Overtraining: the risks of overtraining when running

Don’t fall foul of this common novice runner’s complaint

Overtraining: the risks of overtraining when running
(Image credit: Getty)

When you first start out running, your enthusiasm can lead you to create a schedule that is overly ambitious – and while we always applaud enthusiasm, overtraining can become a real problem and one that can have long-term consequences.

We have compiled a list of the most common signs of overtraining below and if you can tick more than a couple of these, it’s a sign that you need to cut back. If you are constantly sore, exhausted and ill, then you’re not going to find the willpower to go out for another run. And if you do drag yourself out for one, it’s going to feel a lot harder than usual, which can dent your motivation. 

Overtraining isn’t just about doing too much too soon, it is also a lack of decent recovery between sessions, which is why rest days are just as important as running days when you are planning a running routine. Overtraining doesn’t just affect your running life either; tiredness, lack of appetite, loss of sex drive, inability to concentrate properly... all of these side effects can have a serious impact on your day-to-day life too.

Overtraining isn’t just something that affects beginners either, as runners of all abilities, even elites, can suffer from this common problem. The key to not falling foul is to ensure that your training programme is right for you. First, make sure that when you start out running you are not hitting the tarmac on two consecutive days. Take the day after a run as a rest day, or if you really want to do something, then consider a swim, yoga class or a walk instead. As you get fitter, don’t be tempted to ramp up your mileage too fast and try and up your speed. 

Determine what is most important to you; do you want to go longer or go faster? Each week increase your mileage or your time by around ten per cent on your longest run. So, if you have mastered the three-mile or 30-minute route around the block, take it up to around three and a half miles or 35 minutes the next week. And you don’t have to increase every week – wait until you’re comfortable at a set distance or time before stepping it up. Vary your workouts too. Do one session of long, steady running, one that incorporates intervals of fast running for various distances and one with some off-road elements included as well.

If you think that you are suffering from overtraining, don’t just give up! You can get yourself back on track with a few changes. Ensure that you can be flexible with your schedule. If you don’t feel up for a long run, can you swap it for a shorter one instead? If you are aching from your last run, you could go for a swim. If your head isn’t in the right place, then you are more likely to suffer the consequences of forcing yourself out running. Don’t be afraid to break out of your schedule if it’s not working – a relaxed approach to running means that you are unlikely to push too hard and you will enjoy it all the more.

Make sure that you are eating well too, as you need carbs to fuel your body and protein to help it recover. Get plenty of fruit and vegetables too, as these will help your immune system and keep those colds at bay.

Prevention is the best cure for overtraining, but if it’s too late, then take a complete week off before implementing a new, more relaxed running routine. This will give your body the chance to recover and repair, as well as enable you to get your head back in the right place.

(Image credit: Future)

Symptoms of overtraining

Look out for these signs that it’s time to rest:

Muscle soreness

You have to expect a certain level of aching after a good run, but if you’re taking longer to get over soreness, your body may be struggling to keep up with the demands. Also, if you keep running with an injury, it will take longer to heal.

Catching a cold

If you are overexerting your body, then you are putting a lot of pressure on your immune system and this could result in more frequent colds. Taking time out to relax will help your body fight off these common bugs, and don’t continue to exercise when you’re really not well.

Loss of appetite

You need to eat to recover from your running sessions, but if you don’t fancy that plate of food in front of you, then you might have pushed yourself too hard. Take a rest day and get plenty of carbs and protein into your system.

Fitful sleep

If you are working your body hard, it is going to take longer to recover and settle down ready for sleep. To be a successful runner, a good night’s sleep is essential, so finish your sessions at least two hours before bed.

Harder sessions

If you are going out for the same distance as usual but finding it harder, then you could be suffering from overtraining. Your body can’t keep pushing indefinitely, and if you are doing session after session, it will feel harder to keep up.

Lack of motivation

With all of the above going on, it’s not uncommon to fall out of love with running. Don’t go out too hard so that you burn out – just make sure you rest and recover properly between sessions.