There are so many inspiring stories of how incredibly positive running can be, and I feel really blessed to be part of such a special community. I hope that I do my little bit in encouraging and supporting others to get out there and do something amazing for them. But after a tough few weeks with my running, I wanted to talk about the flip side of all of this: the signs of over-training and fatigue, how to deal with it if it happens, and some thoughts on how to avoid it in the first place (this is ideal!)
Some of you will know I am training for my first marathon, and whilst the miles have been racking up I can honestly say I’ve had a ball with my running in the past months. From long runs filled with adventures (like impromptu stops for crazy golf!) to discovering the joy of running solo in the fells, I feel I’ve kept the fun and passion alive, whilst hitting the targets in my training plan.
Until suddenly I felt different. I’m used to aching muscles and difficulty with stairs on Mondays, that’s part of the course in marathon training (or at least it is for me!). But I was starting to feel tired all the time; I noticed my appetite reducing and my mood dropping. I carried on running, and it felt fine, but where it normally gives me energy I just felt flat afterwards – and even easy pace felt hard. There are so many reasons that I run: my physical health, my mental health, my self-confidence. I’ve undone years of damaging coping mechanisms and learnt to turn to something that is truly positive in the most holistic way. So, as silly as it sounds, when I began to feel like running wasn’t helping my body (or my mind), it really knocked me.
When I reflected on my running stats on strava I could see that my long runs steadily been increasing every week for over two months, but what I hadn’t noticed was what a big jump my weekly mileage had taken. Mid-week evening races, social runs and taking myself off on my half-day up to the Peak District had helped me keep my enjoyment, but I hadn’t identified the increasing demands this would place on my body. So how do we recognise the signs of overtraining?
Fatigue: This was a big one for me, I felt a general tiredness and lethargy that didn’t go away with simply one rest day. I also found I was sleeping less well, which didn’t help
Poor Performance:My easy runs did not feel easy, and my hard runs just went badly. I felt like I was putting in max effort but simply not achieving anything like the same thing. And I wasn’t enjoying it either.
Sore Muscles and Poor Recovery: I always suffer from niggles (I’m sure some of them are just in my mind!) but I was finding these were not recovering in between runs, and I was starting to feel anxious that continued training was risking injury
Poor Appetite and Weight Loss: I’m normally ravenous when I’m training hard, but my appetite significantly reduced. I really struggled with this on a personal level– with a history of eating disorders I find it really hard not to feel positive about weight loss, and eating when I don’t feel like it doesn’t come naturally.
Low Mood: The general stress on your body can really affect your mental health, and for me the realisation that running was going to make me feel worse, not better, made me really anxious as it is something I normally turn to when I’m feeling low
Increased Resting Heart Rate: Ok, this is one for the garmin-addicts, but I have always found my resting heart rate to be a pretty good indicator of my body – I often find it is raised the day after particularly hard runs (and by about 7-10bpm when I have a hangover!), but I noticed an increase that was persistent until I dramatically reduced my training
Injuries and Illness: Over-training will hammer your body, reduce your ability to recover and heal, and your immune system will take a hit too leaving you prone to illness. I think I identified the warning signs before I hit this point, but this is a super important one. If you’re worried about dropping your mileage – think how much more you’ll miss if you pick up an illness or injury.
Ok, so I realised I needed a break. We do all this because we enjoy it so it does seem fairly obvious that you need to let up if that stops being the case. But for me this didn’t feel clear-cut because of the marathon training. I have trained for a marathon before, and didn’t end up being able to run (this was the start of this blog, so if you’re interested you can read about it here!) so I feel like I have a huge amount invested in making sure I get myself there- could I really afford to take time out? Maybe this is the final symptom of over-training syndrome, not seeing something that is blindingly obvious! A very wise friend on twitter pointed out succinctly that “it is better to be 10% under-trained, then 10% over-trained”. Missing a week is likely to make zero difference, but even if it does you might be very slightly less prepared on the day, but stepping over that line could be disastrous if you end up falling ill or injuring yourself. And I definitely don’t have time for that, this marathon means too much to me.
So, as a survivor of over-training and a triumphant battler of the nonsensical need to see continuous increasing miles on strava here are five tips for what to do if you find yourself suffering from fatigue and over-training in your running:
- Reduce your weekly mileage significantly and avoid extremes of either distance or pace
- Eat well and plenty of it
- Take care of your body – use the extra time to give yourself some TLC, whether its visiting the physio about a niggle, a sports massage, or an actual nice massage!
- Try to reduce stress in other areas of your life at the same time, be it work or home. You’re a runner so you’re basically a superhero, but you aren’t superhuman. Rest your body AND your mind
- Don’t worry about it. Running can give you strange mental illnesses – to everyone else out their it is mind-blowingly obvious that you need to take a break
What did this look like for me? I took a few days completely off any exercise at all, and by the third day I noticed my resting HR dropping and my energy coming back – and I was sleeping a lot better too. I enjoyed some low-key runs but didn’t do anything very long or very fast. My weekly mileage dropped from about 26 to 15 and my legs felt like they’d recovered by about day 7. I was particularly proud .of myself when I swapped my usual long run on my half-day for a pedicure (and told work I had an important appointment so even managed to leave on time!). I ate well, and I ate lots – I treated myself, but I made sure I had good wholesome food that was going to replenish my body. I enjoyed the new free time I had and prioritised other areas of my life, like socialising. I slept more. I took some time away from social media: most of my social media is tied up with running or exercise, so this was partly natural, but also part of a general unwinding and touching base with my body and mind. Running makes me feel good because I know I’m doing something that is good for me, and I found at the end of this rest period that I had achieved the same feeling by looking after myself in a different way.
And when I was ready to pick it all back up I felt excited again, running felt fresh and free and I was a much happier person inside and out. I really feel like I massively dodged a bullet by recognising the signs in myself and doing something about it before I either hurt myself or got ill. But even having learnt from this experience, I can’t help wondering how on earth you can train for a marathon without ‘overtraining’? Surely the whole point is that you have to keep increasing your mileage, both on long runs and on a weekly basis otherwise you’re simply never going to make it? And I guess on some level that is true, but I think there’s a few things you can do. I’m clearly no expert, so here are some of my ideas:
- When choosing a race leave yourself a few weeks spare in a training plan so you don’t feel anxious if you need to take a break from it.
- Make sure you eat well and enough of it – there’s a saying that (unless you’re overweight) it should be impossible to lose weight training for a marathon – losing weight means you have an energy deficit, so you can’t expect to improve if you aren’t putting the fuel in.
- Plan a lower mileage week every 4 weeks or so and stick to it, hopefully this will allow you to recover before you see any signs of over-training
- Be prepared to miss training runs if life gets in the way. You’re a runner so you’re basically a superhero, but you aren’t superhuman.
But I’d love to know what your ideas are for avoiding over-training and fatigue in our running, particularly when you are training for a long distance event. Let me know in the comments below.