Whenever I am at peak training load, I am like a (very clumsy) tightrope walker trying to balance my desire to move forward with my need to stay safe (and for runners, this means healthy). To do this, I have to pay very close attention to the signs of overtraining – and when I see them, decide how I’m going to handle them. I can’t overreact and lie on the couch eating Whoopie Pies (which y’all know I would LOVE to do), but I also can’t ignore the signs, and risk not even getting the chance to compete in Worlds because I’m sick or hurt. Even worse, I can’t ignore the signs and end up at Worlds convinced I’m on FIRE! only to find out I have left all my “good running” in training. Nothing like trying to run for 24 Hours and then discover your body can only stay upright for 16 because you couldn’t dial it back during training when it was necessary.
So, with overtraining on my mind, I thought it would be a good time to go over the top 5 signs you should pay attention to so as not to find yourself out of the race before it even starts. Here are the symptoms I keep in mind when I’m trying to decide if I should do one more hill repeat or go buy a slushie and call it a day.
1. The Bitchies: Now, when I talk about “bitchy,” I don’t mean your standard “I’ve been sitting in the DMV for 4 hours and I think I might set my hair on fire!” type of bitchiness. I’m talking about “The apple I want has a bruise on it so I’m going to hurl it out the back door at an unsuspecting squirrel!” type of bitchy. Does EVERYTHING tick you off? Do you feel like crying at a rerun of Dance Moms because you feel so BAD for the mean, awful teacher? Basically, if your reactions are not in line with reality, you might be overtraining.
2. The Non-Munchies: When you are training hard, you should be HUNGRY. Like pregnant-with-an-elephant hungry. (If you’re a man, use your imagination). But, when you are OVERTRAINING, you will start losing your appetite. It’s tempting to ignore this because you will probably think, “Oooooh! Cool! Now I will get down to my ideal racing weight,” (or Yay! I can now wear skinny jeans!) but that is just an illusion. No amount of weight loss will counter the insurmountable fatigue you will experience when you are now both overtrained AND underfed.
3. The Elevated Heart Rate: When you wake up in the morning, you are supposed to feel all nice, comfy and relaxed. But when you are overtraining, you will notice that your heart rate is rising in the morning – at first only perceptible by taking your pulse, but eventually you will actually feel your heart racing upon waking. Another instance where an elevated heart rate is a “no good” sign is when your heart rate doesn’t go back down after a hard or long run. If you do a hard 15 miler on Saturday, and Sunday morning your heart rate is still elevated, it’s time to take some time off. Your heart rate should return to normal within 24 hours of a hard, or long, effort.
4. The Insomnia: Good training = good sleeping. Overtraining = insomnia. If you find yourself starting to toss and turn, waking up a lot each night, even when you are really tired from training, you are crossing the line into the danger zone. Proper fatigue should make you crave a nap, sleep like a baby, and wake up refreshed. Too much training will make you think you need to start taking Ambien. Of course, a few restless nights here and there are usually nothing to worry about. But if you start noticing a pattern of rough nights, take a look at your training load and modify it, or take some time off.
5. The Elusive Recovery: When you are training hard, you will always have a few sluggish runs – that’s completely normal. Taking a day off or throwing in an extra recovery run will usually solve the problem. But when you are consistently feeling like you are 80 years old (unless you ARE 80 years old, and then Bravo for you!), it’s time to dial it back. Lack of recovery, even after a rest day, is your body’s way of telling you to give it a break. This doesn’t mean you will not feel tired as your mileage/intensity increases, but you should be able to bounce back between runs with a little bit of rest and some extra calories. Too many sluggish days are a red flag.
Training hard and overtraining are divided by a very thin line. But if you learn to pick up the clues of overtraining early, you can avoid any serious consequences. Rest, eating well (and that means getting enough calories AND nutrients), and having some fun with your running, will all go a long way towards keeping you running strong while you are ramping up for your big race. Oh, and a Whoopie Pie (or two) never hurt!