As an experienced running coach and physiotherapist specializing in marathon training, I’ve worked with countless runners striving to achieve new personal bests and qualify for prestigious races like London. While hard training is necessary to spur adaptation, too much too soon can backfire and result in injury, illness, or burnout. Going overboard with mileage, intensity, or insufficient recovery between hard sessions is a recipe for overtraining.
In my experience, many well-intentioned marathoners cross the fine line between optimal training and overtraining. After coaching and rehabbing injured runners for over a decade, I’ve become adept at recognizing the tell-tale signs of overtraining syndrome. In this article, I’ll overview the top 10 symptoms marathoners should watch out for to avoid digging themselves into an overtraining hole. I’ll also provide actionable tips on how to scale back and properly recover if you recognize these red flags in your own training.
An Introduction to Overtraining Syndrome
Overtraining occurs when training volume and/or intensity exceeds the body’s capability to recover. It stems from an imbalance between training stress and rest. When runners train year-round with high weekly mileage and intense sessions without adequate rest, they become overtrained. Pushing through severe fatigue and maladaptation has deleterious effects.
The risks of overtraining include:
- Decreased performance – you’ll find yourself slowing down or struggling to hit paces that were once easily attainable. You’ll plateau or regress at races.
- Frequent illnesses and infections – you’ll catch every cold and bug going around from a weakened immune system.
- Injuries – tendonitis, stress fractures, muscle strains become more likely when the body lacks time to fully regenerate between training sessions.
- Burnout – you’ll feel depleted, unmotivated, and begin dreading workouts. Overtraining can zap the inherent joy of running.
- Hormonal disruption – overtraining can affect thyroid, reproductive, and growth hormones.
- Depression or anxiety – excess training stress negatively impacts mental health.
I guide all of my athletes on how to tow the fine line between optimal training and overdoing it. Avoiding overtraining is key to staying healthy, motivated, and achieving your marathon goals. Let’s overview the top signs that suggest you may be overtraining
10 Signs You May Be Overtraining
1. Persistent Muscle Soreness
Excessive training stress causes microscopic tears to muscle fibers. When recovery between hard sessions is insufficient, these tears never fully heal. You’ll experience generalized muscle soreness and tightness that persists day after day. For example, you finish a track workout on Tuesday and still feel sore by Thursday or Friday.
Cause: Not enough recovery between intense or high-mileage sessions.
Fix: Add more easy days to your training schedule. Opt for yoga, stretching, or light cross-training on some of these days to aid recovery.
2. Elevated Resting Heart Rate
Your resting heart rate measured first thing in the morning normally declines as your fitness improves with training. However, overtraining causes elevated resting heart rate due to accumulated fatigue. For runners, an abnormally high resting heart rate over 60-65 bpm may signal overtraining.
Cause: Your body is working harder at rest to compensate for training overload.
Fix: Take an easy recovery week with reduced mileage and lighter sessions. Include more cross-training like cycling or swimming which taxes the legs less.
3. Insomnia or Restless Sleep
Overtraining disrupts sleep-wake cycles and can make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Training very late in the day can also hinder sleep. Skimping on sleep prevents full recovery from training.
Cause: Hormonal imbalances and sympathetic nervous system overload from excessive training stress.
Fix: Extend nightly sleep as much as possible, ideally to 8-9 hours. Avoid training after 7pm so your body has time to wind down before bed. Develop good sleep hygiene habits like limiting screen time before bed.
4. Decreased Motivation
When running stops being fun, it a surefire sign of overtraining. You begin dreading workouts and have to drag yourself out the door. Your mind and body are begging for an extended break. Pushing through this stage can cause longer-term burnout.
Cause: Combination of physical fatigue and mental weariness from high training load, monotonous training, or not enough variety.
Fix: Take 2-4 days completely off from training. Try cross-training like swimming or cycling for a week to maintain fitness while giving your running muscles a break. Don’t ignore decreased motivation – it means your body needs a reset.
