Overtraining: Spot the Signs

Discover the mysterious syndrome that could hit your training hard - and how to defeat it

Posted: 29 March 2010
by Alice Palmer

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. It might sound made-up but it exists and it needs to be recognised and addressed. Armed with this guide you'll be able to work out if it's overtraining that's 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 UPS.

You may be used to finding yourself weary and achy during and after periods of hard training, but UPS is much more than mere post-training tiredness. The deep fatigue you feel results in longer-term problems, which demand longer periods of recovery. But the symptoms may be an indication of another problem, so if you've been suffering from unusual levels of fatigue for more than six months, a visit to your GP might be in order, to rule out ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Urban Bettag is a Level 3 Performance coach who works at Serpentine Running Club, and who suffered a bout of overtraining syndrome in 2003. He says, 'When I started running I tried to do my own thing, and I experimented with high mileage. I ran around 280 miles in a two week period, with three training sessions a day. But I quickly found out that I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I was stale, and I found it impossible to focus on anything but the next session.'

Who is at risk of 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 UPS - 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 UPS.

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?

Elevated resting heart rate Overtraining can be manifested in a slightly raised resting heart rate. Make a habit of taking your pulse rate 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. Urban says, 'After dragging along in the last run of the day to make up the miles, I found it quite hard to sleep. My last run would be as late as 9 or 10pm sometimes and then I'd be hyper for hours.'

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 UPS.

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.

You might also experience a heady mix of the following: depression or mood disturbances, lowered libido, anaemia, lightheadedness, loss of motivation and lack of competitive drive.

How can I get back on my feet?

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. Urban advises his runners to keep a constant eye on their health. He says, "The key thing is to really monitor your wellbeing on a daily basis - what is my level of concentration? Am I eating well? How is my state of mind?" By doing this, you may even be able to avoid problems in the first place. But if not, here's what you need to do:

Rest Your body repairs itself during rest periods - these are the time 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 to make the most of the hard work you do. 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.

Ready to run again?

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 5-10-minute running or cross-training sessions.

Make time for plenty of rest and recovery while slowly building your training volume over 6-12 weeks - bearing in mind, of course, the problems that originally led to you developing UPS. 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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Discuss this article

This article has really hit home with me. I returned to training after a few months out, and started to incorporate cross training on rest days whilst running for at least an hour on other days. This is all to build up for training and running the half marathon.

I have noticerd that I am struggling to concetrate on anything and working fulltime this is impacting on my job, as well as my personal life. As a single parent there is never enough hours in the day to do everything, but I have been feeling very agitated, stressed out and depressed and my son who is only 10 is obviously having to deal with it.

After reading about UPS I am beginning to understand the anxious state of my mind as I was confused previously as to why I am feeling this way when exercise is supposed to make you feel on top of the world! Or at least good about yourself.

Posted: 29/03/2010 at 12:11

i was getting faster and faster in training so stupidly upped my mileage and intensity , where i was on course for a 1:32 half marathon I started to find it diffiuclt to get my heart rate up during training, then whack! two weeks in bed with a virus and ran the half marathon yesterday in 1:53! its going to take another couple of weeks to get anywhere near normal . dont be greedy and push yourself too far like I did you'll end up worse off. slow steady improvement is the only way.
Posted: 29/03/2010 at 20:16

Yep I'm guilty too, I often overdo it and whilst I don't really suffer with other overtraining symptoms as such, I do get injured fast when I do too much too soon and end up missing lots of training. Bummer isn't it
Posted: 29/03/2010 at 21:34

Been training for Paris & after a long x country run went straight onto the spin bike until my calf went bang with cramp, never felt pain like it,  that was weeks ago & after several long training runs again & in denial that my calf was a problem I have whacked the calf good & proper. Ice, rest, heat cream & more ice & in a panic now for Paris. What a blow after months of winter training.
Posted: 29/03/2010 at 22:11

Thank you - very interesting.  "me too".  I've got symptoms - unable to recover even after two days off (unheard of) - hard to concentrate at work - waking up at 2 or 3 am and not going back to sleep for an hour or two....

But it's not the running that's changed - it's work.  I got a new job in December -  I love the work, but it's huge hours and lots of stress, and also paying for a London commute is taking it's toll on the finances.

No way I'm giving up the running though!

Posted: 01/04/2010 at 10:23

What an excellent article and certainly food for thought for many of us I suspect.
Posted: 02/04/2010 at 22:12

Err. Guilty of under-training I'm afraid. I'm only running twice a week, and sit down the rest of the time - symptoms similar though!

