The Overtraining Conundrum

RUNOHIO Monthly Newsletter

Sign Up Now


The Overtraining Conundrum

Written by Richard Ferguson, PH.D on 02 August 2016.

You hear it all the time, “to be a good runner you must train hard”. “You must work hard and be dedicated to your training”. “You have got to be persistent and focused”.  All of the above statements are true. However, you also hear things like, “don’t train too much or you will get over trained”. Every time you complain the least bit about fatigue someone will say, “you must be over trained”. It’s enough to make any runner paranoid about the effectiveness of their training program. Are you training hard or are you “overtraining”?

So just what is “overtraining”? Really overtraining is all about when your training load exceeds your ability to recover and adapt. Fatigue sets in and you see your performance levels plateau or drop. Basically your body is being stressed, either through volume or intensity, at a level of stress it cannot recover from and adapt to. Overtraining is not when you are training really hard and getting adequate rest and recovery. Overtraining is more complex than it appears on the surface and has both physical and psychological underpinnings.

Overtraining is a very individual thing. What one runner can tolerate in training volume and intensity may absolutely destroy another runner. “Canned” training programs can be good, but they have the weakness of not taking the individual into account. Training loads must be tailored to the individual for maximum benefits. Sometimes this can be achieved through trial and error by the runner, but well trained and experienced coaches are absolutely invaluable to design and monitor an effective training program.

The signs and symptoms of overtraining can sometimes be obvious, but at other times they can subtle and difficult to ascertain. Obviously, constant fatigue is a warning sign of overtraining, especially when you are actually trying to get extra rest and recovery. Often there will be persistent sore muscles that just don’t seem to improve with easy running or days off.   Mood disturbances such as feeling low, depressed or irritable can also be early warning signs of over training. Sleep may be also be disturbed with frequent waking or early morning waking with an inability to fall back asleep. Your immune system may also be compromised and you seem to have frequent upper respiratory infections. The longer a period of overtraining occurs, the more difficult it is to recover from, so recognizing the early warning signs are critical to prevent decreased performances and long term, chronic fatigue that can take months to overcome.

So if you do recognize some of the early warning signs of overtraining, just what can be done to prevent it from progressing further? The most obvious thing is to mentally accept that you must train less when you experience excessive fatigue that is chronic in nature. By training less, it may mean reducing the volume or the intensity of your training and in many cases, both. If overtraining is caught early, lowering your mileage, cutting out anaerobic intervals and running at a slower pace for several weeks can allow your body to recover. Sometimes this is hard to accept mentally, but by backing off of your training you will actually be doing the type of training that will allow you to run much better in the weeks ahead. If overtraining is allowed to progress, periods of complete rest may be needed to recover, so early detection of overtraining and reduced training is certainly preferable to having to take weeks or months totally off from running.

There are numerous other ways to help prevent and cope with early stage overtraining. One thing that seems to contribute to overtraining is shear boredom and monotony during training. Running the same route at the same pace everyday can absolutely suck the enjoyment out of running. I recently had a college soccer athlete come to me and complain of low motivation during her off-season training program, especially the running part. I found out she did ALL her running on a treadmill, so I suggested the novel idea of running outside. She did so and has now gotten into trail running and is actually really motivated to go out and train! So if you’re feeling stale, change up your running environment. Run somewhere different, anywhere. Get out of that same old out and back down that boring road or loop with cookie cutter house after cookie cutter house. The change can go a long way in refreshing you psychologically, which in turn can enhance how you feel physically.

Training is obviously a stress on the body, but you must always keep in mind that there are many other stressors that need to be considered besides the stress of running. All stressors take energy to deal with, so if you have stress at work, home or with interpersonal issues it becomes even more difficult to recover from the stress running places on your body. Multiple stressors outside of running can be a direct contributor to overtraining. Without the outside stressors you recover from your training volume just fine, but add in other stressors and suddenly you don’t recover nearly as well. So if you’re under a lot of stress outside of running, it may be a good idea to cut back on your training, especially if you’re beginning to feel chronically fatigued.

Optimizing recovery is just so critical for runners. I personally feel that recovery is probably the most overlooked aspect of training. Good recovery methods can go a long way in preventing and bouncing back from overtraining. Without question, sleep is absolutely critical for recovery. It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover sleep in detail and how much humans need, but one thing is for sure; when you train hard you need more sleep. You just can’t take shortcuts on sleep; it will surely catch up with you. Yes, life is hectic, but if you’re running a lot try to get extra sleep, either by going to bed a little earlier, getting up a little latter or both. And yes, naps are recommended when you have the time to squeeze them in. If you exhibit the early signs of overtraining one of the first steps that needs to be taken is get more sleep.

Nutrition and hydration are also critical for recovery. Be sure to rehydrate after your run, especially in hot and humid weather. Weigh before your run and be sure to bring your weight back to that point with post exercise fluid intake. Hypo-hydration and chronic dehydration will inhibit recovery. If you’re running a lot you need to be sure to consume adequate carbohydrates. Low muscle glycogen can be a major contributor to fatigue in runners. To enhance muscle glycogen recovery be sure to eat some form of high glycemic index carbohydrate (50grams) along with a small amount of protein in the first 30 minutes following your run. Your muscle cells are more receptive to nutrient uptake immediately following your run. But also be sure to consume an overall diet rich in carbohydrates.

Being able to recognize the early warning signs, both physical and mental, of overtraining can be critical in preventing a long term over trained state. If you do exhibit the signs of overtraining be cautious and take steps to mitigate the condition before it becomes more serious and long term. A little caution early on can go a long way in helping you feel better and get back to your normal training protocol. Train hard, but train smart!

Richard Ferguson is Chair of the Physical Education, Wellness, and Sport Science Department at Averett University and is an AASP Certified Sport Psychology Consultant. He may be reached via e-mail  - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Read more of Dr. Ferguson articles on -

Getting the MOST Out of Training -


Winning is Personal -   

Affirm Your Greatness!!! -

What is Tired? -   

The Reason We Run -

Some New Recruits -   

Are You a RUNNER? -

A Different View -

The Components of Peak Performance -

Running and Sleep -

Don’t Panic! -

The Mental Maximization of Training -

With the Help of a Friend -

Beating the Winter Blues-

Go For It -

Beating Burnout -

A New Outlook -

Expect the Unexpected -

Pain or Discomfort ? -

Keep Your Eye on the Prize -

 Running Free -

Running and Role Models -


Current Issue