How to Recover from Overtraining

Read more in the article to understand overtraining symptoms and how to recover from overtraining

In order to run faster or run longer, you need to overload your training. You run more miles or you do harder workouts. However, there is a point where training becomes too hard or too high volume. If that is sustained for too long, you won’t get faster or be able to run longer. You will actually start to see your running get worse (and feel worse). This is known as overtraining. 

Overtraining can slow you down – and make you dread running. However, if you understand what it is and how to respond to it, you can reverse it. This article will delve into overtraining in running, including signs of overtraining and how to recover from overtraining. 

Is Overtraining Real?

You may have heard the claim that there is no such thing as overtraining – just under-recovery. Is this true? Is overtraining real? 

A 2020 study in Redox Biology provides an overview of the mechanisms behind overtraining syndrome (OTS). While under-recovery can trigger overtraining, it is not the sole culprit. Overtraining is real – and is due to various physiological factors. 

One mechanism is glycogen depletion. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates in the muscles and liver. Long-distance running uses glycogen stores. If training volume is too high and/or if energy intake does not replenish those glycogen stores for a long period of time, it could trigger overtraining. 

As discussed in this 2022 review in Sports Medicine, overtraining and relative energy deficiency in sport (REDs) can have similar symptoms. Because of this overlap, it is important that overtraining be treated as a diagnosis of exclusion. Athletes with symptoms of OTS should also be evaluated for REDs before receiving a diagnosis. 

Other mechanisms contribute to overtraining syndrome. Muscle damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress can all trigger overtraining. These mechanisms affect the body on a cellular level. Muscle proteins are damaged, leading to reduced muscle function and reduced aerobic energy production. 

Underrecovery can be a factor leading to overtraining. An athlete doing relatively moderate training volume can overtrain if they do not eat enough, sleep enough, or ever take a rest day. 

However, there is a point where too much training is simply too much training. There’s a reason most elite athletes cap at 120 miles per week, instead of running 200 miles per week. 

Listen to episode 24 of the Tread Lightly podcast for more information on the science of overtraining.

Signs of Overtraining

To understand the signs of overtraining, it helps to understand how overtraining develops. Run training involves a certain amount of overload. You need to overload your running distance to be able to run a marathon. If you want to run faster, you need to overload your speed workouts so you can cover more distance at a faster pace. 

Functional overreaching involves deliberate, short-term training overloads. An example of this is the peak of marathon training, when you overload your mileage and long run distance. During a functional overreach period, fatigue increases and leads to temporary performance declines. Once the training load reduces in the taper, fitness returns to higher than the previous baseline (a principle known as supercompensation).

However, functional over-reaching should be is disputed. A 2020 review in Sports Medicine argued that intense functional over-reaching may not be necessary for all athletes. While functional overreaching does elicit adaptation, some studies find that more gradual, sustainable increases in training load produce the same response – without the risk. Some athletes experience maladaptive responses and metabolic downregulation during functional over-reaching. For others, a fine line exists between functional overreaching and overtraining – and that line is worth gambling with in training. 

If functional over-reaching continues for too long, it develops into non-functional overreaching. In non-functional overreaching, the temporary performance declines last longer (3-4 weeks in duration). It becomes more difficult for the athlete to recover and experience supercompensation over the 2-3 weeks of taper. If non-functional over-reaching continues for too long, the athlete will experience overtraining syndrome. 

Overtraining syndrome is systemic. It affects multiple systems of the body: nervous, endocrine, muscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic. Because of this systemic impact, signs of overtraining can be observed both in performance and overall well-being/health. 

Performance Signs of Overtraining

What is a definite sign of overtraining? Declined running performance. However, many athletes misinterpret this sign. Instead of scaling back, they believe they need to train harder to build fitness. 

Performance symptoms include: 

  • Declined or plateaued performances
  • Feeling slower and weaker on runs
  • Runs will feel much harder than heart rate or pace indicate
  • Frequent soreness
  • Frequent injuries
  • Low motivation and wanting to skip workouts

Related: Can You Run on Sore Legs?

Health Signs of Overtraining

In addition to affecting performance, overtraining will affect your overall health. Health signs of overtraining include:

  • Persistent fatigue
  • Lack of concentration at work or school
  • Struggling to sleep despite being tired
  • Digestive issues such as bloating, GI upset, etc.
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Changes in mood
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Loss of libido and loss of menstruation (amenorrhea) in female athletes
  • Frequent illness

Because these signs can overlap with symptoms of other medical conditions, evaluation is important. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should also check for low ferritin/iron, low vitamin B12 or vitamin D, and REDs. 

How Long to Recover From Overtraining

Unfortunately, because overtraining develops over a longer time horizon, it also requires a long time to recover. Most athletes can expect recovery from overtraining to take 4-12 weeks. Recovery from overtraining will take longer if you attempt to rush it. 

If in doubt, give yourself a couple months to recover from overtraining. You may need to take time off of doing races to allow full recovery and avoid slipping into overtraining again. Do not take a couple weeks off and quickly rush back into training after that.

How to Recover From Overtraining, According to Science

You do not have to stop running entirely during recovery from overtraining. For some athletes, stopping running will help them recover, especially if they are experiencing burnout as a symptom. If the athlete wants to keep running, they can follow these tips to recover from overtraining.

#1: Take 1-2 Rest Days Per Week

When recovering from overtraining, the body needs extra opportunities to repair on a cellular level. Rest days also benefit the nervous system, as the brain gets an opportunity to rest from the task of training. 

Rest means rest. A recovery run, cross-training session, or strength training workout are not rest day activities. If you feel like moving, take a gentle walk or do some meditative yoga. 

Related: The Importance of Rest Days for Runners

#2: Do Only Short, Easy Runs

Too much volume and too much intensity are what result in overtraining. If you want to recover from overtraining, the safest and most effective approach is to reduce both training volume and training intensity. 

Short (under 60 min), easy runs are recommended when recovering from overtraining. Ideally, you should stick to easy, short runs for four to six weeks minimum. While many runners may worry about losing fitness during this time, they will likely notice that running performance returns as overtraining reverses. 

#3: Eat Enough

If you are recovering from overtraining, restricting food intake will prolong your recovery. Your body needs carbohydrates, protein, and fat to recover full function of its systems. You do not want to be in a caloric deficit during this time. 

If eating enough is a struggle, it is encouraged to reach out to a medical professional such as a registered dietitian. 

Recover From Overtraining With a Coach

Can a coach help a runner recover from overtraining? Yes! Many athletes need accountability to take those rest days and train less during this time. If you find yourself unable to truly back off and recover from overtraining, it is worth at least contacting a coach

Regardless of whether you work with a running coach or registered dietitian, or tackle your recovery from overtraining by yourself, know that the process will be worth it. Overtraining does not mean the end to your athletic career, nor does it have to ruin your love of the sport. 

Training can be a tricky balance of building fitness but not overtraining. If you want to learn more about how to design your own running plan for safe and effective training, consider the Foundations of Running e-course

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