With 2020 being such a cluster of a year, I wasn’t surprised to hear that more athletes are finding themselves over-exercising. Not familiar with that particular term? Well, before we get started, it’s important to know that just about any healthy coping skill for dealing with emotional difficulties can become unhealthy once it becomes compulsive. There’s a fine line between wanting to keep your home clean and being ruled by the need to dust yourself into oblivion, but the line is there. Because it’s so damn easy to turn something that is positive and healthy, like running, into something unhealthy and obsessive, I think it’s important that we runners are able to recognize the signs of overtraining.
Because unchecked overtraining can turn into some pretty nasty situations, like relative energy deficiency syndrome (RED-S). It can also be really difficult to recover from, especially the longer an athlete continues to train at an unhealthy level. So, if you find yourself questioning if you’re training has tip-toed over the line of healthy, here’s a few symptoms to be aware of.
Signs of OverTraining
One of the first symptoms I am always concerned to hear about is feeling anxious and overwhelmed about training. Running, theoretically, should be a positive outlet for dealing with feelings of anxiety; if the training itself is the cause of stress, that is not a good sign. And it’s one that is unfortunately easy to overlook.
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While it is not uncommon to feel nervous about long runs or hard workouts, running should not be something that athletes feel obligated or compulsed to get done. If you ever find yourself feeling resentful about the space that running is taking in your life, that is a good sign that it might be time for a hard stop.
It’s also important to identify how you feeling around training, not just during training itself. If you’re finding it more difficult to relax or unwind on your rest days, or you are more irritable in general, pause and consider if training might be part of the issue. If you’re finding yourself feeling crankier than usual, and not loving your training, talk to your coach about how you’re feeling.
One of the most significant and concerning impacts of overtraining is how it can wreak havoc on your hormonal system. Your hormones can impact pretty much every other system in your body, so hormonal issues can negatively affect an athlete is so many ways. One of the most well-known ways overtraining can manifest is through fertility issues.
This is a highly complex issue, but often times the increased cortisol can suppress ovulation, making periods irregular or non-existent. And surprisingly, this can happen to a women over a wide range of weights and BMI’s. In order words, an athlete doesn’t have to be severely under-weight in order to struggle with infertility that is directly tied to overtraining.
Elevated cortisol can also cause weight gain, which is often times confusing for athletes who feel like they are training hours on end. It can also have a significant impacts on sleep. Runners who find that they are gaining weight or having difficulty sleeping should consider the possibility that their issues may be a result of overtraining.
While hormonal issues can result in a wide range of symptoms, and emotional difficulties can be written off, the physical symptoms of overtraining are usually what athletes take notice of. Unfortunately, they usually begin with perpetual, small issues that never seem to fully resolve themselves. Muscle strains that seem to come and go, tendonitis that gets better but then worse again, or just constant aches and pains that are beyond the expected soreness.
Related Post: What Crappy Runs Mean
Ignoring the small issues can always lead to bigger problems, but it also means that many athletes continuing pushing their bodies when they are screaming for a rest. While training blocks can be exhausting, constant fatigue is not a part of the training program. If you’re feeling wiped out for multiple days, or even after a much-needed rest day, it’s not a good sign.
Similarly, if it feels like your body is just not recovering from your workouts, it’s probably a red flag that something needs to change. And quick. Along these lines, if you start to notice that your body is working harder than usual during workouts, or your heart rate isn’t returning to normal within a short amount of time, this is another red flag. If you’ve got a high volume of training, it’s important for you to know your body. You need to be able to differentiate between expected fatigue and soreness, and a body that is close to shutting down.
For me, I always seem to notice that I might feel like a cold is coming on, but I never actually get sick. This is my bodies of way of trying to trick me into resting. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I don’t listen, my body has a way of forcing my hand, and eventually I will come down with some sort of virus that lands in me a full hibernation for a week.
While we’re on the topic of illness, recurring colds, stomach bugs, or infections are also an indication of overtraining. When the body is run down enough, the immune system weakens significantly, and it stops being able to fight off a flu or other viruses efficiently. Once again, if you refuse to rest when your body needs, you’re going to find yourself paying for it. And probably in bed. The place you should have gone initially.
The final red flag I warn clients about is feeling like life just isn’t balanced. Will there be times in marathon training where it feels like your days are rinse-wash-repeat cycle of running, eating, working, and sleeping? Yes. But those periods of time should be brief and towards the end of a training cycle.
The majority of your training should look very different. If you haven’t had time or energy to do anything outside of working out and surviving for multiple weeks on end, you’re probably pushing past your physical limits. And as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve all got physical limits that we need to respect.
During my 100k training, I noticed that I was beginning to feel resentful of other things in my life that were demanding my time. Kid had a birthday party to go to on Saturday? Ugh. The laundry needed to be done? Again? Grumble. While I don’t generally love the prospect of children’s birthday parties or house cleaning, those things shouldn’t make me feel cranky.
Related Post: Recovery Weeks
I realized that I had reached a point where I was planning everything around my training. Which is a huge red flag for me. Fortunately, this was taking place at the peak of my training, just a couple of weeks before a big race. I knew that with a good taper, followed by a training break after the race, my body would be just fine. But feeling this way in the middle of a training cycle is a bad sign.
In all honesty, most of the symptoms come up from time to time in training. It becomes more concerning when multiple symptoms seem to be taking place at the same time, or for long periods of time. In a meritocracy, it’s hard to accept that sometimes we need to do nothing. We need to take breaks. It can’t be all rise and grind, no matter how many influencers try to say otherwise.
If you’re noticing the signs of overtraining, you need to make adjustments to your schedule as soon as possible. Prioritize nutrition, rest, and sleep above training. Post-pone a race, schedule a training break, or readjust your goals. And if you need some additional pointers on recovering from overtraining (recovery can take a long time), check out a couple of the recommendations over on Training Peaks.