Without racing on the calendar, the temptation to never stop training is more prevalent than ever. We don’t need to taper or take full rest weeks in preparation for a goal race, so we keep going. However, a continuous training load can result in serious overtraining.
Most amateur runners consider overtraining to be something that only impacts elite or professional runners, but if your baseline has been training for three hours each week in the past and you’re suddenly up to five hours weekly, that jump could be enough to put you in a state of overtraining and heading toward burnout — especially if life is stressful around training. Remember, your body doesn’t distinguish between sources of stress, it just reacts to them.
Consider these signs and symptoms as ‘yellow flags,’ meaning it might be time to back off before you end up injured or ill as a result of your training overload.
CONSTANT BRAIN FOG
Having trouble staying focused on this article? You might be overtrained. It’s not a big surprise our bodies can impact our brains, and if we’re starting to teeter on the edge of overtraining, it’s likely mental focus is beginning to wane as well.
A study done last fall showed athletes who trained with excessive loads struggled to maintain normal levels of willpower, engaged in more impulsive behavior, and endured mental as well as physical fatigue. This can show up as being more irritable with your boss or spouse, struggling to avoid that second slice of birthday cake, or feeling drowsy even thinking about getting that report done on time.
Surprisingly, sometimes being fatigued from training can actually lead to more disrupted sleep, or trouble getting to sleep. Like many symptoms of overtraining, this can be caused by shifts in hormones that make it harder to relax. On the other end of the spectrum, another symptom can be sleeping much more than usual — most major fluctuations in routine body functions like sleep, appetite, heart rate and, for women, menstrual cycles, are signs something is amiss. Sleeping for extra hours and still feeling exhausted is a good sign your body is getting overworked and simply can’t recover.
BIG CHANGE IN HRV AND HEART RATE
If you regularly pay attention to your heart rate variability, resting heart rate or heart rate in workouts, watch for big shifts — both on the higher and lower side. In all three of those heart rate metrics, a big shift up or down is usually a signal your body is struggling to recover. A depressed heart rate is more common in veteran athletes with years of training stress, while newer runners might be more prone to an elevated heart rate in workouts and at rest.
STRUGGLING ON FORMERLY EASY RUNS
If running a 5K in 28 minutes is your usual ‘easy run’ and suddenly it feels like race pace, that’s a good sign you’re overtrained. One hard run isn’t something to worry about — that could just mean you had one night of bad sleep, ate something that didn’t agree with you, or are under some acute stress like from work or family. But if a few easy runs in a row are feeling much harder than usual, that’s a sign something is amiss.
FAILING A JUMP TEST
Before a workout, you can try to gauge muscular fatigue, by doing 10 jump squats before your run and assessing how you feel. If those 10 squats left you feeling deep fatigue in your muscles, a rest day or easy run might be more appropriate than a mile-repeat workout.
If you’re doing all the work but finding yourself questioning why it seems like you’re getting puffier or actually gaining weight, water retention may be to blame. Overtraining can cause your body to retain water as it struggles to deal with chronic levels of inflammation caused by the stress you’re putting on your body during exercise, and from high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This is why many people who take a rest week after a hard build period find that they suddenly lose a few pounds during the rest week: Your body can finally stop hanging onto fluids.
READ MORE > HOW TO TRIGGER YOUR STRESS RESPONSE LESS
LOSS OF LIBIDO
That’s right — your sex drive is one of the best early warning signs you’re beginning to be overtrained. As your testosterone levels drop from being pushed too hard or too long in workouts, you may notice you’re not feeling as frisky as you used to. There are plenty of reasons for a lowered sex drive, of course, but if it’s in conjunction with a heavy training block or any of the other symptoms listed here, you may want to back off training. (Note: Testosterone is an important hormone for women as well, so this doesn’t just apply to men.)
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you are experiencing any one of these symptoms or even a few of them, consider taking a light week, focusing on yoga, walking and — at most — an extremely easy and short run or two. Catching overtraining early is key to continuing to run strong for a long time!
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.