I'm Not Overtraining, Are You?
Written by: Leda McDaniel
Could You Be OVER Training? Tips to recognize overtraining and why it MATTERS to your recovery and performance!
Endurance athletes are notorious for “putting in the work” and are known to have a “more is better” mindset. But, what if those factors could be leading to body stress, increased injury risk, and mental or physical burnout?
It is important to recognize when you are OVER training. Yes, you heard me right; too much running, biking, swimming…that could be a BAD thing! One of the traps that we fall into as endurance athletes is to have a very narrow view of what constitutes “stress,” and to only focus on body stresses (i.e., physical stress) like miles you ran in a workout or the intensity of your swim repeats…these things are front and center in our minds (and don’t hear me wrong, these things do matter). But, all of the OTHER stresses in your life count too.
In Podcast Episode #5 of More Than Miles, physical therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders talk about important facts regarding overtraining and emphasize, “Stress is stress,” meaning that emotional and mental stressors are going to take a toll on your recovery and performance just as a physical stressor would.
Some potential stressors to consider in your life could include:
Emotional: relationship trouble or breakup, getting married, having a baby
Physical: increase in training volume or intensity, different terrain (e.g., running more hills), adding weight training to your weekly training, lack of sleep, eating less healthy foods
Mental: financial stress, job stress, living through a disease pandemic-COVID anyone?
A great analogy to think of is that you have a cup and each stressor in your life adds more water to the cup so that if any of these things increases too much or they ALL increase a little bit, your cup could overflow! As Dr. Kate says, there is often a harmful narrative in our society that being really stressed out or really busy means you are working hard or successful and it has almost become the norm. But, as she emphasizes, “Stressed and busy are not cool!”
The other component of lifestyle stresses that we can’t outrun (ha ha), is that stress actually changes our physiology, and this is where overtraining could happen. When we have a stress in our life, certain stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released and literally ALL of our body systems are affected to try to help mobilize resources to address the stressor. This is great in the moment if we need to act fast, but too much stress or chronic stress could lead to tissue breakdown, increased injury risk, and performance deficits.
It helps to think about a variety of signs and symptoms that may indicate you are overtraining (or overstressed).
Key indicators that you may be “Overtraining,” could include:
· Being overly anxious, irritable, or feeling “stressed out” all the time
· Having body fatigue or extreme muscle soreness (disproportionate to training load)
· Losing the desire to train, training is NOT fun anymore!
· Experiencing gut or digestive issues
· Sleep disturbance
· Vulnerability to illness
· Impaired memory or concentration
These are all great ways to recognize overtraining, but they may only start after a significant period of overtraining and so could be “lagging indicators,” becoming apparent only after you have sustained an injury or negative response from overtraining. Dr. Kacy talks about her own experience with overtraining and the mental toll it took on her. She also discusses her journey to improve her digestive and gut health and how long that has taken to recover into a healthy balance.
So, how do we catch overtraining or overstressing before it really starts to take its toll on our health? As discussed in the podcast episode, there can be some great ways to track your overall stress levels (physical, emotional, mental) and lifestyle factors that contribute to you being “recovered” for your next training session.
One of these metrics is called “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV) and in the full podcast episode these two explain the science behind HRV and easy ways to understand what it is picking up on from your body. You may think of it like your nervous system’s “agility” or ability to switch between a “fight or flight” state (needed for hard training sessions) and a “rest and digest” state (needed for recovery). The bigger your HRV, the greater your ability to switch to the state that is most effective and activate that particular nervous system response (i.e., Sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight or flight” response vs. Parasympathetic nervous system drives the “rest and digest” state).
If you are overtraining, you may be stuck in sympathetic nervous system mode and never have a chance to rebuild tissues like muscle and recover energy stores as well as emotional and mental resources and well-being. Tracking HRV can give you one data point and can be helpful to monitor as you look at avoiding overtraining.
Some other tips to avoid overtraining include:
· Make sure your training plan “matches your life” (e.g., may not be the best idea to train for a long or intense endurance race while in a stressful life situation like moving, having a child, going to graduate school etc.).
· Don’t forget about Mental and Emotional stressors!
(As Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy remind us, mental and emotional components are 75% of training success and physical factors are maybe 25%!)
· Monitor workload weekly and monthly and build in appropriate recovery time
For a more in-depth discussion of recognizing and avoiding overtraining (and its negative repercussions!) check out: