Flat and tired. These are two things you don’t want to feel going into a race, but more likely than not, you’ve been there and wondered why this happens. The most likely culprit is overtraining, and I’d like to share some personal experiences I’ve had regarding this frustrating phenomenon.
Most runners feel bitterly disappointed when they have put significant time and effort into their training only to start a race and feel terrible. A great deal of this disappointment stems from not knowing how they came to feel terrible in the first place. The likely cause? Overtraining.
Overtraining can come in many guises. The classic scenario is: too much, too soon, too fast and not enough recovery. In this situation, over-exuberance overrides all else, and by the time you exhibit symptoms of overtraining it’s too late to recover.
One case I’ve been involved with concerned a national level athlete who was at an Olympic training camp with some of the world’s best marathon runners. Training was over 100 miles per week at altitude with considerable speedwork. Her reward for this “heroic” training was a loss of fitness, and barely able to run 8 minute per mile pace without becoming exhausted. I recommended she get blood work to rule out anemia, and I also checked her resting pulse rate and training pulse rate. I found significant elevations in both, which is a clear indication of overtraining. Subsequently, this patient had to pull out of qualifying for the World Athletic Championships, and to this day, has not returned to her previous performance level.
Another more insidious type of overtraining involves activities outside of running. My favorite example of this is with a master’s athlete I was coaching to break 6:00 for the mile and 3:30 for the marathon. We achieved our goals, but when he tried to go faster, his performance inexplicably kept declining. Despite lengthening his recovery periods, reducing volume and intensity, he still was struggling. The epiphany came when I asked him what he was doing in his time off. The answer he gave me was the obvious explanation for his “mysterious” performance decline. He had a creek running through the back of his acreage, and he was constructing a rock retaining wall along its banks. He was moving a dump truck sized pile of boulders, one wheelbarrow load at a time every night for at least two to three hours. This was the source of his overtraining, and once his project was completed, all was well.
The lessons are simple:
- Measure your heart rate objectively. A heart rate monitor will do nicely. The gold standard is to get a VO2 max test done which will give you proper training zones for your heart rate.
- Do not forget that activities outside of running can adversely affect your ability to maintain a normal training program. Failure to take these activities into account can lead to overtraining that may seem to have no cause.
- Listen to your body. Irritability, insomnia, frequent colds or infections and generally feeling that workouts are harder than usual all can indicate overtraining.