Overtraining in runners – Why it Happens, How to Spot it, & How to Prevent it

Regular running helps you lose weight, increase fitness level, and get you into the best shape of your life.

But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. 

In fact, run too hard/far/fast without letting your body recover properly, and you could wind up tired, sick, or burned out.

That’s why learning about overtraining and how to prevent it should be a priority. That’s where today’s post comes in handy.

In today’s post, you’ll learn

How to identify overtraining syndrome

How overtraining affects your body

how to prevent and recover from overtraining

and so much more.

Let’s lace up and dig in.

What is Overtraining?

Overtraining happens when the intensity and/or the frequency of your runs exceeds your body’s ability to recover from the training load.

This is usually blamed on doing too many hard runs in a row without enough rest or appropriate training periodization. Do that for an extended period of time, and you’ll be on the verge of seriously hurting yourself.

The condition ruins your fitness resolve and leads to serious health troubles such as halted performance, injury, mediocre race results, etc.

It can also affect you mentally, physically, and emotionally—in ways you can’t even imagine.

Who is at risk?

Practically, everyone…

For serious runners, it’s so easy to go over the borderline and do too much—especially if you are aiming to hit an important running landmark, or prepping for an important race.

Beginner runners are also at risk of overtraining. That’s why if you are a newcomer to the sport of running, starting off with the walk-run program is the ONLY way to go.

According to research, more than 60 percent of runners experience “serious” overtraining at least once in their running career. That can be a real discouraging statistic.

Just don’t freak out yet.

If you only run three, or even four times per week at an easy pace, you might not be at risk for burnout. However, if you run a lot and hit the gym regularly (just like me), then it’s probably time to assess your current training program.

The Signs of Overtraining

Pay attention to early warning signs of overtraining to gauge when to keep going forward and when to back off by learning to recognize these common overtraining warning signs.

Here are the main symptoms to look out for.

Poor Performance

Has your running performance suffered in spite of your best efforts? If it’s the case, then you may be overdoing it.

In an overtrained state, you are not only compromising your running performance, you are also entering a muscle-burning phase.  Overtraining leads to diminished power, endurance, strength, and/or speed during your next runs and races.

You Feel Irritated

Moodiness is another sign that you are pushing it a little bit too far.

Overtraining can decrease the release of certain hormones—mainly catecholamine, which has an impact on your sympathetic nervous system, leading to irritability and stress.

Dehydration

The clearest sign of dehydration, no pun intended, is pee color.

So if your urine color is dark yellow, then you are dehydrated and could be another sign of overtraining.

Elevated Heart Rate

If your heart rate is higher than normal for more than a few days, then it might be time to scale it down a bit.

In most cases, the elevated resting heart rate is the by-product of an increased metabolic rate to meet the stresses of running.

Just keep in mind that other factors outside of running can affect heart rate, including caffeine intake, hydration, stress, and sleep.

Don’t get fixated on minor ebbs and flows; instead, look for ongoing trends. Keep tabs on your normal resting heart rate by monitoring your morning pulse before you get out of bed and compare it with the end of the day.

Chronic Sickness

Another clear warning sign of overtraining is a high susceptibility to illness. Overtraining hampers the immune system, which leaves you sidelined by illness more than usual.

If you find yourself hit by disease more than usual or have had symptoms of an illness—for instance, coughing, runny nose, high temperature, congestion, etc.— more than normal, then maybe it’s time to take a step back from running.

Persistent Aches And Injuries

If you have niggling aches and injuries that just won’t go away, then you might need to rethink your running routine.

When you are overtrained, your body doesn’t get ample time to recover between runs meaning that at some point, you start “training in a weakened state.” Do this often, and you will boost your risks of injury and other problems.

Tired All The Time

If your runs feel like a drag, and/or you wind up feeling drained (read: more than usual) at the end of your workouts, then this can be a sign of overtraining. Stay away from supplements or pills during this time. You have no more room to push

Insomnia

Overtraining has an impact on your body’s natural biorhythms, so your sleep patterns can be disturbed.

More precisely, overtraining affects your body’s circadian rhythms, which can lead to serious sleep troubles. Symptoms include lethargy, waking up much earlier than usual, having difficulty sleeping or staying asleep, inability to fall or stay asleep, etc.

Decreased Motivation

It’s okay to occasionally want to skip a run. But if you have been a serious runner for some time, then suddenly become disinterested, you are probably overdoing workouts.

In some extreme cases, you may start losing interest in running altogether.

Unwanted Weight Loss

When you set your intentions on losing weight, then it happens, feel great. But it’s not the case when you’re losing weight because your body is under too much stress.

