Signs of overtraining, overreaching and being past your peak

No wonder I’ve been on the decline for the past month. I went for my long run at 6:25am this morning, in the dark, determined to keep it easy. Remember easy is a feeling, not a pace. It took me thirteen minutes longer than last week to do the same ten mile run. My heart-rate barely got out of the 120s yet my body didn’t want to run any faster. I’m sure I could have run faster but that wasn’t the aim, I was listening to my body and letting it decide. Truth is, I’ve spent most of the past month training faster than this and it explains why I’ve slowly been spiralling towards decrepitude.

I can’t call this overtraining because that’s a serious condition that can take months to recover from. Usually the term for having pushed the body past its best while not having become overtrained is known as overreaching. Overreaching is something most athletes actually want to do just prior to competition because it gives them a higher level of performance yet because they taper they get to freshen up. Generally speaking overreaching can be recovered from quickly whereas overtaining takes months.

Whatever I should call it, my training and running isn’t going forwards like it was a few weeks ago. I sensed the signs of a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to finish out JackD’s 800m training plan so I could say I followed it to the letter.

These are the signs I spotted

Loss of motivation

A couple of weeks ago I found myself no longer caring about the next 800m time trial. After almost four months training I should have been excited that it was only a couple of weeks away but I wasn’t. My mind didn’t care and I was actually looking past it to the next phase of training I’ve got planned.

For someone as dedicated as I am, the loss of motivation was a huge red flag that my body wanted to back off. I’ve had it before and it’s always the same – simply wishing that I could get past the remainder of training, start tapering (which is of course reduced training) and get to the race. Often I never made it to the race as an injury or illness would kick in – those were probably the result of doing too much.

As an aside, I believe many first time marathoners experience this sort of thing. They start off their training excited and motivated, then as the long runs pile up and they trudge through four hour Sunday runs, they start to wish it all over.

High resting heart-rate

Before I start a run I have to wait for my GPS watch to lock in the satellites. This usually takes at least a minute of standing around on my driveway or by the car before I can start running. When I’m fit and healthy my heart-rate will drop to somewhere around 40bpm, quite possibly in the high 30s. When I’ve trained harder the day before it may be mid-40s. When I’ve trained very hard the day before it’ll be in the 50s. It might even do this for a day or two extra.  Over the past two weeks I’ve barely seen my heart-rate barely dip into the 40s, moreover it’s been low 50s. That’s a red flag.

Sometimes, while HR will still drop down it takes a while to occur. It seems to be stuck in the 50s for thirty seconds before dropping rapidly to the low 40s. That’s an amber flag that things may be becoming problematic.

I don’t think there’s an issue per se with the occasional high resting heart-rate but, as I say, I’ve been seeing these without fail for the past couple of weeks.

Tightness, aches and pains

I previously wrote about how tightness, aches and pains are a sign of overdoing things in this post. They’re probably the earliest physical sign that crops up but also isn’t actually debilitating unless you continue to push hard. Usually though when any aches or pains ease off during running as joints and muscles get warm and loosen up. It’s later in the day or first thing in the morning when they’re a problem.  I’ve been struggling with stiff ankles and hip pains regularly recently.

Other signs

These first three things are the most reliable, obvious indicators that things aren’t right. Any one of these three would usually be enough for me to begin reconsidering my training plan and slot in recovery sessions until the issue is gone.

What follows are less noticeable or isolated. The following signs usually need to be seen as one part of the jigsaw. Individually I don’t think they’re enough because they’re also somewhat vague and harder to measure accurately. Diagnosing yourself as overcooked is no easy thing to spot with certainty.

Affected sleep

If you overtrain and rev up your central nervous system it can affect your sleep patterns. These past couple of weeks I’ve found myself waking multiple times during the night and dropping straight back to sleep. But on a couple of occasions, I found myself sleeping solidly for nine hours on back-to-back nights.

When I seriously overreached a few years ago, I found I’d wake in the night to use the toilet. Then struggle to drop back to sleep and just lie there for 2+ hours thinking of absolutely nothing. No stress or anxious thinking, simply unable to drop off to sleep. This is another way the over-revved CNS can affect sleep.

Affected appetite

When I’m training too hard I find I tend to start wanting more sugary foods – crisps, cakes, beer. Basically my body is craving anything that will give me more calories and quickly. This isn’t always an issue as for many years I used to eat a lot more calories in response to playing sports hard. Similarly, I have found myself drinking more cups of tea or fluid in general.

While I haven’t experienced it, I’m sure overdoing things could also result in loss of appetite.

Failing to hit target times in workouts

Missing workout targets happens from time to time so you need to see it becoming a pattern. Throughout the earlier periods of my 800 training there were days where I struggled to hit targets but would come back refreshed a few days later and be on time. One session isn’t a problem, two should be noted, three in a row becomes a concern.

