What’s the difference between pushing hard and overtraining?

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You asked: I’m coming back from two injuries and a serious bout of overtraining last season. How do I know when I’ve crossed the line from pushing hard to overdoing it? 

The expert answered: First, you need to learn the difference between pushing hard and pushing too much, and then you should track your performance to ensure you’re not overdoing it again.

What is pushing hard?

This might mean running fast intervals, hill repeats, or for many miles in a long run. The goal is to stress the body just beyond your fitness level to gradually increase the stress loads on your body and ensure recovery. This may mean adding a couple speed intervals, bumping up to one or two more hill repeats, or covering a few more miles in a long run.

For instance, if you’re currently running six intervals of two minutes at a hard effort and three minutes easy to recover, you could push harder by adding one or two more intervals to the workout, or reduce the recovery time to two minutes. It’s about evolution rather than revolution.

What is overtraining?

his happens over time, when we continue to push even though our bodies are telling us we’re fully cooked. Overtraining starts out as a flame, and if we continue to push through our fatigue, it turns into a forest fire that can only be put out with rest and recovery.

Related: The warning signs of overtraining syndrome

Common symptoms of overtraining include the inability to finish a workout, poor energy levels, insomnia, weight gain or loss, aches and pains, depression and personality changes, sickness, an elevated resting heart rate on several consecutive mornings, and halted progress.

How to avoid overtraining -

To avoid overtraining, you must progress from your current fitness level, balance hard workouts with active recovery and rest, and listen to how your body responds to training.

When I coach athletes online, I have them log not just their workout stats but also their “training response,” or how they felt during the workout. They use a simple three-color scale:

Yellow means, “I felt strong and could have done more today.”

Orange means, “I felt okay, but nothing to write home about. I didn’t feel awful, but I also didn't feel particularly good either.”

Red means, “I was in a bad place for much of the workout and struggled to finish. I could have played the role of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves after this run.”

If your log has lots of yellow days and a few orange days, you are on the right track and your body is adapting well. If, however, you begin to see a trend in consistent orange days and some red days, you’re on your way to overtraining and you need to ease back on the throttle to recover.

Improved performance has more to do with optimal stress progression and recovery than pushing harder or through pain. And when you learn the difference, you’ll be on your way to faster, longer, stronger runs.