, some time after my third pregnancy in 2012, I really did myself in. I was eager to get back in shape, continue with my progress, and rejoin the team I helped found that meant a great deal to me. I might not have been an elite runner, but, coming from a non-athletic background and starting in the sport relatively late in life, I took immense pride in my running successes. Running competitively, even at the local level, was such a part of my identity that I never questioned whether I’d go right back to where I left off.

Here I am 'easing back in.' Mmhmm.
Here I am ‘easing back in.’ Mmhmm.

I thought I was easing back in after having my third baby. I experienced set-back after set-back, but every time I found an excuse and sooner than I was able, I clawed my way back. I couldn’t understand why I struggled maintaining a lower training volume than I had before my pregnancy. It never occurred to me that my non-running stress could so significantly impact the amount of training my body could handle.

But it did. For whatever reason — because ‘why’ doesn’t matter once you’re overtrained — my coach’s plan was too much for me to handle. He seemed to have the same thoughts I did: She handled this much before, surely there must be something medically wrong, or maybe she’s self-sabotaging her running.

I mercifully got injured in December 2014. I say mercifully, because getting physically hurt helped me take the first step to healing, which was to break up with my old coach (a wonderful person, but his training was hurting me and he was unwilling to modify it). But as soon as I could run again, there I was on a different training plan with a different coach, still limping through joyless workouts. Finally, after DNF’ing a 10k and then admitting in an email that I was dreading the half marathon I was training for, my new coach told me to STOP. And, 11 months ago, I did.

I stopped.

I waited.

These 11 months have been some of the most growthful of my life. It’s been a process. I had to mourn the runner I was and hoped to be. I had to accept myself on a whole new level and learn to reincorporate running into my life in a healthier way. The transition has been achingly slow, but now I see myself as a more complete person, a runner certainly, but now running is a part of my life rather than the center of it.

I don’t think overtraining means runners have to give up their big running dreams, but over the course of my recovery I’ve had to do that. Or rather, I had to reimagine them. Between advancing age, my children, and other demands on my time and energy I cannot healthfully dedicate myself to the pursuit of running BIG PRs. I’ve had to reformulate my idea of running success from time goals into things like consistent training, staying healthy, and enjoying the process. Fast race times might result, but that would be gravy, beside the point.

Maybe I sound like someone on an infomercial shilling a “miracle” cure, but since I let go of my big running goals and allowed my body and mind to heal, I have been able to focus more time and energy into things that are more important to me like my family, my community, and Salty Running.

To say running should never hurt or running should never cause you to struggle isn’t right. Running is so great because it teaches us to tolerate pain and to embrace struggle. How else can we grow if we cannot endure and push through? To get the most out of running, it should hurt sometimes and it should break you down. But there’s a point at which more struggle is a bad thing.

It's no miracle, but it sure feels like one.
It wasn’t a miracle that brought me back to running, but it sure feels like a miracle to be back.

This is why overtraining is so tricky and hard to identify; that point at which the hurt is damaging you doesn’t draw a line in the sand. There’s no popping noise, no sharp pain, no tweak or twist to define a moment when a threshold has been crossed. Instead it happens slowly like a cancer, masquerading as a host of other problems. Even now I can’t say for sure where the threshold is. Perhaps it’s when running becomes more struggle than it’s worth, or maybe it’s when there’s more pain and struggle than not. Wherever it is, I crossed it into a dark territory that I never want to see again.

I think that’s the worst part of overtraining: it threatens to take not just competitive running, but running out of a runner’s life. I faced that very real possibility and it was incredibly sad. But with the support of my husband, my sister and great friends I’m in a healthy place, running along and considering a fall marathon. After where I was a little less than a year ago this feels like a victory.

The one thing overtraining taught me about running, is that there is no PR, no amount of running success, no breaking of the tape worth losing the joy that running has brought to my life.

