Sunday, August 29, 2010

Out Running Overtraining

This afternoon I received an SMS from my training partner enquiring how my planned run earlier in the day had gone (as she had been out of town). I replied that I’d had a busy day with one thing and another, and maybe a rest from running would be a better option.

The response came back “You can’t underestimate the power of rest!”

This got me thinking about the importance of rest in your training schedule, and specifically with reference to overtraining, which is a common curse for the eager ultra marathon runner.

When training for any ultra marathon event, and especially for the longer events of 100miles+ or multiday events, almost all the advice has the common factor of running a lot of miles in training. In addition there also seems to be a requirement to run 6 days a week as a minimum, where the recovery days are of the magnitude to show up in a regular marathon runner’s schedule as a long session.

However, we are mere mortals, and as I have stated on many previous occasions, we are all different. Without the proper base level of fitness, planning and structure in your running life, you could well find yourself suffering from overtraining.

The symptoms of overtraining are numerous, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the link between the cause and effects. These effects include lethargy, ulcers, elevated resting heart rate, and it takes longer to recover from hard sessions or from injuries.

Also there is the psychological impact of frustration from a drop off in performance. This can lead into a downward spiral, as you think you need to train more to get better, your performance worsens, and so down the spiral you go. Of course we all know that the reverse is true, but often we don’t want to acknowledge this truth.

But how is it that the elite of the ultramarathon world can run over 100miles a week in training, week after week, and not crumple into a heap on the side of the road their body thoroughly exhausted? Why is it that the elite seem to not be burdened by the overtraining curse?

You have to look at the way they train. Sure they are out running loads of miles, but it’s what they do between their training runs that makes the difference.

They will be indulging in ice baths, deep tissue massage and other physical therapies; they will have a carefully balanced diet and specialist nutrient supplements; most importantly they will be getting plenty of sleep. I used to look at Paula Radcliffe’s training program, and noticed that the difference between a profession and a good amateur was a 2 hour sleep in the afternoon between sessions!

Sleep is the time when your body can focus its energies on recovery, repairing and rebuilding any damage at a cellular level, your immune system has time and energy to get to work, and of course your energy stores recharge so you are good to get up and run again.

A reasonable inference from this is that with enough sleep (hence recovery) you cannot overtrain.

The reality is that most of us have other priorities in our lives, which mean that getting 10 hours sleep, eating, working, socialising, playing with the kids, and running for 5 hours, just doesn’t fit into a 24 hour period. So either the priorities have to change, or you have to adjust your goals.

So if sleep is the key, perhaps the most successful ultra distance runners are those who can get by on the least amount of sleep (by “get by” I mean can still function normally). That certainly seems to be a common factor with a lot of the legends of ultra endurance.

That then poses the question whether your body can be trained to cope with little sleep, or if it is physiologically hard wired?

I’ll let you know!

Happy running,

“You will never find the time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.” - Charles Bixton

Training 27-8-2010 (19.1km trail)

Training 28-8-2010 (19.3km Trail)


  1. Nice article. I completely agree. I am training for a 100-mile ultra in Oct. I run 4 days a week - Tue, Thu, Sat and Sun. The trick is two a day and back to back. Two a day means two work outs in a day. Back to back is for the weekends. That means 3 days rest a week. I also try to get at least 7 hours a sleep. And, I do take a nap after my long runs on Sat and Sun!

  2. You are right! Awesome article! Von in Baja mex~