Overtraining

The UK national cross country championships at Parliament Hill - photo by David Knight

We all want to achieve more.  Runners, in particular, appear to be driven to test themselves, and push themselves to the limit of what they can achieve. This gives rise to the most common illness of athletes: overtraining. This syndrome gives rise to a number of different symptoms, all of which are strong indicators of overtraining.

Symptoms of overtraining

  • increased resting heart rate;
  • increase in difference between heart rate before and after getting out of bed;
  • susceptibility to infections, allergies, headaches; swollen glands;
  • sharp reduction in training performances; sluggishness;
  • lethargy, loss of enthusiasm, energy, drive;
  • irritability, loss of concentration
  • insomnia;
  • loss of appetite;
  • lack of sexual energy and loss of libido;
  • rapid weight loss;
  • diarrhoea and runners’ trots.

It is essential for runners to recognise the symptoms of overtraining.  If a runner at risk of overtraining backs off immediately, a rest of 24-48 hours will usually be sufficient.  But if you ignore the early signs, and continue to over-train, you will need 6-12 weeks off running to recover properly.

If you are at risk of overtraining, you should try to keep a comprehensive training log, which includes your weight, number of hours you sleep, and your pulse rate both when you wake up and when you first get out of bed.  Monitor these indicators carefully, especially when your training load is at its highest.

One especially good early warning indicator of overtraining is the gap between your heart rate when you first wake up, and your heart rate after you have got out of bed.  Your heartbeat generally increases by about 5 beats a minute when you get up. The gap is different from person to person, but is generally fairly constant from one day to the next. However, it can increase noticeably if you are in the early stages of over-training. If you are susceptible to overtraining, then monitor this difference every day, and if the gap is 5 bpm or more above average, don’t train that day.

According to Tim Noakes:

“the overtraining syndrome is caused by a very major disruption to the body’s ability to respond to normal stresses such as infection and running.  It is possible that this quite gross abnormality represents a protective response of a totally exhausted body.  Rather than suffer additional damage that would result if the body were allowed to continue training in this depleted state, the body responds by making training impossible.  We must learn to respect the messages that our bodies give us when they are trying to tell us that they have done too much.” [i]


[i] Tim Noakes, The Lore of Running, 2001.

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