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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19 comments

  1. Great, honest and important post. First of all, I am incredibly happy for you that you’ve been able to reprioritize, refocus, and start getting the joy back. That takes an amazing amount of self awareness and strength. But also, it’s good you’re able to share this experience. So often in running we fall into the trap of believing more is more. Clearly, your experience illustrates how harmful that thinking can be, and the more we talk about it the closer we get to changing that attitude.

    1. Thanks, Garlic! And thank you for being one of the sane voices trying to reason with me way back when. I wish I could have heeded your words of wisdom at the time, but I just wasn’t there yet. But now I appreciate them and our friendship very much!

  2. A very honest commentary. Thank you for sharing. I can totally relate to the irony of toughness and the runner mentality that prevents us from realizing our overtraining or the detrimental impacts of running at certain points in our life. We want to believe we are tough enough to get through anything, but sometimes mental and physical stressors make it challenging and demand adjustments that will serve us better in the long run.

    My brother ignored fatal side effects of chemo because he was a runner and told himself he was “tough enough to take it”. He just pushed on through his breathing challenges. Yes, his MDs should have realized and noted his problems, but by the time they did, it was too late. I know this is an extreme example but one I share about “toughness” not being the end-all be-all.

    Right now, I am torn between taking a break after Boston and seeing all these other runners gearing up for a second Spring marathon, 50Ks and other races, thinking, “I should be doing that too”. But as you said, age, responsibilities, children, etc. mean my situation is different and my running needs to fit and support my life not someone else’s benchmark. Thanks for the reminder that running should be a blessing not a burden overall in your life, and that the smart runner is one that listens to her body and adjusts. Good luck in your return.

    1. First, I am so sorry about your brother. How awful. I think his story brings up a really good point: most doctors have no concept that you could be overtrained. They are so hard-wired to believe their patients are not exercising enough that the concept of overexercising/overtraining is just not on their radar. You’d think with the amount of recreational endurance athletes out there they’d catch up, but so far, in my experience, most doctors have not so it’s extra important that our coaches, training partners, etc. are aware of overtraining and can see the signs when you/the athlete might not be able to.

  3. Thank you for this post. I recently experienced an overtraining issue- some sort of tendonitis- that has been so difficult for me. I was surprised to see how hard I have taken the whole thing. It’s been hard not to run because I miss the adrenaline, yes. But that feeling of weakness is consuming at times, wrapped up with comparisons of others who “can” do this or that or aren’t injured. The feeling of “will I run again?” everyday has caused a sadness for me that I’m trying to understand. When I’ve told others about my injury, it seems they don’t understand my level of distress and say well meaning things like “just take it easy for a while”. Those comments leave me wondering what’s wrong with me? Should this affect me so much? Your post normalizes this experience for me. Thank you.

    1. Getting injured has many parallels to overtraining and no matter why you can’t run or even run the way you want to, that’s a big loss in our lives. We have to mourn it like anything else we lose that we love. Hope you heal up quick!

  4. Thank you for writing this. I can’t imagine it was easy. I feel like this is on par with the need for people to talk about postpartum depression, infertility, etc. As a recreational runner I’ve dipped a toe in the “not tough enough” water – both when trying to not see an injury and just with the mental aspect of just not feeling good enough. I learn so much from this community you’ve built and it’s so important to learn about the hard times as well. So glad you have the joy back 🙂

  5. Last year I had 2 breakthrough marathon performances in the spring, and somehow I convinced myself to go for a third like 5 weeks later. I know, seriously, what was I thinking. I gave myself permission to DNF that marathon, and of course I did. Since then, it has been a bit of a downward spiral in terms of confidence. I have been training more than ever but races feel like times to prove myself vs. fun. I had a very dark race in Boston – high expectations, and a lot of mental challenges. The ultimate result wasn’t that bad, but the race itself was not enjoyable in any way. I’m kind of proud of myself for sticking to my self-imposed plan of taking 2 full weeks off from running (I know, I’m only one week into that 2 weeks… but so far so good!). I think I’m at risk for some of the over-training symptoms you described. Thank you for being so honest about it, and I will take your words to heart as I start looking ahead to what’s next. What it won’t be is another spring marathon to make up for the blow up in Boston! That’s a good start, I think. This week I’m planning on some yoga, some swimming, some time at the driving range, and logging 10K steps per day on my garmin (from walking….) – the change of pace has been refreshing.

