Reader To Reader: Overtraining - Snuffles’ reply

"I have been running for three-and-a-half years, and the last year has been a bit confusing. In terms of racing it's been a success, but training has been difficult. Normally I train every day (70-80 miles a week), and take a rest when I need one. I've had two chest infections which knocked me out for more than two weeks, both after races, and I feel more tired than normal. I'm concerned I may be overtrained. Should I take this complete break or just cut back? What about getting back to proper training? Should I do some light cross-training?"frisp
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A couple of years ago I went through someting very similar. I had built up my training very quickly, and was racing and doing speedwork in the same week – probably over-enthusiastic after some good performances! I then came down with a throat/chest virus which was completely debilitating.

To cut a long story short, I eased off my training (still doing the odd jog), but, like you, my resting heart rate was about 5-6 bpm above normal and more inconsisent, slow to drop etc. Didn't really feel quite right for nearly four months. I spent the next 12 months with recurrent sinus, chest and throat infections, and somewhat sporadic training. I even had sinus surgery and considered a tonsillectomy! I had loads of blood tests and saw numerous consultants.

I did an MSc in Sport Science some years ago, so looked up all my research on overtraining (or UPS, as it's now called: Under Performance Syndrome). There is no real answer, as each individual is so different. Symptoms are so different in each person, and there is no one set recovery plan or definition.

Overtraining should probably be called "under resting", as we can all manage different training loads. It's how we recover from hard sessions and races, and also what else is going on in our lives, that makes us more susceptible to UPS.

The type of person (driven, goal-orientated, high achiever) who makes a successfuly competitive runner is also a prime candidate for UPS. So you have to learn what your body needs, how to train progressively and how much rest you need – when to push hard and when to back off.

It sounds to me like you've over-raced a bit. Do you have any other major stress going on in your life? With hindsight, at the time I was ill, I also had a two-year-old and four-year-old (not getting a great deal of consistent sleep) and a terminally ill father. I failed to realise the impact of this on my stress levels, and on my ability to recover from training. It's only now, without these major stressors, that I can see how they contributed.

There are various theories, but the best advice I was given was to monitor and score a variety of "overtraining markers" each day; resting heart rate is only one of them. Things like stress levels, quality of sleep, tiredness, muscle soreness etc also give you an idea.

Anyway, to recover, I reduced intensity completely, and basically kept my heart rate under 75 per cent ALL the time, even if it meant walking up hills! But it worked, and I came back after nearly seven months and ran a 10K PB after no speedwork training.

I think, at this point, you've got to take the pressure off yourself. Forget goal setting, race plans and just RECOVER and LISTEN to your body, even if this means missing races – hard as it may seem. They'll still be there another time.

This year, I have managed a year of consistent training, and have managed PBs at half-marathon and 10K, as well as representing GB at the European Duathlon Champs. However I don't follow a set training "programme" any more. I listen to my body, and periodise my training into blocks, taking PLANNED rests, rather than when I need them. I take loads of Vit C, antioxidants, a product called Elagen, and make sure my nutrition is spot on – especially recovery nutrition, making sure I have enough protein and carbohydrate. I eat barrow-loads of oranges, get loads of sleep and obsess about hand washing and using alcohol hand-rubs! So, far it's working...

Forcing yourself to cut back on training can be incredibly frustrating and depressing, but take it easy and let your body recover. It will let you know when it's time to race again. Hope you start to feel better soon.

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