Overtraining Symptoms and How to Prevent It
There is a definite difference between training hard and overtraining. And really, that difference is whether or not your body can handle it.
Sure, you need to stress your body physically in order to make any athletic gains. But the other half of making those gains is rest. Overtraining occurs when the intensity of your training doesn't match up with the amount of rest you allow your body.
Overtraining is also a holistic topic, though. It doesn't just involve the exercise and physical stress that you're putting your body under. The two main components that can affect overtraining are the intensity of your training and how much you allow your body to rest.
But other factors like how much sleep you're getting, what kinds of foods you're eating, how stressful work is, and how busy your family life is can all affect whether or not you experience overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining can lead to chronic sore muscles, fatigue, and injury. Your body is tired and just can’t keep up with your training schedule. If you don’t listen to the signs your body is screaming at you, you risk not being able to complete your goal race.
Signs of Overtraining
So, what does overtraining look like? How do you know if you’re pushing your body too much?
Consistent Sore Muscles
Sure, your muscles should be sore at times through your training. It’s a sign that you’re pushing your muscles to get stronger. But you shouldn’t always be sore! Your legs may be sore after a particularly tough or long run, but they should recover within a couple of days.
After all, it’s that rest and recovery that actually builds the muscles! Without the rest, you’re just continuously breaking down your muscles even more. They’re never given the opportunity to strengthen to their potential.
If you’re sore for weeks on end, you are definitely overtraining. Take a few days off, engage in some active recovery, and let your body fully heal.
Fatigue and a Lack of Energy
Have you ever had a day where you feel like you can’t fully wake up? And you feel like you’re literally dragging your body through the day? Every walk down the hall is at half speed. Even your arms don’t seem to be working quite right.
Yeah, I’ve been there, too. Your body is begging you for rest! Can you pull yourself out of it and go for a run? Probably. But should you? Probably not!
Trust me, I know the temptation to push through and strictly stick to your training plan. But after a few days of fatigue, you really need to ask yourself whether resting or running would be more beneficial for your training.
In general, you should be getting stronger and faster throughout your training plan. Sure, you may have a bad day or week. But if you consistently see yourself getting slower, or having to exert more effort than you did a few weeks ago, this may be a sign of overtraining.
Poor Sleep Quality
Not only can a lack of sleep cause overtraining symptoms, but it can also be a symptom of overtraining itself! Your body may just be too stressed out to sleep. When cortisol levels are elevated, your body has a hard time making melatonin. Melatonin is what helps you fall asleep and stay asleep.
Think your cortisol levels are too high? Here are some ideas of how to decrease cortisol levels naturally.
Heightened Feelings of Overall Stress
If regular tasks at work have you feeling overwhelmed, or if the thought of meal planning for the week has you needing to lay down instead, this could be a sign of overtraining. Your body is just too stressed!
Your cortisol levels are high and your body is in constant “fight or flight” mode. It can never quite get into recovery mode. For more signs of high cortisol and why you may be experiencing them, check out this article.
Elevated Heart Rate
If you use a heart rate monitor and you’re experiencing overtraining syndrome, you may notice that your heart rate is more elevated than normal. This could either be during exercise, at rest, or both!
Note: This section is for women only! Amenorrhea is a lack of menstruation. If you’ve lost your period during training, it’s a sign that your body isn’t being allowed ample rest. It’s yet another sign that overall cortisol levels in your body are just too high.
When your body is in “fight or flight” mode, it is not thinking about reproducing!
Yes, illnesses happen. But if you’re catching more illnesses than usual, and illnesses you know your body would otherwise be able to fight, the culprit could be overtraining. Your body is too worn down to be able to fight the germs that you’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Take the time to rest, avoid overtraining, and you won’t need to take a week off later in your training because you’re sick! Trust me, resting proactively and healthily will be a lot more enjoyable than resting while nursing the flu.
Bloated more after meals? Experiencing excessive gas? Especially while running? Sorry, running buddies… It could be overtraining. When your body is stressed out, it’s less efficient at digesting your food.
These digestive issues could also show up in your race if you enter into it overtrained. Can’t hold any food down? At that point, your body is not only stressed, it also doesn’t have the fuel to complete your race!
Do I need to say it again? Listen to your body, rest when it tells you to, and you’re more likely to enter race day healthy and strong!
How did I get here? 10 Common mistakes runners make that land them with overtraining syndrome:
1. You feel good so you push your body more. Sure, once in a while this is fine. But amp up the mileage and pace too much too soon, and your body could start to protest.