General runs are slightly slower

Looking back my Sunday long runs peaked a month ago and I’ve struggled to run them as quick since. Likewise when parkrun returned in July, I was running them at the limits of comfort in 23-24 minutes; this has slipped closer to 25-minutes. It’s been a small difference that I’d attributed to my legs being tired from the fastest speedwork being done in this phase of training.

But sometimes heavy legs or slower general runs can be a symptom of the initial response to an increase in training.

Loss of strength

I do strength training once per week. Two Wednesdays ago I found myself barely able to flex my biceps and lift the weight. The struggle was there again this week. I wasn’t sure if it was the “introducing new stuff” drop off that I mention above so I gave it another week.

Steve Magness lists examples of CNS fatigue as including reduced grip strength, worse ground reaction times during depth jumps or hops, and slower reaction times.

Summary

I’ve listed some of the key things I’ve noticed in the past two weeks that were suggesting I’d overcooked it. As I said, the main reason I didn’t back off was because I wanted to see JackD’s plan through to completion but it was also because I was so close to finishing that I was trying to hang on – that becomes a dilemma.

Many elite runners say they notice their moods before any physical signs show up. Apart from aches and pains, I’d certainly say my change in motivation was the most noticeable harbinger for me this time around.

And in case you’re wondering, the solution if you do decide you’re overcooked is to back off your training. Ensure easy runs are easy – as I did this morning. Cut some or all of the intensity out and give the body less training to recover from. It often only needs a few days to two weeks get back on track, and I don’t think it’s been more than three weeks at the most.

Muscles need recovery

The week I tweaked my hamstring I did two big workouts. It was all interval work and I was pushing hard, breathing hard and hitting paces I haven’t seen in a while. It was on the final effort of the second session, that I pumped my legs as hard as possible, hoping to end with a quick time, when the hamstring tightened and knotted.

The following day I ran a careful recovery run; the same again on the day after. The hamstring was already feeling 95% healed and offered no issues on the third day – a long Sunday run. I expected to run quicker than usual after two easy days but, while my legs didn’t feel tired, it wasn’t faster. My heart-rate barely went over 145bpm and although I had the energy, my legs just didn’t have the bounce or verve to go fast.

The next day was totally different. I went for my usual recovery run and my legs were full of power. Now I couldn’t slow down, it was the run I’d hoped to do the day before.

That’s the point of this opening: it had taken 4-6 days to recover from the workouts of the previous week. The hamstring tightening had been a sign I’d already done enough and once that recovered, it still took until the Monday for my legs to be ready to run like I’d hoped they would on the Sunday.

This is where many runners training falls apart – they push too hard, too often – they don’t let their bodies dictate the pace, particularly on their recovery or easy days. I know many runners who would have pushed hard on the Sunday and it would have delayed the recovery further.


A few years ago I became enamoured with doing 8-mile threshold runs. Start off with 15-mins of warm-up then push the pace up to the point where my breathing was on the edge of threshold and force it along for the better part of an hour. Warmdown, recover for two days then repeat the same session again later in the week. On paper, I was doing everything right. I was following the 80-20 rule, I was getting lots of recovery and so on.

For a couple of weeks, it went really well. My pace improved and I began to get faster. Then, on weeks 3 and 4 I saw no improvement. Around the same time my lower back began to tighten up. I went another week with the runs but the aches were increasing. It reached the point where they affected my day-to-day living and reluctantly I concluded I was going to have to back off the running until it subsided. So I went back to easy running and let my body dictate the pace rather than try to force things. Within two weeks everything eased up and I raced a decent 10K.


My experience is not uncommon among runners. At least in the sense that when they overdo things they start to tighten up and get aches and pains. This is the body’s reaction to trying to use muscles that haven’t recovered. It might be felt in the Achilles, it might be in the plantar, I’ve even had it in my shoulders! The only uncommon thing about my experience is that I didn’t whine and complain or put it down to bad luck or old age; I looked at my running and changed my training plan so I was able to train without pain.

This is why keeping recovery days genuinely easy is important, it gives muscles time to recover without putting extra stress in. Most runners are used to their legs aching the day after a run, they might even get some DOMS on the second and, after half and full marathons I’ve still been struggling on days three and four. They understand the need for recovery at those times because it’s obvious. But they rarely understand aches and pains in day-to-day living are general signs of needing recovery. It’s the aggregation of unrecovered muscles being called back into action too soon. Any time I have aches, pains or tightness, I know I’m going to have to back off my training. That doesn’t mean a rest day although it could. It may just be changing a workout to an easy run; it may be delaying it by a day, it may be cutting the workout down.

The moral of the story is muscles need recovery. The more effort you put in, combined with how much you do, dictates how long it’ll take to recover. It can take ten days to recover from a good speed workout. Old runner wisdom says it takes a month to recover from a marathon. While you don’t have to be perfectly fresh to train harder, you do need to listen to your body. Aches, pains and tightness that come from nowhere are always a sign that you’re pushing hard. If you continue to push hard they’ll get worse to the point where you’re forced to let them recover one way or another.