We’ve all been there: summer’s here and all you can think about is escaping the confines of the office to run on the trails. It can be tempting to do this every day, but a word of caution. More attention is rightly being placed on runners having a greater personal awareness of their training schedules and response to each session to avoid overreaching or, worse still, falling into the trap of overtraining.
Overreaching can be put into two categories; functional and non-functional. Functional overreaching (FO) is the act of intentionally training beyond your comfort zone briefly, for example through increased mileage or pace, followed by a return to lighter training. This encourages your body to adapt to increased stresses, resulting in improved overall performance. When you train beyond your comfort zone without the adequate rest to reap the benefits, you enter non-functional overreaching (NFO). NFO can cause you to feel fatigued, have altered sleep, a poor appetite, experience stress and anxiety or altered mood. You can often also notice greater difficulty with training sessions you have breezed through in the past or slower times for routine tempo runs with no specific cause. You may also experience reduced motivation and focus. Typically, these symptoms resolve by taking a break from sport (for 2 weeks or more) and prioritising sleep and recovery. When in NFO, you forgo the associated benefits of FO and, if ignored, overtraining syndrome (OTS) can develop. OTS is characterised by NFO symptoms alongside persistently poor and even worsening performance in training sessions or races in spite of weeks or months of rest and stopping all training.
Overreaching and overtraining are most commonly seen in elite athletes, but it is not unusual to see amateur runners who have become carried away with their training to also suffer the consequences. The exact physiological causes of NFO and OTS are not fully understood, but certain triggers can be:
- Sudden increase in any of the following aspects of training - intensity, length, load, frequency
- Monotony of training causing repeated load on tissues
- Lack of rest days to allow recovery
- Increased day-to-day stressors e.g. lack of sleep, work/life stress
- Poor nutrition
If you recognise some of the listed symptoms in yourself, it's always worth trying a few weeks of rest from training, focusing on maximising sleep, eating well and keeping activity to an easy and gentle level. If the symptoms remain unchanged despite this conscious effort to recuperate for more than 2 weeks, it is worth visiting your GP for a professional opinion. There is no diagnostic test for NFO or OTS but you may be asked about your training history and have blood tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms.
To recognise the symptoms of NFO or OTS you need to be honest with yourself and halt their development as early as possible. This can be achieved in a number of ways, and they are just as important to consider whether you’re an experienced runner or a complete newbie!
Here are the main areas to focus on to prevent overtraining:
1 Consult a professional coach - this can be done face to face or online if needed. They can provide a well-balanced programme with weekly training/rest as well as encouraging functional overreaching with appropriately timed increases followed by recovery and consolidation.
2 Keep a training diary - Record details such as distance, pace, time and perceived effort. You can also include details on sleep quality, stress and even muscle soreness felt from previous sessions. Making a note of these aspects can help you identify a trend of diminishing performance and the need to take a recovery week.
3 Mix up your training - Consider including some non-impact exercise as part of your training routine to rest from the impact of running. Remember that the same rules apply with gradual introduction of time, intensity etc.
4 Increase training slowly and use the rule of 5% - Increase training hours/km per week by 5% only. Monitor your response in your diary and be prepared to not make further increases (or even reduce the load again) if you notice signs of increasing strain or fatigue.
5 Be flexible with your training plan - Adapt your training to suit how you feel. You’ll get more benefit from changing your ‘easy’ day for your ‘hill-sprints’ day if you’re feeling tired and run down. Just remember to then ensure you don’t end up doing two hard training days back to back!
6 ‘Easy’ days mean EASY - Take easy sessions at a conversational pace and use these days to focus on form, fluidity and breathing steadily. Cater your route to suit so that you can just enjoy running. These days are vital for letting the body recovery from harder sessions before.
7 Rest - Kenyan runners in Iten sleep for long periods between training runs and they are some of the most consistently successful runners in the world! This is unrealistic for us amateurs fitting running around work hours, but it is just as important to include at least one day in your week which is as restful as possible.
Remember, be patient, be consistent and just enjoy the training process. If managed correctly, you’ll get much better results on your runs with lower weekly mileage and far fewer injuries. Enjoy the trails!
Kremer J.B and Schwartz J.B, ‘Overtraining syndrome: A practical Guide’, Athletic Training, 2012; 14(2)
Myrick K.M, ‘Overtraining and overreaching syndrome in athletes’, Journal for Nursing Practitioners, 2015;11(10)
Meeusen R, Duclos M et al, ‘Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: Joint consensus statement of European College of Sports Science and American College of Sports Medicine’, 2013; 45(1)!
Written by Jenny Sharpe, a Specialist Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist working at the Hospital St John’s and St Elizabeth’s in London whilst studying for a Masters in Sport and Exercise Medicine. She loves running and helping to keep fellow runners on track!