Ah walking or running the thin red line between adequate training and overtraining. If you have run a road race, be it a 5k, 10k, marathon or an ultra, you must have gone through the phase of overtraining.
I have gone in the red zone of overtraining for sure for more than couple of times. And it is not at all pleasurable. The feeling of achieving desired fitness level or race pace too soon leads to overtraining.
According to Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, overtraining with respect to physical training may be defined as plateauing and/or a decrease in performance that results from failure to tolerate or adapt to the training load.
And this not only happens to novice runners but also to elites. See for yourself. For eg. Ryan Hall dropped out of marathon in Olympics 2013 because of hamstring injury, Anton Krupicka dropping out of Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in 2013 and Alberto Salazar’s dismayed performances post 1983 was all because of overtraining.
As athletes, it is a constant fear or a nightmare, I will say to stand on the start line underprepared. We are continuously pushing the limits of our physical and mental existence to achieve a PR every month. The lack of making sound decision with respect to own physical and mental capacity and time given to achieve results leads to this common cause of downtime for athletes known as overtraining.
Signs of overtraining
Over a period of decades, runners and researchers have jotted down the signs indicating overtraining in athletes. One such list is published in the book named, Lore of Running by Dr Tim Noakes. I will just copy down the contents for you. I don’t want to recreate the wheel and I hope Dr Tim will take no offence. The symptoms with a star at the end are the ones I have encountered.
Emotional and behavioural changes
1. Loss of enthusiasm and drive ; generalized apathy; an ‘I don’t care’ attitude; loss of the joy of life.
2. Loss of joy and thirst for competition; desire to quit during competition.
3. Lethargy; listlessness; tiredness.*
4. Peevishness; complaining; easily irritated; miserable; anxious; depressed; ill-humoured; unable to relax; bored.
5. Inability to concentrate on work; impaired academic performance.*
6. Changes in sleeping pattern – in particular, insomnia.
7. Sleep does not refresh.*
8. Loss of appetite.
9. Loss of libido.*
10. Poor coordination; general clumsiness.
11. Increased fluid intake at night; feeling thirsty.*(This symptom was very pronounced especially during the peak training phase for this race).
1. Impaired physical performance – in particular, inability to complete routine training sessions.*
2. Gradual loss of weight.
3. Athlete looks drawn, sallow and dejected with sunken eyeballs.
4. Increase in early morning heart rate by more than 5 beats per minute.*
5. Abnormal rise in heart rate upon standing and during and after a standard workout.
6. Slower recovery in heart rate after exertion.*
7. Postural hypotension(low blood pressure with symptoms like lightheadedness or dizziness).
8. Heavy leggedness, sluggishness that persists for more than 24 hours after a workout.*
9. Muscle and joint pains.*
10. Persistent muscle soreness increases from session to session.
11. Swelling of lymph glands.
12. Gastrointestinal disturbances – in particular diarrhoea.
13. Increased susceptibility to infection, allergies, headache and injury.*(I suffered from frequent migraine bouts and runny nose when I became over trained).
14. Minor scratches heal slowly.
15. Loss of menstruation (amenorrhea).
16. Increased blood eosinophil count; serial T-wave changes on electrocardiogram. (Point number 16 and 17 are greek to me. However, your Doc can tell you what they are if you land up in his clinic as an extreme overtraining case).
17. Mild form of hypothalamic, sympathetic and adrenocortical insufficiency.
Tips to avoid overtraining
The symptoms or indications of overtraining mentioned above can be arrested easily if an eager athlete listens or comprehends the signals given by the body clearly. However, to easily understand the changes happening in the body due to training, following tips can help to avoid overtraining.
1. Keep a training diary
If you are seriously interested in training well and achieving a PR, then you must keep a training diary or log book. The training diary will document your day to day workout and as well as your general physical and mental feelings. Over a period of time, your training diary will give a clear pattern of your training and also provide possible indications of any problems, if any.
2. Listen to your body
A little general fatigue, exhaustion is expected after or during a workout. But if the fatigue or tiredness is pronounced and is hampering your performance, then it is time to take a break from training and rest properly. The rest can be from a couple of days to couple of months(for chronic overtraining cases).
There have been times when athletes have not paid heed to the indications given by the body and have continued to push it to the limits, have paid the price by injury or poor race performances.
3. Better to be undertrained
What is the point of standing on the starting line demotivated or not feel like competing or nursing a injury when the result of it is known, which is poor race performance or DNF due to injury or lack of will to finish. I guess it is better to stand at the start line being a little undertrained than being over trained.
4. Rest before it aggravates
Write down the signs of over training in your training diary or paste it somewhere where you can see it daily to check yourself for it. And take action in time i.e take a break from training and rest. The sooner you diagnose your condition and take rest, the shorter will be your break from training.
For eg, if you experience discomfort on feeling muscles or feeling lethargic and tired, then a weeks rest will do you good without hampering on the fitness gained before it. But if you keep pushing your body despite of the signals, then the break from training in future is going to be greater, which may eventually lead to loss of fitness gained before it.
5. Make your spouse the alarm system
Sometimes it so happens that in eagerness to perform well in workouts or to achieve a PR in the next race, we tend to overlook the signs of overtraining. Here, your partner or spouse can play a major role in pointing out the signs to you.
Talk to your partner about your goals and how important they are to you. Then tell him or her about the dangers of overtraining and signs to identify them. They can point it out to you if you fail to recognise yourself. Like if you are getting irritated on small matters or are lethargic or are snapping back, then he or she can point out the sign for you to take corrective actions.
6. Get a certified coach
A coach is your best friend when it comes to training. A good, experienced coach will be able to stop you from going in overtraining zone by keeping a record of your heart rate levels.
If you are not recovering well in between the intervals or are training at higher heart rates to achieve a desired pace, then he can put breaks on your training for sometime to keep you from staleness.
7. Answer these questions with honesty
Grete Waitz wrote down few questions which helped her in keeping up with her training routine with amazing consistency. They are-
a) Does your normally comfortable pace leave you breathless?
b) Do your legs feel heavy for far longer than usual after a hard workout or a race?
c) Do you find it especially hard to climb steps?
d) Do you dread the thought of training?
e) Do you find it hard to get out of bed in the morning?
f) Do you have a persistent lack of appetite?
g) Are you more susceptible to colds, flu, headache or infections?
h) Is your resting heart rate 5 to 10 beats higher than usual?
i) Is your heart rate during exercise higher than usual?
If you have answered yes to more than 3 questions, then it is time to reduce your training or take a total break for few days.
An athlete who is ambitious is bound to go into this zone of overtraining some time or the other. However, if he/ she knows how to identify the signs, then it will help them in preventing injuries and achieve their desired goals.
Till then stay fit and keep running.
Have you ever experienced the signs of overtraining mentioned in this article? If yes, then which are the ones?
How did you manage to overcome overtraining syndrome?
Lore of Running by Dr Tim Noakes, fourth edition, Chapter 7, page number 486-487.