Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


"Got up. Got out of bed. Man, do I feel dead. Then I went outside and tried to run. Something feels broke, and I hope it's just a dream..." Ballad of the Overtrained Runner (with apologies to the Beatles)

Have you ever woken up in the morning with your legs feeling heavy, wondering how you were going to find the energy to go for a run? Sure you have-every distance runner has-fatigue is a hallmark of training. Training produces fatigue and provides the stimulus for the body to reach new levels of fitness. There is a threshold, however, beyond which the stimulus overwhelms your ability to recover and you enter the domain of overtraining.

What is overtraining?

Overtraining is the result of working out hard more frequently than your body can handle. Positive adaptation to training occurs when more buildup (anabolism) occurs than breakdown (catabolism). During overtraining, however, the opposite occurs-your ability to recover is outpaced by repetitive high intensity training, leading to decrements in performance.

The symptoms of overtraining vary between runners. Frequently reported symptoms include: trouble sleeping, frequent colds, increased resting heart rate, weight loss, impaired racing and training times, slow recovery from training, and a loss of enthusiasm for running (and most other things). You may have any combination of these symptoms, as well as others.

Under normal training loads, running has small, short-term effects on immune function, but overtraining can lead to general immune system suppression, resulting in increased susceptibility to infections, and decreased ability to fight off infections. In female athletes, overtraining may also be associated with amenorrhea.

Although the causes of overtraining are not well understood, many cases of overtraining are believed to be due to overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. This stimulation is a result of all the stresses in your life, including training, sleep deprivation, nutritional deficits, job stress, family stress, etc. Chronic sympathetic stimulation leads to increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline and the feeling that your mind and body are stuck on-leaving you unable to fully relax or to perform at your best.

Identifying overtraining

There is no foolproof test for identifying overtraining. Subjectively, if 3 to 5 days of rest combined with adequate carbohydrates, protein, and water do not eliminate your fatigue, and you have no other signs of illness, then you are probably overtrained.

There are several objective methods for diagnosing overtraining. The balance between testosterone and cortisol is thought to determine the ability to positively adapt to training, and this ratio has been used as an indicator of overtraining. Overtraining can lead to decreased levels of testosterone and increased levels of cortisol in the blood. Because the testosterone/cortisol ratio varies between individuals, however, you should compare your current ratio to your normal ratio.

The 2 most common methods of identifying overtraining measure heart rate, either first thing in the morning or while running at a set pace. If you take your pulse upon awakening each morning, after a few days you will know your normal resting heart rate. An increase of more than 5 beats per minute above normal is an indication of overtraining (this test doesn't work if you wake up with an alarm). Similarly, you can evaluate overtraining by measuring your heart rate while running at a given speed. If your heart rate increases more than 4-5%, then you should take it easy for a few days. For example, if your heart rate at 7 minute mile pace is typically 150 beats per minute, and it increases to 159 beats per minute, that is evidence that you should back off. Unfortunately, heart rate can also be increased by caffeine consumption, dehydration, and heat and humidity, so accurate comparisons can only be made under similar conditions.

How do you recover from overtraining?

To recover from overtraining, you need to reestablish a positive balance between buildup and breakdown. You can only accomplish this by reducing your training (shudder). Training intensity is more important than training volume in recovering from overtraining, so cut back more on the speedwork than on the distance. How long it takes to recover depends on how deep a hole you have dug. Overtraining can typically be remedied in 10 to 14 days. Long-term overtraining syndrome or staleness, however, may require several months for full recovery. Fortunately, long-term overtraining syndrome is relatively rare, and usually is related to additional stresses such as eating disorders or anemia.

Besides altering your training, you may need to modify your lifestyle. If chronic glycogen depletion led to your lethargy, pay attention to your carbohydrate intake, or see a nutritionist. If you have been chronically dehydrated, then devise strategies (such as keeping a 2 liter bottle of water at your desk) for staying fully hydrated. And if sleep deprivation is impairing your ability to recover, then do your best to eliminate the deficit. (You could also quit your job, but would only be exchanging one set of stresses for another.)

Preventing overtraining

Overtraining is an individual phenomenon. Your normal training load may represent overtraining for your running partner. The training load you can handle is determined by your genetics, your level of fitness, and the sum total of stresses in your life. Effective training relies on managing your body's ability to recover and adapt. Overtraining simply represents poor management. You can train exceptionally hard and not become overtrained as long as you allow time between hard workouts to let your body recover.

The best prevention from overtraining is to know thyself. Pay attention to your body's signals-learn how much carbohydrate, protein, water, and sleep you need. Keep a thorough training log so you can learn from your previous responses to training. Learn your individual training/stress threshold so you avoid exceeding your body's ability to adapt. By stepping back and analyzing your training objectively, you can avoid the pitfalls of overtraining.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)