Overtraining: that dreaded taboo topic that no one should touch. Let’s go there. Raise your hand(s) if you’ve ever overtrained (raising both hands). It’s an important subject that surfaces periodically in many runner/athlete’s lives, including my own. If we push our limits too far, we can detrimentally affect our health. For optimal health, we need to avoid overtraining.
What is overtraining? Overtraining is training beyond our ability and capability, smashing important rules like the 10% mileage increase rule (not increasing mileage by more than 10% per consecutive week). While it is refreshing to run with abandon and without restraint, if we are reckless about our knowing and obeying our limits, we sometimes go too far. I’m all for challenging our limits to the very edge and in fact we have to in order to learn where they are. But we shouldn’t cross that line. In fact, it’s better to be conservative and to avoid getting to close to that edge of what is wise, prudent, and healthy for us.
Running should be effortless most of the time. The body has a build up and break down cycle that is constantly shifting. We need to make sure we don’t get stuck in the breaking down with overtraining that frequently leads to pain, inflammation, and sometimes injuries. If you’re in a breakdown cycle, break out of that before building up your mileage/intensity of runs again. If not, inflammation, injuries, and pain control the immediate future of our running calendar. If it means we need to take rest days or run 1 mile to prevent overtraining, it’s a smart practical move to do that. Better safe than sorry.
Why do runners and athletes overtrain? Many reasons. One of the most common ones is the endorphins that help us become an addiction (in at least a limited sense) to some. When we see benefits like weight loss, feeling great and positive, and energy boosts from running, we want more. For example, for me, I’ve lost 50 pounds since the summer of 2014 partly by running a lot and optimizing my nutrition, sleep, and learning to relax. So it becomes a cycle sometimes and we feel like the more we run or exercise, the better we will feel. It’s extremely important to build rest and recovery into our workout routines. Also, we must have “safety valve” activities (think of the steam that escapes from a pressure cooker, safety valve activities are like that) and strategies for rest, relaxation, and recovery so the build up and break down cycle of the body does not become stuck in the breaking down phase.
Just as our lungs need air to breathe, our body needs rest in order to recover. What happens if we go too far? Our heart rate rises, our VO2 max drops, we become more tired, fatigued, agitated, and restless. I experienced this significantly 2 years ago when ultra training without having optimized my nutrition and trying to sleep less so I could run more, I was hurting my ability to be the very best runner I could be.
If we are experiencing pain and inflammation that surfaces with overtraining, it’s important to ensure that we are optimizing our nutrition with whole foods. Real foods. Not artificial fake foods with artificial colors, preservatives, and other harmful compounds (high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated soybean oil for example). I’m allergic to soy and I’ve learned that I can’t digest athletic drinks with artificial colors.
How can we watch for signs of overtraining? Common signs are sleeplessness (for asthmatics we have difficulty sleeping because we can’t breathe at times), excessive fatigue (inability to stay awake), excessive caffeine consumption, pain and inflammation in the body from muscles to lungs, restlessness, agitation, reactivity, anger, higher-than-normal heart rate (while exercising and resting heart rate, check both), and just a general feeling of dissatisfaction with life, wanting to throw in the white towel and surrender during a run and/or workout. Check your resting heart rate first thing in the morning, that’s probably the best time and track it maybe at least once a month. Let your GPS track your exercise heart rate for you.
With my Fenix 3HR watch, the watch tells me every run if I am plus or minus on heart rate (good to fair range is usually what I see). If I am +7 or +8 in a run, I’m running relaxed. Going up that much usually means I’ve gone from “fair” to “good” comparing heart rate exertions of consecutive runs. If I drop -7 or -8 (usually means dropping from “good” to “fair”), my heart rate is higher than it should be and I need to try to relax more, walk more, and/or cut the run short and end it. We can’t run full throttle every day. We have to have designated easy days and rest(ful) days. Running should feel easy and effortless most of the time. If it doesn’t, something is wrong and for people like me with asthma, that’s a good time to check in with my asthma/allergy doctor. Checking in with my doctor last week, I learned that I was experiencing some asthmatic inflammation in my lungs. So we are increasing my medication and my doctor urged me to be careful. Upon learning that, I immediately reduced the intensity and distance of some of my runs. More walk breaks, too. I’m allergic to ragweed pollen, it triggers reactions in my lungs. So I have to be very careful during ragweed season in order to avoid unnecessary risks in my health.
One helpful trick I’ve learned is to use nasal breathing while running to keep my heart rate down. Mouth breathing elevates the heart rate too much. Sometimes nasal breathing doesn’t always work (if my nose is stuffed up or if I have allergy issues associated with allergy/pollen season). But when it does, I can run more powerfully while exerting less effort. It’s much more efficient. The BreatheRight strips help me with keeping my nasal passages open wide enough to breathe nasally while running. The tricky part is when my nose gets stuffed up or if nasal polyps surface (that’s a perennial problem for me).
Also, my Fenix Garmin watch measures my VO2 max capacity. I know if my VO2 is under 40 that I am really struggling. It’s on the runs when VO2 jumps significantly that tell me I’m on the right track. If my VO2 dips on runs, I adjust my running schedule accordingly and immediately schedule light and easy days. What is VO2 max? It’s the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. I keep track of my VO2 max in Garmin Connect and also try to keep the latest VO2 max stored in my brain to assess any possible asthmatic inflammation.
Another technology-based way to tell if you are overtraining is to check the strava “suffer score” tied to heart-rate exertion on runs (available only in the premium strava membership). If the strava suffer score over 100 or so, the heart rate is higher than normal. If it’s over 200, it’s a very tough workout (or you were running in the mountains). If it’s under 100, I know I ran more relaxed, more like I should be. Even running with our dog sometimes causes my heart rate to run higher than when I run alone because I am constantly reacting to the dog’s running (and stopping and hunting) patterns.
Another challenge for runners is that running is such a great stress reliever that we think of what we are worried about most in life during our runs: our chief stressors that cause us to lose sleep, feel restless, or just feel out of sorts. When this occurs, we should redirect our thoughts using mantras and mental tricks similar to what Jeff Galloway recommends. One of my favorite Galloway mantras is Relax-Power-Glide (RPG). Relax and keep that heart rate down. It helps. Try it. One that I have created is Energy-Strength-Power (ESP). Find positive words and envision positive imagery that plugs you into the refreshed, recharging mode instead of the stressed-out worry-and-scurry mode. Running is transformational refreshment for the body and soul! Life is too short to worry too much. Don’t worry be happy! (Just like the Bobby McFerrin song, remember?)
What can we do if we are overtraining? We can take walk breaks, rest, take days off, and find ways to better manage and relieve our stress (try meditation, tai-chi, creative outlets like journaling and writing).
In conclusion, overtraining is detrimental to your health. Prevent it if possible. If you overdo it, you’ve earned some light, easy days and days off in your workout routine. Be smart and run safe.