In my fourth semester in college, I started training for my first 10k run. I was a regular at the track, and gave myself about 4-6 weeks of training for the run. When I started training, I was already running enough laps to equate to 5 kilometers. My goal was to build my stamina enough to run 12 kilometers on the track, so I could run 10 out there on the trail (it was the Kaveri Trail Marathon), with heat, humidity and uneven ground. I finished the 10k in 54 minutes and set my sights on the next level: the half marathon. I had about 3 months from the day I registered to race day. I slowly increased my distances, and by the end of the the three months I was able to run 19-20 kilometers without great difficulty. Back then, I was in the habit of waking myself up almost every morning of the week to run such distances because I knew that if I skipped even one day, i’d have less than 50% chances of waking up that early in the morning on the next day. I was building my endurance as well as will power and also regulating my sleep cycles. I finished the 21k in just under 2 hours, and of course, I was hungry for more. But I grew complacent. And lazy. And arrogant. For the next half marathon, with all my procrastination and not taking training seriously, I had only about 6 weeks to train. But still I pushed myself, falling in the same habit of running long distances almost daily. And of course I started feeling the strain of the routine – increasing distances too quickly and and little to no rest periods. And that showed in my performance too: I finished my second half marathon, which was on mostly level ground and almost clement weather, taking 9 minutes longer than my first HM, which involved rolling terrain, moderate uphill slopes, harsh sun and 90% relative humidity.
If you don’t take time for proper R&R, your body won’t adapt to the stress of your training—you won’t get stronger or faster. Neglect recovery for too long, and you will start to lose strength and speed. You’ll sink into the black hole known as overtraining.
Overtraining injuries are musculoskeletal injuries that occur due to more activity or exercise than your body is used to, and may happen to anyone who increases intensity or changes type of activity. Overtraining syndrome includes overtraining injuries, but also encompasses general fatigue and other symptoms. Overtraining syndrome is a collapse in performance that occurs when the body gets pushed beyond its capacity to recover.
First, your sleep patterns and energy levels will feel the effects. Eventually, your immune system crashes, and you lose your appetite. It’s like burning out your engine. And you don’t have to be logging 100-mile weeks to suffer. Recreational runners can overtrain, too.
Essentially there are two main types of over training, sympathetic and parasympathetic over training. The sympathetic nervous system speeds up bodily functions thereby increasing energy needs, and the parasympathetic system slows down bodily functions thereby conserving energy. Together they comprise the autonomic nervous system and work simultaneously to control breathing, heart rate and sweat glands.
To recover from sympathetic overtraining runners need to rest or reduce the level of training. If runners ignore the symptoms of sympathetic over training than the parasympathetic system kicks in to allow the body to recover. The runners resting heart rate will decrease to allow the body to recover. Also, the runner may suffer from a rapid heart rate recovery after exercise, and decreased resting blood pressure. This obviously has long term implications if continued for any given time.
Over training also causes the runners hormonal balance to be affected. Anabolic processes are regulated by the levels of testosterone to cortisol which is one regulates recovery after a training session. A change in this ratio can significantly affect the level of over training. A reduction in the level of testosterone together with an increase of cortisol will increase the amount of protein catabolism in the cells. Over trained runners often have high levels of urea which basically means that this process is responsible for the loss of body mass when you over train. The best way to minimize the risk of over training is to alternate easy, moderate, and hard periods of training.
Signs and Symptoms
If you experience any of the following after working hard to meet advanced fitness goals, overtraining may be a cause.
- Physiological: increased resting heart rate, increased blood pressure
- Physical: decreased appetite, upset stomach, insatiable thirst, sleep disturbances, increased frequency of sickness and infections, general feeling of increased difficulty and fatigue throughout the day, abnormal muscle soreness, pain occurs that is different than typical muscle soreness
- Behavioral: personality changes, decreased motivation, altered concentration, lowered self-esteem, decreased ability to cope with stress
- Performance: Increased heart rate during activity, decreased strength or endurance, impaired movement and coordination, multiple technical errors.
More specific symptoms can be found here.
Injuries due to over training include:
- Tight calves
- Shin Splints
- Knee Pain
- Hamstring injuries
- Back Pain
- Arch/ heel pain
- Achilles tendonitis
- Ankle sprains
- And a tell tale sign is blisters!
Avoid Overtraining Injuries
Here are some tips to avoid overtraining injuries:
Don’t increase exercise difficulty level too quickly. Exercise needs to be progressed steadily at a gradual pace. Following a structured plan that increases your activity incrementally and safely can help you stay healthy and pain free. For example:
- For running, increasing difficulty may include increasing speed, running up or downhill, increasing duration, and use of intervals, where you alternate intensity over time.
- For resistance training, increasing difficulty may include increased weight, repetitions, sets, and decreasing the amount of time to perform the same amount of exercise.
Pay attention to your body. Your body is smart. If it feels like you are developing signs of overtraining, then take a break, lessen your activity, or rest.
Ease into it. Particularly if you are new to fitness or altering your exercise activities, take it slow. Don’t expect to make up for several months of inactivity with a few weeks of exercise. Aim for long-term consistency, not overnight success. People who try to do too much too soon often end up injured or frustrated and give up on their fitness goals altogether.
What to do on rest days
For starters, we need to differentiate between rest and recovery days and light workout days. They are two different things. Rest and recovery days are just that. They are days primarily designed to rest and recover. Healthy runners need rest maybe once per week, or even just once or twice a month. Obviously injuries, illness, aging, staleness, increases in distance or intensity, and overtraining can create demands for more rest.
Although rest is needed, it is still important to remain active on those days. The body, just like the mind, needs stimulation every day. Even after a grueling marathon many people find it’s a good idea to move around, maybe take a walk, as early as the day after to avoid stiffening up. Even people who suffer heart attacks are encouraged to get out of bed and move around as soon as possible. On rest and recovery days it is important to avoid doing the worst thing you can do for your body… nothing.
Examples of rest and recovery activities are walking, static stretch exercises (after a warm up and loosening up period), dynamic stretching, swimming, water running, and riding a bike. Keep in mind that increasing respiration and heart rate to a level just slightly above normal and challenging your range of motion are generally good things to do almost any time. Rest is a variable to apply in response to the feedback your body gives—more, or less, but always some.
Light workout days are days in which you are actually working out. The difference is that your activities are lighter, less demanding and generally performed at a lower level of intensity or the activities are executed at a high level of intensity for a much shorter period of time. Light workout days are just as important as heavy workout days. They allow development to take place without breaking yourself down and acquiring overuse injuries, experiencing training plateaus, and developing a generally stale, flat, bored attitude that can come from doing the same thing day after day.
In short, the light days make the heavy days possible. They should enhance and compliment your more intense workouts. They can and should be equally enjoyable. If your workouts include heavy days and light days in proper sequence, you should not need as many rest and recovery days.
Read more about Overtraining here.
Read more about the Importance of Rest here.
Read more about Hard and Easy Days here.