So watch out for unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite during your training stages. You can also monitor your weight through BMI scale. If you feel you dropped too much or too soon, contact your dietitian.

How to measure your overtraining in runners?

Now that you know about the many signs of overtraining, it’s time to put it into practice.

Green Light: 0-1

No reason to panic here. You are safe to push it a bit further. You’re barely pushing your body. Do more.

Be Careful: 3-4

Go ahead with your training program, but reduce the duration and intensity of your runs, until some of the red flags subside.

Danger Zone: 5 or more

This is where you risk hurting yourself if you keep it up without taking the right recovery measures.

Counting more than five warming signs means that you’re definitely into the danger zone. Your recovery time depends, for the most part, on how overtrained you’re.

The more symptoms you suffer from, the longer it’ll take for your body to recover. This could range from a couple of days, a few weeks, or may even need to visit a doctor.

Preventing Overtraining

Here are some of the best strategies I know of to help you handle overtraining.

Rehydrate

Your first step toward recovery post-run is to replace fluids you lose through sweating.

Water is essential for every nutrient transfer and metabolic function in the body; therefore, drinking plenty of it will improve all of your bodily functions.

As a rule, shoot for 20 ounces for optimal recovery.

To assess your hydration levels, use the pee test. Dark urine means you need more water. If it’s the color of lemonade or lighter, you’re probably well-hydrated.

If you want to take your recovery strategy up a notch, go for chocolate milk. The drink contains the recommend ration 4:1 carbohydrate to protein—almost the exact amount your body uses up during exercise.

What’s more?

Avoid taking too much diuretic agent during your recovery time. Example, if you usually have more than one cup of coffee a day, you might consider reducing your intake.

Rest

The exact amount of time you need to fully recover from an overtraining episode depends on how severe your symptoms are and how quickly your body can bounce back.

But as a general guideline, I urge you to take as many recovery days or weeks as you need before you start running again.

If you are severely overtrained, then take at least 4 to 6 weeks of complete rest before you even think about running again. Of course, during this time, you can cross train by doing low impact activities, such as walking, low-intensity biking, swimming, and yoga.

Here are some cross-training routines that can help:

6 Bodyweight Glute Exercises For Runners
The 9 Yoga Poses Every Runner Should Do
The Seven Best Strength Training Exercises For Runners
8 Standing Post-Run Stretches For Runners

Stretch Post Run

Although the science on the effectiveness of stretching post-run for recovery is still debatable (check this research and this), I’m still a big advocate for it.

Maybe it’s just the placebo effect or the force of habit, but I usually end up feeling—and performing better when I stretch regularly.

Invest at least 5 to 10 minutes in static stretching. You can use props to optimize your stretch. Why is it better after run? It’s obvious, you need strong muscles for running, you don’t want to run when your body is too loose or relax.

Focus on your main muscle groups, such as the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, piriformis, and low back. This should help you feel strong and loose the next time you go out for a run.

Refuel

Just as it’s important to replace the fluid loss, you should also refuel your body with the right nutrients.

After burning your energy stores, replenish them to help your body repair tissue damage, bounce back, and get ready for the next workout. This is especially the case if you’re logging in some serious miles or trying to build muscle mass.

As a rule, consume something within 60 minutes of the end of your run. During that period, your muscles need two main nutrients:

(1) carbohydrate, which is stored as glycogen and function as the primary source of fuel while running, and

(2) protein, the building blocks used to repair and build muscle mass.

Most research recommends opting for a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. The suggestions also vary depending on the type of training you do.

Good examples include hard-boiled eggs with a banana, an omelet with a smoothie, etc.

Better Sleep

A healthy sleep pattern is the backbone of superior performance, whether you’re an elite athlete or a 500 company CEO. The better you sleep, the better you will perform in all areas of life.

Your body recovers best when at rest during rapid eye movement—or REM—sleep cycle. During sleep, your body releases the growth hormone, which is essential for tissue growth and repair.

Get at least eight hours a night for your overall health. Sleep more following hard runs.

You can also add naps to your schedule if that suits you. Avoid screen time for at least 30 minutes before sleep. You can use an eye mask or dim the light for a deeper sleep.

Add a Recovery Week

Periodize your running program by introducing a lower-intensity, lower-duration week—also known as recovery week—into your training program every third or fourth week.

During that week, aim to significantly reduce your running in terms of intensity and volume so that your body can bounce back and adapt better.

This will help you increase your performance without running the risk of injury or burnout.

Conclusion

The right post-run recovery strategy is the one that works best for you. You just need to have the motivation to experiment and find the most effective way for you to recover from your runs.

In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.

Keep Running Running Strong.

David D.

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