5. Frequent Illnesses or Infections
While moderate exercise boosts immunity, overtraining has the opposite effect by suppressing immune function. If you constantly battle sore throats, colds, and sinus infections, it’s likely a sign of overtraining syndrome.
Cause: High stress training loads without adequate recovery lower immune cells counts, making illness more likely.
Fix: At the first sign of illness, cease training immediately. Let the illness run its course and avoid “training through” it, which prolongs recovery. Ease back into training slowly over a couple weeks as immune function normalizes. Reduce training load going forward.
6. Loss of Appetite
Overtraining often suppresses appetite due to hormones like leptin becoming dysregulated. During intense marathon training, you need ample calories and nutrition to fuel runs and recovery. Restricted calorie intake from poor appetite can initiate a vicious cycle.
Cause: The energy deficit from high training volumes without increased caloric intake.
Fix: Focus on calorie-dense recovery meals and snacks. Include nutrient shakes or smoothies when whole foods are unappealing. Meet caloric needs by tracking intake and being intentional about sufficient fueling.
7. Increased Injury Rate
Niggles turn into full blown injuries when the body doesn’t have time to fully regenerate between tough sessions. You begin suffering an abnormal rate of tendonitis, joint pain, muscle strains, and stress fractures for your level of training.
Cause: Training load exceeds tissue adaptability and recovery capacity.
Fix: Adhere rigorously to rest days, cross-training, and easy runs when rebuilding from injury. Address areas of weakness with preventative exercises. Very gradually increase mileage as the body adapts to prevent re-injury.
8. Irritability or Mood Changes
Look out for increased irritability, anxiety, or mood swings – a likely sign you need more down time. Overtraining places major demands on the central nervous system. CNS overload can manifest as emotional volatility.
Cause: Imbalances in brain chemicals and hormones from excessive training stress.
Fix: Prioritize practices like meditation or yoga to calm the nervous system. Spend time on unrelated hobbies you enjoy. Be proactive about taking a full recovery week when these symptoms arise. Don’t ignore emotional reactions to overtraining.
9. Plateaued or Declining Race Performance
When your race times start stagnating or you’re struggling to hit paces that used to feel comfortable, overtraining could be culprit. Without enough recovery, fitness gains from training can’t fully develop.
Cause: Inadequate rest to allow the body to absorb the training stimulus and adapt between hard sessions.
Fix: Periodize training into easier recovery weeks on a regular basis – don’t maintain peak volume or intensity indefinitely. Incorporate cross-training like cycling to keep challenging the aerobic system without impact.
10. Elevated Resting Heart Rate
As mentioned earlier, resting heart rate offers a window into the body’s response to training. Elevated resting HR over 60-65 BPM can signal sympathetic nervous system overload and inadequate parasympathetic recovery between sessions.
Cause: Excess training stimulus without periods of easier training that allow the parasympathetic system to become more dominant.
Fix: Schedule a recovery week of reduced volume, intensity, and just easy aerobic workouts. Prioritize rest days and 8-9 hours of sleep nightly. Use heart rate variability (HRV) tracking to monitor nervous system recovery.
Conclusion and Next Steps
I hope this overview of the top overtraining symptoms helps you identify if you might be pushing too hard. The best way to avoid overtraining is to build in more rest from the start – whether in the form of extra sleep, active recovery, reduced mileage, or entire days off. Don’t neglect cross-training as a way to develop fitness while giving your running muscles a break.
Try shifting your mindset away from the “more is better” mentality regarding training volume. Be proactive about taking recovery weeks preemptively rather than waiting until you are utterly exhausted or injured. Lastly, remember that you can’t out-train a poor diet – fuel adequately for the demands you are placing on your body.
Overtraining is a common pitfall even in experienced marathoners. But by recognizing the warning signs early and making proactive adjustments, you can continue training consistently and optimally. If you implement some of the fixes I suggested, you’ll get back on track for your next marathon feeling healthy, motivated, and properly trained.