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How to avoid overtraining when running

Recognising and dealing with the symptoms of overtraining

Overtraining is a common condition amongst athletes, especially runners. Overtraining can result in extremely damaging long-term health effects. However, overtraining is easily identified and, if spotted early enough, long-term  running problems can usually be avoided. Here's our guide on how to avoid falling into the trap of overtraining, and learning to run in moderation.

While it is important to include heavy training in our schedules, both in terms of mileage and intensity, in order to improve performance, how much is too much? If you find your improvement slowing down or you are constantly tired, read on! Overtraining is characterised by the following symptoms:

  • Training fatigue and muscle soreness or tightness
  • Regular upper respiratory tract infections (colds and flu)
  • Drop or plateau in performance
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Lack of motivation and mood swings
  • Lack of appetite and corresponding weight loss
  • In women, cessation of periods (amenorrhea)
  • Increased incidence of injuries
  • Resting heart rate increased

If not picked up early enough, overtraining can develop into the much more serious Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Whereas overtraining can be righted in a matter of weeks with forced rest, chronic fatigue can take a year or more. Overtraining can also be associated with eating disorders, which are extremely common for women athletes. The combination of running, amenorrhea and anorexia is a serious health risk contributing to conditions such as osteoporosis (significant loss of bone density). This can result in stress fractures, often ending an athlete’s career.

Physiologically, a number of changes have taken place in the body in order to accommodate the extra training load that has often brought about the overtraining syndrome. Hormone profiles can be seriously affected; oestrogen levels are often blunted, inhibiting menstrual cycles and decreasing the cardio-protective effect provided by estrogen. Normal estrogen levels also benefit bone density and the risk of developing osteoporosis is much lower.

 

During heavy training the body responds by increasing adrenaline output, increasing heart rate and blood pressure to pump more blood to the working muscles; this decreases the body’s sensitivity to adrenaline, so more and more is needed for the same response. This increased adrenaline inhibits the white blood cell production that is responsible for keeping viral infections at bay. It also decreases serotonin and dopamine release leading to irritability, anxiousness and sleep problems.

The increase in oxidation of the muscle that is caused by overtraining can lead to cellular level damage hence the chance of injury to the muscle is greatly increased. Iron stores can also be severely compromised with loss of iron common in runners due to foot strike haemolysis – loss of iron through repetitious heel strike breaking down red blood cells carrying iron. Calcium stores are also compromised which can also contribute to osteoporosis.

Why does overtraining happen?
Emotional stress has a huge effect on your response to training and how likely you are to develop overtraining syndrome. If you have a large or increased amount of stress in your life due to work or family pressures, you are far more likely to overtrain than someone who does the same amount of training but doesn’t have equal external pressures.

Physically, overtraining occurs due to either excessive mileage, regular, excessively hard workouts, never changing what you do on a weekly basis (i.e. the same training week in, week out) and sometimes
lack of cross-training.

What to do about it
Once you have identified that your symptoms match up to those associated with overtraining, the only thing you can do is rest! You will need at least two weeks completely without training, although a couple of short walks a week will not do you any harm. If you are in a more serious state of overtraining, like that associated with chronic fatigue, you are going to need more than a couple of weeks to recover. It is important that you consult your GP or Sports Medicine Practitioner in order to confirm a diagnosis and advise you on such important concerns as hormone status, iron and calcium supplementation and referral to a dietician.

 

To prevent overtraining syndrome in the future there are a number of important changes to make to your running or exercise programme:

  • Cross-train; include swimming, weight training, yoga or similar in your schedule for both psychological and physical variety.
  • Schedule time off from running (or your preferred sport) around every three months to allow for some recovery time, this would be ideal just after a goal event – see next point.
  • Your running schedule should allow for hard weeks and easy weeks according to your goals; your training should build up to a peak point a week or two before your main goal, and should be tapered to allow for pre-event recovery (and also post event recovery).
  • Your training should not be the same week to week. Some weeks should be more focused on mileage, others more on intensity.
  • Have at least one day off running (or your preferred sport) every week.
  • Decrease the stress in your life, or learn to meditate to cope with it better! Remember that if stress is a factor in your life at a certain time this will often negatively affect your training and you will need to adjust your training schedule correspondingly.
  • Make sure that you are eating a healthy balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals. During long training sessions (over an hour) replace lost glycogen with carbohydrate solution or supplements part way through. Always eat in the first 30 - 60 minutes after training to replete your muscle glycogen stores; this is much easier for the body to convert to energy than that from liver or fat stores, and decreases the amount of adrenaline produced. After long training sessions, vitamin c supplementation has been shown to decrease the likelihood of developing the upper respiratory tract infections common in endurance athletes.
  • Avoid a cycle of overeating and then exercising to use up excess consumed calories.
  • Many of us dislike adjusting our schedules to fit in rest and recovery, but it is imperative that we do so in order to maintain a healthy body and mind. Rest and recovery can allow us to focus on other aspects of our lives that are often not fulfilled due to time spent training. Use the newfound hours in the day to balance your life with activities other than training or sport; you might even discover a new talent!

 

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