How to spot the symptoms of overtraining

Overtraining can hit your training hard – and negatively impact your health and wellbeing. Here's what you need to know.

overtraining
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Loss of energy. Unusually stiff muscles. Lowered sex drive. They might seem like completely unrelated problems, but there's one sports condition that links them all – overtraining syndrome. Armed with this guide, you'll be able to work out if overtraining has nobbled your running – and what to do to get back on your feet.

What is overtraining?

Overtraining, or Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome (UPS) as it's now known, is a persistent, unexplained dip in performance that continues even after you've had what you think is sufficient rest. The term 'overtraining' is, in truth, a little misleading – it's actually ineffective recovery and outside stresses that make us more susceptible to overtraining syndrome.

You may be used to finding yourself feeling weary and achy during and after periods of hard training, but overtraining syndrome is much more than simply post-training tiredness. The deep fatigue you feel can result in longer-term problems, which demand longer periods of recovery.

Do I have overtraining syndrome?

Unexplained underperformance is surprisingly common, occurring in elite athletes and mere mortals alike – especially if you're cramming in the races or you've recently ramped up your mileage.

Take a close look at your training schedule. Does it include enough variety and recovery time? Running the same distance at the same pace all the time means you'll be working a limited range of muscles in a narrow cardiovascular range – and you'll probably be bored, too. Calculating how much recovery you need requires constant attention. As you become fitter, you'll recover more quickly from workouts – but pile on the miles too quickly and you could push your body too far. If you're feeling especially tired or suffering niggling injuries that seem to hang around, take the day off or settle for an easy run. It's better to turn up to your race slightly undertrained than not to make it to the start line at all.

Distance runners seem to be more susceptible to overtraining syndrome – studies suggest that it's the volume rather than the intensity of training which leads to the condition. A 1992 study found that high-intensity training poses less of a risk, which is borne out in the lower proportion of sprinters struck down with overtraining syndrome.

But even if you are training and recovering properly, and aren't running long distances, you could still be at risk of overtraining. If you're super-busy at work, stressed or having relationship problems, it can impact upon your training and trigger UPS.

What are the symptoms of overtraining?

Elevated resting heart rate: Overtraining can be manifested in a slightly raised resting heart rate. Make a habit of taking your pulse rate, or checking your heart rate on your GPS watch or fitness tracker, as soon as you wake up – if anything changes, you'll soon notice. An increase of 10bpm or more indicates that your body hasn't recovered from recent training.

Disturbances to sleep: If you're suffering from lethargy, having trouble getting to sleep or experiencing disturbed sleep, overtraining might be the cause. The body takes time to settle down after training, so long training sessions late in the day equal late bedtimes.

Lack of appetite or weight loss: You're training harder than ever, which means you need nutritionally balanced meals – and plenty of them. Watch out for a loss of appetite or sustained weight loss.

Frequent colds and low-level viruses: The amount of training you're doing means that your immune system is more vulnerable – and if you don't take enough time out to recover from the illnesses you do get, they'll linger and lead to bigger problems.

Higher perceived effort for the same sessions: If you're noticing that it's harder to nail the pace or that even easy runs are wearing you out, you might be suffering from overtraining syndrome.

Injuries and sore muscles taking longer to heal: If you're working too hard, your body won't be able to recover effectively. You'll notice muscle soreness dragging on for days and more niggles than usual.

Deteriorating race performances: This is the one that really makes runners take notice – if you're training harder than ever before but your times are slipping, there could be something wrong.

Loss of motivation: The physical and mental exhaustion associated with overtraining can mean you stop enjoying running. And if you're not enjoying those sessions, you're not going to want to get out there.

You might also experience a heady mix of the following:

  • Depression or mood disturbances
  • Lowered libido
  • Anaemia
  • Lightheadedness
  • Missed periods

    How can I recover from overtraining?

    Now you've worked out what's wrong, it's time to get it sorted. Just a few tweaks to your training could help ensure a long and happy running life:

    Rest: Your body repairs itself during rest periods – these are the times you get the real benefit from all your hard work. Cross-training certainly has its place, but you do still need to give your muscles a break.

    Relax: Don't feel guilty about getting the amount of rest you need. It won't harm your running or your fitness – the right amount of rest will improve your running.

    Take it easy: If all of your sessions are tough – hills, speedwork, long runs, tempo runs – then you might be undermining all your hard work even as you do it. Pencil in plenty of easy running and your quality sessions will shine.

    Ditch stress: As well as physical recovery, you'll need to isolate other sources of stress in your life that might be contributing to your condition.

    Eat well Your body needs the right fuel – and enough of it – to make the most of the hard work you do. Make sure you're replenishing the calories lost from each session so that you are not in an energy deficit. A diet composed of at least 55% carbohydrate, plus protein and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables will provide the right mix of nutrients for your training.

    Should I see a doctor about overtraining symptoms?

    If you follow the steps above, making sure you're getting adequate rest and eating well to fuel your body, you should see an improvement in your overtraining symptoms in around two weeks (although it can take several months until you're feeling fighting fit and fully energised once more).

    However, if you've been suffering from unusual levels of fatigue for more than six months – and if the above lifestyle changes are not having a noticeable impact – a visit to your GP might be in order, as your symptoms might be an indication of another problem, such as ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

    When can I run again after overtraining syndrome?

    It's near impossible to outline a one-size-fits-all recovery programme for such a unique problem. But a sensible approach is to take a couple of weeks of complete rest before returning to gentle five to 10-minute running or cross-training sessions.

    Make time for plenty of rest and recovery while slowly building your training volume over six to 12 weeks – bearing in mind, of course, the problems that originally led to you developing overtraining syndrome. The condition may disrupt your training and racing in the short term, but knowing how to spot the signs of overtraining is a skill that will help you throughout your running career – making you a stronger, safer runner.

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