I think it should be called "blinker syndrome." There are more important things in life than running, yet we're conditioned to believe that if we have problems in other part of our lives, maniacal running will somehow dispel the problems and give us the magical solutions we need.

Nope. They're still there, and nothing, not even running will make them go away. So. Let's stop believing this rubbish. Running is great for health, but isn't the panacea for all ills. It's when we get addicted to the idea that it is, we store up all sorts of problems for ourselves.

Posted: 06/04/2010 at 21:24

It's happened to me too.  training for marathon - working full time - going to exercise classes when not runnng.. losing my rag at work - not sleeping v well & now suffering with a niggling injury that won't go away.

But now I've had to admit defeat & rest for a couple of weeks before the marathon & hope for the best. 

I will not give in or give up running as to be honest it is the best stress buster for me.  Bring on summer, light evenings & running over the South Downs.. you can't  beat it.

 happy running to all of you

Posted: 06/04/2010 at 21:37

Hear, hear, Exhausted! There is indeed more to life!
Posted: 06/04/2010 at 23:28

Exhausted - I don't think anyone has suggested that running will get rid of all your problems. For a lot of people running provides a much needed release and gives an endorphin high that puts us in a positive frame of mind. It's this frame of mind that allows us to look at our problems (whatever they may be) and face them in a more proactive way.

Speaking from personal experience, running has made me able to escape and be on my own for a short period of time whilst concentrating entirely on something I enjoy immensely. This leaves my mind refreshed and more capable of coping with whatever is currently eating at me.

Posted: 07/04/2010 at 07:50

After starting running last year and doing the royal parks half marathon in October the natural progression was a marathon.  I was following the runners world sub 4.00 training plan but began to suffer from very sore shins and calves.  After taking some time off with no improvement I have been in physio for 3 weeks.  I have only just begun to train lightly for the marathon on 25th April.  I'm now starting to panic and worry which is also affecting my sleep patterns and concentration at work. 
Posted: 07/04/2010 at 17:05

As the article hints 'no one size fits all' and that's so true.  My sister quite happily runs 90 miles a week but when I have got up to 80 in the past while training for a marathon then all sorts of niggles and injuries kick in.  I learnt the hard way that my body can manage up to 65 per week and that's it.

Having said that I'm now training for my first ever ultra marathon and have incorporated lots of hill training.  I'm at the beginning of my training programme but the change in it is making me tired and leg sore as I get used to it.  My job too is quite stressful and I've had sleepless nights aplenty!  My way round it is if I need to catnap when I come in from work before going for a run then I will or sometimes after a weekend race or run I'll have a lie down.  It's important to recharge your batteries as and when you can.

I'm lucky that I really do love to get out and run as whilst it does appear to be adding to the pressures of the day it also helps me to alleviate the stresses of work and put them behind me for a while.

Good luck to all those doing the marathon (or any other race they are targeting) and I hope those that are struggling do manage to get there.  Stay focused.

Posted: 07/04/2010 at 20:53

daveycon wrote (see)
After starting running last year and doing the royal parks half marathon in October the natural progression was a marathon. I was following the runners world sub 4.00 training plan but began to suffer from very sore shins and calves. After taking some time off with no improvement I have been in physio for 3 weeks. I have only just begun to train lightly for the marathon on 25th April. I'm now starting to panic and worry which is also affecting my sleep patterns and concentration at work.

How did you choose that time goal? was it something you got by calculation or previous results or did you just guess it?

Sounds like you overdid it to me

Posted: 07/04/2010 at 21:25

Such a relief to see I am not the only person who tries to make injuries go away by pretending they're not there

Running is the part of my day that belongs to me and me alone- dearly as I love my children after a day of the Easter Holidays I am desperate to get out and run. The idea of not going throws me into a panic and does awful things to my state of mind.

Of course, the muscle I pulled in the freezing sleet in Bungay in Feb doesn't care about my mental health; it just wanted a day off to recover, which naturally I ignored until it needed a week off instead.


Posted: 07/04/2010 at 22:31

good article, thanks
Posted: 12/04/2010 at 16:04

Always surprises  me that runners get into running and then suddenly have to do a marathon...within a year or so.

 Surely the natural progression when you've done a half marathon is to do one quicker? rather than take on a distance that although technically double, actually is in reality way tougher than 13.1 x2!

Posted: 12/04/2010 at 16:39

Super article, this happened me last year, thought I was a great fella when pace got quicker and distances got longer.  However, wasn't eating properly and upped the distances too quick.  Result was I crashed, had a real deep tiredness. 

