Overtraining syndrome (OTS)
As runners we all go through periods where training and racing can feel like more of a burden than at other times. The reasons for this can be many and varied, but often it can be a ‘simple’ case of overtraining… but is it really so simple? Sure, in the day-to-day existence of a runner there will always be performance peaks and troughs but in an ideal world these will be by design rather than through circumstances we fail to recognise or control.
And let’s be clear here – overtraining syndrome (or OTS) is NOT the preserve of the elite or the high mileage runner. It can afflict pretty much any committed runner training seriously. It’s all relative to the balance of your training and a myriad of other factors attributed to your lifestyle. It’s easy to put on the blinkers and our cloak of invincibility and to train away without paying the necessary attention to nutrition, sleep, recovery and the impact and demands brought on by a busy, stressful life outside of running. But in doing so it’s very easy to set yourself up for burnout.
A vicious circle can quickly ensue. You’re not performing as you’d like so what do you do? Push yourself harder… and so it continues. There’s no finite time when the scales tip and you’re on the side going down rather than the one going up. It can be a slow burner. And speaking from personal experience, the house of cards you’ve spent so long building can come crashing down when you least want or expect it to…
I can well recall my own 2014… it started well with a big block of mileage in the early part of the year as my London Marathon training ramped up and I collected a big half marathon PB along the way. Come marathon day, my run didn’t go entirely to plan but it could have been worse. I’d put the building blocks in place for a good year of racing and sure enough in the subsequent 4 or 5 months I raced better and more strongly than I ever had. I’d donned my very own cloak of invincibility. I ran huge PBs over 10k and half marathon and went into my Autumn marathon (Frankfurt) confident that my rich and prolonged vein of form would continue and I’d run the marathon of my life. But it wasn’t to be.
Looking back (and hindsight is a great thing if used effectively!), I can now recognise where the cracks started to appear. The half marathon PB a few weeks before Frankfurt had come at a cost. I’d run a time I’d previously only dreamt of achieving but the last couple of miles had been hell as cramping in my calves ensured the run-in to the finish was a real struggle. But I’d ran a PB so what did it matter? I cracked on with training over the next few weeks, my calves never really feeling totally relaxed and my body never feeling truly rested. That cloak of invincibility was getting comfortable.
Race day in Frankfurt came around. I’d got to the start and it was now just a case of putting it all on the line and a PB was assured. That was honestly what I thought right up until the moment I stepped off the course only 10k into the race, my calves cramping and my body devoid of energy. It sounds straightforward and I guess it was… I’d well and truly overcooked my training, digging a deeper hole to eventually fall into. I just hadn’t realised how deep I was digging.
Spot the Signs…
There can be a number of tell-tale signs that the scales may be tipping the wrong way. You may not experience them all but they’re all worth keeping in mind. Some are easier to address than others but there is a way through each of them (and please note that this list is by no means an exhaustive one!):
- Chronic fatigue – you may feel consistently tired all day long no matter how much sleep you’re getting through the night. This soon results in a loss of that real motivation which gets you out the front door day after day.
- Elevated resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate may be higher than normal for more than a few days in succession. Start noting what you resting heart rate is each morning (immediately after you wake up and before getting out of bed). If it fluctuates wildly, take this as a warning sign.
- Lack of training progression or underperformance. If you’re finding it harder to achieve consistency or to make the moves forward you seek, then beware (and also remember that training plateaus do occur, particularly if you’re a newer runner on a natural improvement curve). If supposedly easy runs feel like you’re running through treacle, then take heed!
- Persistent minor aches, pains, and injuries, plus muscle soreness for days after a run… slow recovery can be a quick indicator.
- If you’re picking up every illness and infection around it can be a sign that your immune system is being overstretched.
- Irregular sleep patterns and disturbances to sleep can be another sign that you’re pushing the envelope. Normally, your body should crave rest and recovery so if it’s taking time to settle down after training you may need to adjust the timing and intensity of what you’re doing.
- If your weight is fluctuating significantly outside its usual range (up or down) it can be due to your metabolic system struggling to cope with training loads, resulting in the rate at which you process food being out of sync.
- Mood swings can be an indicator of stress, which in turn can be a contributor to the overtraining cycle.
- Excessive and unusual cravings (particularly for sugar and salt lost through the everyday routine of running) can indicate a potential problem. Deviation from your usual dietary pattern borne through what seems like necessity isn’t ideal (though often an increase in sugar and mineral intake can be fully justified and necessary if training load is increasing within reasonable parameters).
- In some instances a loss of both appetite and libido can also occur, often related to the fatigue and stress issues mentioned above.
The list above looks long and sounds serious, but remember that it’s unlikely you’ll experience all of the signs and symptoms. Taking a step back, analysing your training and racing over the preceding period (however long that may be!), and making some seemingly straightforward changes can be hugely effective in achieving the balance we all want as runners.
- Think seriously about rest. Real rest. Back off, chill out for a spell and allow your body to relax and recuperate. There’s no timeline on this, but you’ll soon recognise when you’re ready to go again, be it 48 hours or a month later. Always remember that rest and recovery is an enormously important part of any training plan.
- Try to remove stress from your life (often easier said than done!). If you’re busy at work or having family or relationship problems this can exacerbate your condition. If you can possibly isolate any such sources of stress and lock them away while you’re training, then try to do so. Think of why you’re running…you love the feeling of getting out there so let that be the focus during training time.
- By planning ahead you can break up the potentially harder and prolonged periods of training. Training periodisation can help to reduce the focus on the bigger end goal, giving a number of smaller, more manageable intermediate goals. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the big end goal and to over-reach in trying to meet it! These shorter training periods should be interspersed with ‘mini rests’ between them.
- Sleep (and lots of it) can help more than you’d imagine. Banish phones, tablets and TV from the bedroom and avoid caffeine, excessive sugar and alcohol in the couple of hours before your head hits the pillow to ensure a good night’s rest and recovery.
- Eat and hydrate well – refuelling with key vitamins and nutrients and enough calories to optimally recover for the next training run will undoubtedly smooth out the unwanted and unplanned-for peaks and troughs. Think about when you’re increasing, for example, your protein intake (immediately post-hard session) to aid recovery and to speed the rebuilding process.
The Big Picture
We all run for our own different and often very personal reasons with our overall end goals varying massively. You may be trying to finish your first 10k, be striving for a marathon finisher’s medal or simply looking to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside around you. There’s no definitive goal we should all be aiming for! We all need to recognise and train with our own personal goals at the forefront of our mind.
Some of us love the burn of lactic acid in the muscles. Some of us love the social aspect of a group long run. Some of us love the simple solitude of running through wilderness.
But what we should never do is actively undermine our personal, loving relationship with running through over-reaching in our training. Try to avoid that at all costs! Through training effectively and with an eye firmly on what you want to get from putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly (and how to get it), you’ll go an awful long way towards taking a front row seat and getting a perfect view of your very own BIG PICTURE. And the front row of the cinema is just as good for sealing a loving relationship as the back row!