    1. UGH! Girl! Gosh, I so got in these thought loops of “This worked, so I MUST do it again!” Even when I could barely walk! It was insane. Literally. I flirted with overtraining several times looking back, but I always got pregnant and had to take a break from hard training which would save me. This time, not gonna happen and I had to learn the hard way of when I needed to make myself back off. It’s hard. I wish it were easier. It might take you a little longer than you hope for the fire to come back, but it will if you don’t force it. And I promise, life can be good even if you’re not obsessing over splits and falling asleep in the ice bath after a hard training week! Keep me posted on how things go!

      1. Will do. My husband already thinks I’m nuts, since I informed him I’m going to the driving range and out for drinks with one friend on Friday, and to gentle yoga and brunch with another friend on Sunday. “That sounds like way more fun than running 20 miles” he says…. yes, yes it does.

  6. This post is very brave; thank you! Curious whether you talked about overtraining with any medical professionals? Sports med, primary care? Helpful or not???

    1. After trying to find a medical reason for my struggles a year prior and getting nowhere with it, I didn’t have the stomach to deal with it again. I think if I had a good primary care doctor that specialized in athletes or at least was one, then I definitely would have and if I was confident a medical professional could identify a problem and offered help too, that would have inspired me to see one. Also, I think if I was hell bent on competing again, I would also be sure to get everything checked out. But honestly, I need a break from fixating on my running performances. If my body is deficient in some mineral and I’m going to race a 20:30 5k instead of a 19:30 5k … oh well. I’m otherwise healthy and happy now, so I really don’t feel the need. That being said, that was how I handled it, but again, if I felt like something else was going on or I wanted to get back into training ASAP I think seeing a doctor might be important.

      1. Makes total sense! But, definitely takes some internal strength to force yourself to address it on your own, I think!

        1. Well, I think if taking a month off and then easing back in didn’t elicit progress, then I’m sure I would have seen a doctor. I noticed improvements in fatigue and with my insomnia pretty quickly after taking a month off of exercise (which is what I did 11 months ago). With that the main indicator for me that I wasn’t ready to ramp up running or train was my attitude about running. I can’t tell you how rough it was to have anxiety about running or dread it or want to stop every moment of every run (but not letting yourself – it sounds so weird now!) I still worry that I’ll want to quit my tempos or hate doing a long run, but over time those feelings went away and now I am beginning to look forward to workouts again. So, I’ve been consistently seeing enough progress that I feel confident I’m on the right track. But I think by the time I did stop, I had enough people try to tell me it was overtraining that I blew off, but my subconscious must have listened because it was like a light switch turned on … I think deep down I knew and was ready to let go. It was really hard though. I still cry about it sometimes even. Seems silly, I know, but it was a really tough time in my life (first world problems! Whoa! Ha!) But, as I’m guessing you know, running is such an important part of my life so it really was a loss.

          1. It IS such a feeling of loss to have to alter and re-shape your relationship with running when it is such a big part of your life. Running has been a huge part of my life for years, forever really. And I’ve spent months and months recently in this place of – is it injury, is it medical, is it overtraining, is it age, am I crazy, is it permanent? Coupled with – do more, do better, and do not fail. (And, of course, feeling so unreasonable for letting something so seemingly small in the grand scheme affect me in such a big way.) It is an awful place to be. But good to read about someone coming thru to the other side so thanks for being so open!

  7. I am still recovering from overtraining. It’s been nearly 9-months since I crashed. I am seeing some slight improvement each month. I have no idea when I’ll be able to start running again. I can walk around very well now though! Without feeling sore and acheing! But I know It’s still going to be awhile till I can run again.
    I just pushed myself so hard. Running shouldn’t have been about defining my self worth.
    Some people have to learn the hard way haha!