OVERTRAINING—More is NOT Always Better
Wow, have you looked at the mileage in training? Our long runs are getting longer – this week may be the farthest distance you have ever run (or ever thought of running). And for veteran marathoners, the increasing mileage brings new challenges in fitness and performance.
Most of us are aware of changes that take place throughout our training. Distances which once seemed daunting (if not impossible) seem manageable. And even if we’ve previously run long distances, our fitness has improved to the point where we are capable of running quicker than we did 10 weeks ago AND feeling stronger at the completion of the run. We may have lost weight, or noticed our clothes fit better; friends and family may have commented on how good we look.
And about now you may be saying to yourself, “Just imagine, with the progress I’ve made in ten or twelve weeks, what will happen if I run even longer and faster? Won’t the extra miles or a faster training pace add to my performance? If 25 miles this week is good, wouldn’t 35 be better? Can I run a minute per mile faster this week?” It’s about this time that the competitive juices begin to stir the soul–whether competing against neighbors and friends, or against our internal self and the runner we want to be (or believe we are).
Unfortunately, more is not always better. While there may have been tremendous improvement in our fitness and performance since the start of our marathon training, more miles and a faster pace at this point in training is more likely to lead to poorer performance and a higher risk of injury instead of improved performance.
Regardless of our running history, unfettered increase in intensity or mileage at this point in the training cycle is usually counter-productive. It is the law of diminishing returns—with too great an increase in intensity or mileage, our bodies may exhibit signs of overtraining – pushing our body past improvement and towards injury or burnout.
Each of us reacts differently to overtraining, but there are some key markers to monitor. The most common marker is an increase in our resting heart rate. I recommend measuring resting heart rate at the beginning of the season; but if you haven’t yet measured your resting heart rate, it is not too late to determine a baseline.
Take a measurement of heart rate upon awakening and before getting out of bed. If you train with a heart rate monitor, wear it to bed and check the reading first thing in the morning. If you do not have a heart rate monitor, take your pulse by placing your fingers on your carotid artery (at the base of the neck), count the number of beats for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to determine the number of beats per minute. Measure resting heart rate for 3 – 5 days and take an average of the count. As we train and become fitter, our resting heart rate will drop and at some point level off. With stress through overtraining, our resting heart rate will usually increase. An increase of 3 – 4 beats per minute is a significant change and indicates the need to reduce training temporarily.
In addition to resting heart rate, other signs of overtraining include wide variances in behavior. Some people sleep a lot more, others so much less you may seem to have insomnia. For other folks, it could be a significant increase in food consumption or not eating at all. Mood swings to either extreme are other markers. In all cases, it is deviation from our normal behavior which is the indicator.
Of special note is when we miss some of our training, especially long training runs. Many runners want to make up for ‘lost runs’ only to overload their system. If you have missed some training, review Weekly Tip #3 (‘Missed Workouts’). Be cautious of overdoing training in these circumstances.
Even with increasing mileage, we should recover from a long run by the second day. If soreness persists beyond the second day after a long run, heed the warning signs. A minor injury now, left untreated, usually leads to a more serious injury down the road. Better to take care of an injury at the outset than to ‘push through’ the injury, hoping it gets better, despite more intense training.
Rest days and cross-training days are critical counterbalances to overtraining. Rest days allow for more recovery for tired muscles. Cross-training continues to build aerobic fitness without the jarring stress to our joints (ankles, knees and hips). Adding extra miles or increasing our pace (without adequate rest and recovery) leads to negative performance; or it becomes too difficult to maintain the same pace on a 12 or 14 mile run as you had on a 6 or 8 miler—and race times plateau or get slower and we feel abnormally fatigued or frustrated.
If you are exhibiting signs of overtraining, cut back on the intensity and duration of training. Even a few days off will help the body return to normal, and it will be safe to return to training.
Ignoring the signs of overtraining invites a higher risk of injury.
“Good form will carry you through”®