Frequently runners’ and triathletes come into my office completely perplexed and frustrated that they are injured. First time visitors to a physical therapist often say things like “I have never been injured before, this just doesn’t make sense” or “ I followed my training program why did I get injured?”
These patients are surprised when I suggest that overtraining may have played a role their injury. Typically they either have no idea that they are overtraining or don’t know how to recognize the signs of overtraining.
Exercise is considered a “good” stress on the body in most circumstances. As you continue to train your body will adapt to the stress you put on it by:
Increasing strength of your muscles
Increasing the size of your muscles
Increasing your power
Decreasing your cortisol levels
Improving your performance
Developing stronger bones and ligaments
However, too much of a good thing can be a devastating especially if it is the difference between being able to run your race or not. During training your body can reach a tipping point when tissue injury exceeds repair. Your body is no longer getting stronger from the stress of exercise instead it is breaking down.
What causes overtraining?
Doing too much too soon is one of the top five causes of injuries in runners; but what exactly does that mean? If you are increasing your mileage by > 10-15% a week you will increase your chance for injury. Despite what we want to believe this rule does not change if you are running 5 miles a week or 50 miles a week. It also doesn’t change if you ran 30 miles a week in July then took 6 weeks off and start running again in late September a significant jump in mileage will put you at risk.
Not getting enough rest. What we do in our everyday life can and does affect how we run. You may not realize it but if you recently had a baby, your job is increasingly stressful or you are traveling a lot for work you may not be getting enough sleep or enough rest to maintain the training level you want to be at. Rest is what allows your body to integrate the positive aspects of training into your body and allows it time to repair any damage.
A quick change in load or intensity of your running can cause injury. If you add multiple sessions of intervals into you week that used to be filled with easier, slower runs or you start training with a new running group that is much faster. Both of these examples increase the difficulty of your runs exponentially. Running with people who are faster than you is motivating and adding intervals to your workout can decrease likelihood for injury but only if they are done appropriately.
Restricting calories too much or not giving your body the right kind of calories may decrease your body’s ability to get stronger. You need enough calories to fuel and repair your body. If you are don’t you may cause your body’s endocrine system to go into overdrive and jeopardize your bone health. Stress fractures and disrupted menstrual cycles are signs of overtraining.
Lack of cross training. If you only run then you use the same muscles over and over every time you exercise. Weakness in other muscle groups, tendons, ligaments and bones can creep in without any notice. Cross training allows your body to actively rest some areas while working out others. Cross training can improve fitness, decrease the overall impact of running, and improve strength and flexibility.
Dysfunctional movement patterns in everyday activities such as walking, squatting, standing, bending over and twisting all impact how you run. If you cannot stand on one leg or perform a single leg squat you are likely not stabilizing your pelvis in the stance phase of gait. Stance is the phase of gait where a majority of injuries occur so it is imperative that you do everything you can be as stable as possible.
Poor choices in equipment. If your shoes are too old or they are not the right pair for you it could lead to an overuse injury. Often runners will come into the office with too much support, shoes that are falling apart or orthotics that aren’t right for them. Shoes and orthotics do not prevent injury but they can impact it. Getting the right shoe and orthotic (if necessary) is essential.
How can I recognize if I am overtraining?
Recognizing the signs of overtraining is equally as important as recognizing the cause. If you can identify the signs and symptoms of overtraining you might catch yourself before and injury occurs and forces you off the road. The signs of overtraining are not always what you might think.
Signs and symptoms of overtraining1:
Decreased training pleasure
Vulnerability to respiratory infections
Decrease in professional efficacy
Loss of training desire
Increased resting heart rate
If you have any of these signs and symptoms it is time to adjust your training habits and listen to your body.
What can I do to prevent overtraining?
Get enough sleep. Your brain and your body function better when rested.
Keep your tank full. Make sure you are eating properly for how you are training. A good dietician that understands runner and triathletes is invaluable.
Take more rest days. Don’t punish yourself for taking a well deserved or even needed rest break. You may be surprised how well your body responds to a little TLC.
Train smarter. Having a training program that is specific to your body and lifestyle will help you stay healthy and improve your performance.
Cross train. I’m serious. If you run 6 days a week take at least one of those days and turn it into an opportunity to get stronger, more flexible and improve muscle imbalances.
Listen to your body if you want to stay healthy. Remember it is far better to back off for a short period than it is to be completely sidelined because of an injury.
Recognizing overtraining early on may prevent a visit to a physician, chiropractor or physical therapist and keep you on track with your training.
Palazzetti S et al. Overloaded Training and Running Kinematics, and Economy. Int J Sports Med 2005; 26: 193-199.