 Stopped running for a few months, sorted out a running plan, sorted out my diet and ran a great half marathon in Connemara last Sunday.  Also, relaxed a bit re the whole running thing and I've never run better.

Agree re rushing into a marathon, enjoy 3 or 4 half marathons and then if you must.

Posted: 13/04/2010 at 22:28

Wow do i agree with this one, i run marathons, bit of training, then im on start line to enjoy the day..Many say my training is a click on mouse to enter!! Did London and Berlin last year..Loch Ness before Edinburgh before that.

 Many at my club go all out to do a Marathon time only to get depressed when they dont, na sod that, live too short..Train but dont go mad!!

Posted: 15/04/2010 at 20:07

This article absolutely hit the nail on the head for me, I would love to swop stories of training 80 miles per week or double training days. But I am a fifty one year old about two stone overweight (it was about four) who has been running for about 12 months, completing 4x10k races.

I run between two and three times per week, totalling only about 15 miles. My long run generally being 10-12.5k and very little exercise in-between runs.

At the beginning of April I decided to up the effort to help shift the weight so I continued with the 2-3 runs and decided that every morning I would get on the treadmill and do 10-15 mins at just below 10k pace and then do 200 strokes on the rowing machine. Well I loved feeling really awake before going to work, however by this week my long runs have become a real struggle towards the end, with serious burning in my quads, feeling like I am running on empty and not enjoying my runs. So it looks like its rest time for me and hopfully get my (very limited) mojo back.

Posted: 26/04/2010 at 21:03

Hi all,

I am exactly the same!  Running is a passion that i cannot live without.  I too have hurt myself, i hurt my hip 4 weeks ago, got better, then bang, tried a run and it is sore again!

I have to rest as i have a 10k race next week, then a half marathon in June.  I feel these hip problems started as you are on such a strict training plan, and my body has just said enough is enough!

Gonna rest for the week, might attempt the old cross trainer later in the week and see how i get on!

Wish me luck x 

Posted: 03/04/2011 at 15:48

Good luck Colleen!

It kills me to admit that the article is describing me. I upped my training last year (went from an average of 30mpw to 45-50) and it was brilliant. I ran PBs at every distance and knocked 23 minutes off my marathon time - this year I was all set to go for sub-3:15, but all I've done is get slower again. Part of it is outside stresses, but I don't think it helped that I was racing a lot over winter (XC every 2-4 weeks).

So, I'm going to take a step back for a while. I'll run London in whatever time I can manage, and then give the autumn marathon a miss. I just don't think I have it in me to train for another one this year - so after London I'm going to have a week off, then start again with the shorter distances. No races until I feel better.

Admitting the problem is the hardest part, and the most important step. We just need to remind ourselves how much faster we'll be when we're feeling good again

Posted: 04/04/2011 at 13:42

I'd go for running shorter races faster - less mileage. Job done!!

Great points on this thread - all about listening to your own body really...

Posted: 04/04/2011 at 14:12

On a related subject to overtraining, a question to all of you who run, say 50+ miles per week (firstly, I am very impressed and secondly I am very jealous !). Those of you with wives, husbands or partners, how do they feel about the amount of time you spend out running ? Having read this and other threads (I have only just joined RW) it seems to me that some people must spend at least 15 hours a week out on the road. I know we all need our own time but I wondered how your partners felt about it ? If they are none runners, are they happy with you spending 15+ hours a week out the house ? (I guess there will be some partners who dont think 15 hours a week is enough !!)

Posted: 04/04/2011 at 15:40

@Pete - Always a tricky one that. I try and do the bulk of my runs first thing in the morning whilst her and my little boy are still in bed and that way it doesn't impact on the family too much. Harder in winter though
Posted: 04/04/2011 at 17:24

Any advice on recovering after hamstring injuries: (apologies 4 essay) I overstretched hamstring on right leg in training mid Jan - as my training was going wel and so pushed myself a little extra - was bad for while - walking even abnormal 4 a few days. After 2-3 weeks off running altogether (also a cold in this time), gradually started increasing mileage. Had already entered a 12km cross-country event in late Feb, which went quite well, so thought recovered sufficiently to treat Half Marathon today as a race (and not for training). OK till about 10 miles then a slight but sharp twinge in left leg - but not continuous pain, so drastically cut pace. But by 11.5 miles much worse - had started walking. GRR! Ham-string again- at least I can walk without pain. Any advice?
Posted: 04/03/2012 at 21:02

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