Don’t let exhaustion damage your performance
Rob investigates what causes fatigue and gives tips on how to fight it,
The word ‘fatigue’ is used a lot these days, spanning anything from the general tiredness that comes with a busy life through to a chronic state of non-functional overreaching (NFO), or overtraining as it’s commonly known.
By understanding what constitutes athletic fatigue, what it looks like and how to overcome it, runners of all abilities can reap performance rewards.
The tipping point
Runners progress by stressing their bodies on more challenging runs, which helps the body grow new muscle and strength tissue that causes positive changes in blood profile. “We adapt to our training load and stress. It’s how we get fitter and stronger.” says running coach Tom Craggs. “The tipping point comes when the stress is too great and fatigue becomes a more chronic state. This halts progression, raises injury risk and can lead to long-term health issues.”
There are common signs of true fatigue in runners, including a lack of progression. “You can be training just as hard, if not harder,” says Tom. “But training and race times are staying the same or getting worse. For a similar pace you find your heart rate is noticeably elevated over a sustained period of days – also there are changes to your resting heart rate outside of sessions.”
You may also find yourself suffering from frequent niggles or find that your recovery times are becoming slower.
Fatigue doesn’t only present physical symptoms. “Look out for moodiness too,” warns Craggs. “If you’re regularly grumpy and moody – well, more than normally – that can be a sign.
“You may also find yourself quitting on sessions regularly, and find it hard to apply yourself or keep focused.” These issues may occur alongside other physical signs, such as weight loss or weight gain. “Overtraining increases the likelihood of rapid and hard-to-explain weight fluctuations,” says Craggs. “An increase in adrenaline and noradrenaline, triggered by overtraining, can cause a loss of appetite. But equally you might notice you get more cravings, especially for ‘pick-ups’ like sugar and caffeine.
“Overtraining and the resultant fatigue can cause a reduction in anabolic hormones, which can result in reduced sex drive.
“Other warning signs include a sustained or chronic level of stress hormone cortisol and a low level of testosterone.”
Since training load is a major influencer when it comes to fatigue, coach James Thie says all runners should monitor it closely to prevent falling foul of exhaustion.
“Training must be balanced and the increase in load must be progressive,” he advises. “It helps to keep a diary on how you feel before and after training and races. Recording factors such as how your sleep is – too much or too little can be a sign of overdoing it – or a higher than normal morning heart rate.”
Sports specialists and coaches are in a unique position to understand fatigue’s causes and prevention. “As coaches we look at both internal load and external load,” says Craggs. “A session of 5x5 minutes at a certain pace – with a 90-second rest – tells us the ‘external’ load. The ‘internal’ load would be the measurements of physiological stress to achieve this; the heart rate, heat management, psychological stress etc.”
“Runners can avoid progressing their external load too fast with a training plan that only extends their long run in marathon training by 10-15% as a maximum each week.”
But when the progression of external and internal load starts to outstrip our body’s ability to recover, fatigue will rapidly follow. Our bodies can cope with huge volumes of training, but only if we find time to properly recover in our busy lives.