2.You train with a friend that isn’t aligned with your training goals. Do you have that one running buddy that goes out for an easy 10k run and tends to find himself on a 30k adventure? This may be some fun spontaneity, but it could also push your body to a point of overtraining.
3. You don’t make the easy days easy enough. Surprisingly, one of the hardest aspects for runners to learn is how to run slow. Either they don’t believe that it’s doing them any good, or they haven’t quite figured out how to physically make their legs slow down because they’ve never done it before! I’ll say it again, though. Easy days are meant to be easy!
4. You have a mindset that more is better. I hope you realize by this point in the article that more is not always better. Just enough is always better. Sure you want to show up to race day prepared, and you want to push your body on a consistent basis… but you need to train smart not more.
5. Not resting on your rest days. Just because you’re not running doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allowing your body to rest. If you’re on your feet all day dancing at a concert… you aren’t resting. If you go on a huge spring cleaning spree… you aren’t resting. If you’re playing a 3 hour game of flag football with the kids, this may be admirable… but you aren’t resting. Rest on your rest days! If you’re feeling antsy, go for an easy walk, bike, or something to take the edge off.
6. Ramping up too quickly. How quickly is too quick to increase your mileage? The general guideline is around 10% every week. So your mileage for this week is 20 miles? Next week should be no more than 22 miles. Is this a hard and set rule? No. But stick to it and you’re less likely to experience overtraining.
7. You don’t have enough rest days. Most training plans have you resting at least one day a week. If you need more, though, do it! Training plans are general. You know your life and your body best, so adjust your training plan accordingly. If you want help creating a customized training plan that’s just right for your life and your needs, check out my Coaching page.
8. You don’t take enough rest between races. Races are a huge stress on your body. You’re pushing yourself to the edge of your limits, and you’ve just gone through months of ramping up mileage and continuously stressing your body. Take a break after each race before ramping up for the next one, and you’ll be able to sustain running as a lifestyle for as long as you want!
9. Not having an “off-season”. Do you have to completely stop running for a few months? Not at all! I know when I don’t run, my mental sanity is definitely challenged. An offseason is meant for de-structuring your running, maintaining a base, and allowing your body some freedom to rest. Two months tend to be a good amount of time to take it easy, and also allows time to reflect on your previous training and what to focus on next.
10. You eat junk and expect your body to have the nutrients it needs to recover. Pizza and soda may taste good, and they may be full of calories to replenish your stores. But calories aren’t the only thing being used up when you run. Eat foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatories. Your body will reward you with recovered muscles that are ready for your next run. Would you put a low octane fuel in a sports car? Of course not! You’d want the best fuel in it. Could it run on lower octane? Maybe, but likely not as well. Your body should be viewed in the same way.
How to avoid overtraining and have a healthy training cycle:
The number one thing you can do to avoid overtraining is to learn to listen to your body. It tells you when it’s stressed out, when it can’t handle any more. And when it needs a break. You just need to listen.
But here are a few things to keep in mind so hopefully your body never feels the need to send you messages that it’s being overworked:
Honor your rest days.
Take a break after a major race.
Consider an “off-season”.
Track your resting heart rate.
Track your exercise heart rate.
Train smart. Stick to the plan.
Don’t increase mileage too much too soon.
Decrease overall stress in life.
What to do if you are experiencing Overtraining Syndrome.
Rest! Depending on the severity of your overtraining syndrome, this may mean doing nothing but walking for a period of time. It could also mean cross training. It could also mean just slowing down and only doing short, easy runs for a while.
Hydrate. During your time of rest, make sure you’re continuing to drink plenty of water.
Eat Healthily and Eat Enough. If your body is depleted of energy, you need to eat enough to build back up energy stores. You also want to build back up vitamins and nutrients that may be depleted as a result of overtraining. If you’re concerned with your nutrient levels, consider consulting your doctor to get some blood work done.
Sleep. A huge part of your body’s recovery occurs when you’re sleeping. Don’t spend all of your recovery from overtraining staying up too late binging on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. Go to bed! Get some sleep! And you’ll be back running in no time.
Have you ever experienced overtraining? If you have, did you honor your body’s signs or did you try to push through? Share your stories in the comments below so others can learn from your experiences!
Happy Running, and Happy Resting! 😉✌️
Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent, and previously thought chronic sore muscles was a sign that she was training hard enough. Luckily, she’s learned better. She continues to learn and educate herself on health and wellness topics through her writing as a copywriter. To find out more about her and her business, check out www.beckhamcopywriting.com