6 Signs of Overtraining in Runners: How to Know When You Need a Break

 a woman sits on the side of a track to rest after a hard effort

If you’ve ever trained for a distance event, especially a half-marathon or longer, you’re likely familiar with the grind of early mornings, long workouts and increased mileage. When training for these types of events, we use the principles of progressive overload and cumulative fatigue. We break our bodies down incrementally, so we can rebuild and come back better, stronger and faster.

If you’re following a structured, periodized training plan, there are usually rest or active recovery days built into your schedule. Active recovery can include cross-training like walking, biking or swimming. This is designed to minimize excessive damage, de-load from the stress of training and allow the body to recuperate and come down from a state of chronic inflammation.

If you’re like many runners, taking time off is perhaps a bigger challenge than pushing through a tough workout. “No pain, no gain,” right? Not necessarily.

It’s important to provide your body with the proper recovery in order to optimize the effects of your training. How you sleep, eat and rest is just as important as how you train.

A woman stands beside a dirt road

When these things are neglected, you might get to a point where your structured recovery just isn’t enough. You find yourself snoozing through your alarm, dragging yourself through the day or just feeling generally beat up before, during and after your runs.

When this happens, it’s OK to take an extra recovery day or even swap a harder workout for an easier, more relaxed run. Overtraining and burnout are inhibitors to performance, and it’s important to recognize the symptoms and adjust your program accordingly.

“I know to shut down a workout when I notice my breathing is more labored or out of control compared to what it would normally be for the type of run I’m doing. I also pay attention to my heart rate and, if it’s skyrocketing compared to normal, I know my body needs rest,” explains Jennifer Bigham, a Pittsburgh-based professional runner and 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier.

“And, of course, anytime I feel sharp pain or something that causes my running form to change, I know it’s time to shut things down.”

Embracing a long-term approach, and being mindful of your body’s signals, can not only help maximize your overall performance but also ensure you have a healthy relationship with running.

Warning Signs of Overtraining and Burnout

1. Chronically elevated heart rate

If your resting heart rate is significantly higher than usual, this could be a sign that your body is still in “repair mode” and could benefit from extra rest and recovery.

If you find yourself with an elevated heart rate upon waking that continues throughout the day, consider taking the following day off or adjusting your workout to something less intense. Heart rate variability, or the variation in time between each heart beat, is perhaps the single most important metric to be aware of when it comes to training and racing, and can tell you more about your fitness than your heart rate alone.

2. Trouble sleeping

According to a 2018 study, sleep disturbances can be a key symptom of overreaching or overtraining, which may be a direct result of increased training load, or indirect changes to your training schedule.

After a hard training run you should feel like you can’t wait to crawl into bed to recuperate. You might fall asleep easily, but if you find yourself waking up several times throughout the night or sleep restlessly, that’s your body’s way of saying that something is amiss and you should take note of it.

A man pushes through fatigue as he runs up stairs

3. Dreariness and fatigue

When you are properly recovered, your body will be itching to get out and run. If you have to drag yourself out of bed each day and are slogging through each workout, you could potentially be on the verge of overtraining. It’s important to dial things back for a day or two in order to “reset” your systems.

4. Lack of enthusiasm

For the most part, we all look forward to our runs as a way to clear the cobwebs, liven our bodies through movement and put us in a good mindset for the rest of our day. When training becomes a drag, a bore or, even worse, you begin to absolutely dread the thought of lacing up your shoes for your workout, it’s a sign that you could be doing more harm than good by putting yourself through a potentially soul-crushing experience.

5. Aches and pains that don’t go away

It’s hard to differentiate between “good hurt” and “bad hurt,” especially when endorphin levels are high mid-run. Any aches and pains that present themselves during a workout and linger long after the run is over could point to a state of chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is different from acute inflammation, which occurs in response to an injury. Acute inflammation triggers the release of white blood cells, which speed up the body’s healing process.

According to a 2020 article published by Harvard Medical School, when inflammation gets turned up too high and lingers for a long time, the immune system continues to pump out white blood cells and chemical messengers that prolong the process, creating what’s known as chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation can cause your body’s white blood cells to attack healthy tissues and organs. This could be a harbinger of an injury lurking just around the corner.

6. High levels of stress or general irritability

If you are extremely tired, not sleeping well and continuing to train at a high level, be mindful of your mood, especially around the people closest to you. If you discover that you’re anxious and irritable around the ones you love, it may be more about the fact that your body is completely run down than it is about the dirty dishes in the sink.

Lindsey Pogson, a nutrition and fitness coach who works with runners and powerlifters, says that stress compounds in your life whether it’s related to training, work, or life.

“Stress is stress,” Pogson says. Intense training is stress. So is work, raising children, caring for aging parents and living during a global pandemic.

Even if you haven’t increased your training, other stresses in your life can lead to symptoms of overtraining.

Adaptation is Key

A man runs alone as the sun sets

Just like everything else in life, we have to update our models and behaviors to adapt to changes in our existing information set. In running, we have to constantly tweak our approach to training and racing based on new data that becomes available. The “just push through it” mentality can be helpful at times, but there are two sides to every coin. Embracing the no pain, no gain mindset could just as easily be a detriment to your overall health and well-being as it could enhance it.

“Cutting back today means saving energy for another day, whereas pushing through today may mean my workouts suffer for three days until I’m fully rested. In the long run, extra rest will mean both feeling better day-to-day AND better performance when it counts,” Pogson says.

Sometimes it’s OK to end a workout early, take an unscheduled morning off or even “de-load” for several days at a time. By taking a “birds eye view” of our training, we can reconcile our Type-A mentalities with the “big picture” and come to an understanding that sometimes rest and recovery can do more for our overall health and well-being than sticking to the mileage on our schedules.

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