Overtraining is something that all runners from true beginners to the elite level experience at some point. We all know that overtraining is bad, but how does it happen?
It isn’t something that happens overnight but rather a gradual process that builds upon itself in successive workouts until it manifests itself in the form of reduced performance, fatigue or injury.
Understanding how it happens from both perspectives is essential to preventing overtraining so that you can identify what causes it and be on the lookout early to prevent it.
Understanding A Workout Cycle
The fitness level of a human body in a workout cycle can be broken down into four segments: initial baseline fitness, training, recovery, and supercompensation.
Everyone starts out at their baseline level of fitness before any training begins. When you are not actively training this is the level of fitness your body tends to move towards as your natural ability.
Upon engaging in a workout, your level of fitness actually begins to decrease while performing the workout and you end at a state of having less fitness than when you began.
If you think about it logically this makes sense. If you run a marathon you are not going to be at the same level of fitness to run another one at the same effort the following day or even the following few days.
After training, the body enters a recovery period responding to the workout you engaged in. During this time your level of fitness increases back up to the initial baseline fitness level you began at before you conducted your workout.
Once it reaches that point your body will then enter a period of supercompensation in which it builds itself to a higher level of fitness in anticipation of the next training session.
The supercompensation period is when your body is at a level of fitness higher than when you started. This is your body’s response and adaptation to the training stimulus so that it is able to perform more efficiently next time.
If there are no further workouts over a period of time, the body’s fitness level will slowly decline back towards the initial fitness level. You must use it or lose it over time.
A Successful Training Model
The key to successful training is executing targeted workouts that have a specific purpose and adequate recovery time before engaging in the next workout within the window of supercompensation. There is a peak period of supercompensation within the cycle when executing your next workout is most optimal.
The chart below illustrates this concept:
Beginning at your baseline fitness level you conduct a workout and end up at a decreased level of fitness. After a recovery to your baseline level of fitness you enter a window of supercompensation where your body is stronger than it was before you engaged in the prior workout. Within this window there is a peak period when further training is most effective to maximize further fitness gains.
Unfortunately, there is no hard rule of when peak supercompensation occurs. Typical ranges are from 48 to 72 hours after completion of your workout, but it varies greatly depending on the intensity of the training and which systems were trained. There is no set number of hours that are optimal as a general guideline.
Training affects many different bodily functions and parameters. Each bodily function or parameter has a different recovery time, a different amount of time needed to reach peak supercompensation, and a different amount of time between a supercompensation peak and return to base fitness.
Your goal as a runner is not to try to figure out that optimal moment, but rather to conduct your subsequent workout within the window of supercompensation so your body can adapt and improve based on prior workouts. This way you avoid training in the same manner again too soon leading to overtraining, or too long afterwards resulting in making little to no improvement over time by returning to baseline fitness.
While the above chart shows a linear relationship between training and improvement, the supercompensation cycle is not linear indefinitely. After 28 days a majority of training adaptations are made and you will begin to plateau in further gains. This is known as a mesocycle in your training. After this period it is best to focus on making adaptations to other systems.
Proper recovery need not only be rest, but active recovery such as easy runs, cross-training or training other systems are all activities that can be conducted while in the recovery period for the main training activity.
The Cause Of Overtraining
Now that you have an understanding of a successful training model and an understanding of how you improve as a runner from your workouts let’s explore how overtraining occurs and the impact to your training.
There are several ways that a runner can overtrain:
- Increasing mileage too soon
- Conducting successive hard training sessions
- Conducting hard training sessions after long endurance sessions
- Training harder than prescribed (i.e. running recovery runs at race pace, adding miles)
- Not taking rest days
Engaging in any of these behaviors does not allow the supercompensation cycle to run the course and instead of making measured improvement from adaptations from training, you actually decrease your fitness with each successive workout.
The chart below illustrates this concept:
While fitness levels continue to decrease with each successive workout the risk of injury increases. A point is eventually reached where injury or burnout occurs that forces the runner to stop training or to take time away.
When the cycle of overtraining is finally broken, your body does not improve as a result from your hard efforts. Instead, it gradually recovers to your baseline level of fitness that you started with. Essentially, all of your efforts were for nothing.
Most runners enter the cycle of overtraining and only recover from it when an injury occurs or time away from running such as a vacation takes place. For runners that consistently overtrain, little progress is made towards achieving their running goal.
When a lot of work is put into training without seeing good results this can be one of the causes.
Hopefully this illustrates the importance of not only adhering to a well planned training system, but to value your rest, recovery and easy days. Simple things such as adding more miles to your short recovery runs or running easy runs at race pace will not make you a better runner but instead put you on a path of decreased fitness and at higher risk of injury. Neither are productive to achieving your running goal.
Physical Signs and Symptoms of Overtraining
Knowing the signs of overtraining and identifying them early is key to preventing a situation from negatively impacting your running. Common warning signs include:
- Chronic fatigue, feeling drained all of the time, lack of energy
- Mild soreness in the legs that does not resolve
- General aches and pains that are ongoing
- Specific pain in muscles and joints
- Decreased appetite
- Increased incidence of injuries
- Sudden reduction in performance (Training voulme and intensity, race results)
- Decreased immunity (increased number of respiratory infections, sore throat)
For more on overtraining listen to Matt’s interview with expert guest Dr. Jack Raglin on Runner Academy Podcast episode 15.
Also be sure to review our course on overtraining along with over 40 other running topics, custom training schedules and more as part of Runner Academy Membership.