How To Identify – And Recover From – Overtraining
Obsessive runners, read this.
HERE’S SOMETHING TO THINK
about this summer: autumn is the busiest time of year in my office. Like clockwork, the phone starts ringing off the hook: “Dr Metzl, I’ve got a twinge, and my marathon is in a month. Please help!” Day after day, the same calls come in.
Why? As my friend Ramon, a running coach, says, “Marathon runners typically get hurt because they violate the rule of too’s: too much, too quickly, too intensely.” In other words, these injuries are the result of overtraining. With thousands of runners training for big late summer events like Two Oceans and Comrades, peak running mileage hits between spring and mid-summer. After months of pushing ahead, the body, if not trained properly, starts to break down. There’s a fine line in endurance sports between achieving maximum fitness and going overboard.
As a sports medicine doctor, an endurance athlete, and a fitness professional – I get it! We all want a good result, and we ride the edge to get that result. But when we go overboard, we can end up with overtraining syndrome, a surprisingly common condition characterised by diminished performance. It shows up in three key
These two essentials can help you stay healthy and avoid overtraining.
areas – mental, hormonal, and physical – and the tricky part is, you might not even realise you have it. Let me break it down.
One of the most common symptoms of overtraining syndrome is burnout. A runner who puts so much stress on him- or herself (think: poor sleep quality, caloric deficiency, and increased anxiety about an upcoming race) will feel spent. Mental fatigue is often overlooked, but it is an important part of training. A tired mind goes hand in hand with a tired body. When the energy is low, breakdown and injury occurs.
To prevent mental burnout from getting the best of you, mind your mind. Get more sleep during long-mileage weeks – resting is when your mind and body have time to heal. Schedule activities that are relaxing, such as getting a massage or taking a ‘me’ day. It’s okay to give yourself licence to ease up. Skipping a long run to sleep in is more helpful than pushing yourself and ignoring your body’s cues.
Your body is a finely tuned machine. Hormones, produced by various glands, are responsible for maintaining homeostasis, the body’s delicate balance that controls many of our daily functions, from sleep cycles to hunger cues. When overtraining hits, the hormones get out of whack, some being produced too much and others not enough. This ends up causing problems including decreased immunity and abnormal hunger responses and cravings. It can even cause amenorrhea, the loss of menstruation in women.
If you suspect a hormonal imbalance, it’s time to talk to your doctor, and maybe see a sports nutritionist. Your doc can perform blood tests to check for hormonal irregularities and iron levels that give clues for a diagnosis. The most common issues are nutritional – like not taking in enough kilojoules for athletic expenditure – and can be fixed with a smart nutrition plan.
The most obvious component of overtraining is physical injury. Runners limp into my office with injuries that worsen with higher mileage, including aches and pains in the feet, Achilles tendons, shins, knees and hips. The severity of these injuries ranges from mild overuse injuries that resolve in weeks to stress fractures that can take several months to heal.
As with mental and hormonal overload, physical overtraining means you’re pushing too hard for your body. Remember that a 15km run is a different experience for each runner, depending on body type, gait mechanics, and previous injury history. Pain that changes the way you run and alters your gait mechanics needs to be checked out by a doctor. Small aches and pains can quickly turn into more serious problems if they aren’t properly diagnosed.
In the end, structured training plans, smart nutrition, and reliable gear are all important to runners. But they’ll all mean nothing if you don’t pay careful attention to your body. If the signs of overtraining syndrome are caught early, it’s more likely that I’ll see you on the starting line of the marathon – and not in my office.
TRAINING PLANS, SMART NUTRITION AND RELIABLE GEAR ALL MEAN NOTHING IF YOU DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY.
Headspace / Free app Dodge burnout and stay in the game mentally with daily meditation geared towards athletes.Garmin Forerunner235 / R4489 Keep tabs on your overall mileage with this watch. Plus, built-in algorithms suggest how long you should rest between workouts.