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.