Almost every runner experiences burnout or overtraining at least once. Burnout can manifest in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, and although it may seem to creep up on a runner unexpectedly, it’s almost always long in the making. For an easy-to-read, detailed discussion of overtraining/burnout, I highly recommend:
“Stress and Recovery,” p. 138-144, in Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners. New York: New American Library, 2007.
It should first be said that you will need to assess yourself wisely. Burnout shouldn’t require medical attention, but real injuries do (watch for anemia and other ailments with early symptoms that are similar to those of overtraining). At New Life Running, we recommend that you see a doctor when problems arise so that you know for sure whether you simply need recovery time or real medical treatment.
Almost all runners are training toward a goal: racing faster, improving fitness or maintaining a healthy balance. While anyone is liable to succumb to overtraining pitfalls, those who aggressively seek improvement – faster race times, added training volume, or ramping up the running schedule to lose weight – are especially vulnerable. However, runners who do not race and hold a steady maintenance running pattern are susceptible to burnout, too, especially the psychological kind.
Training to improve is a fine balance. As Fitzgerald points out, “the more total running – and especially the more race-specific running – you are able to do from week to week without succumbing to persistent or chronic fatigue (or injury), the more your running performance will improve” (p. 138). Fitzgerald also notes that deciphering your feelings of fatigue is a key aspect of determining whether you are overtrained. Feeling fatigued at the start of a run once or twice a week is normal during a challenging training cycle; feeling fatigued at the start of every run is a sign of burnout.
Burnout is hard to pinpoint because the symptoms vary from runner to runner. For me, a combination of psychological and physiological ailments crop up, usually following the first key race in my training cycle. In Fitzgerald’s words, both overtraining fatigue and post-run fatigue are similarly “brain-centered ways of forcing you to slow down or stop so you don’t harm yourself” (p. 138). The good news is that overtraining does not necessarily have to mark the end of your training cycle. By following the conservatively tiered plan below, you will be able to assess your recovery slowly (notice that dreaded time off is the last resort, only after other strategies are applied).
Take time every day to assess how you feel. The sooner you catch symptoms of overtraining, the faster you will be able to recover and get back to regular training! Do you feel fatigued at the beginning of a run more than twice per week? In the past weeks, have vague aches and pains cropped up during training? Are you run down, have your sleeping patterns changed, are you unmotivated? Do you dread your daily run? If your self-assessment points to burnout, the following steps can help you recover and get back to regular training. Depending on the severity of your overtraining, you can skip to the more aggressive recommendations at the bottom of the list:
- Cut back on quantity and quality. Immediately drop your weekly mileage by 25% and cut your longest run and most intense quality session in half (if you have 6 x 800 scheduled, only do 3, and increase the rest time in between; if you have a 15 miles training run scheduled, only do 7-8). If you have a tempo run as part of your regular training schedule, keep it, but reduce it by 25%. After one week, how do you feel?
- If you still feel fatigued, cut weekly mileage by five more miles and scrap interval training completely. You can still keep the reduced tempo run, and your long run should remain at half distance. After one week at this stage, how do you feel?
- If still fatigued, scrap the tempo run and reduce training to only 3 – 4 days per week of slow, easy runs (every other day only). Reduce mileage to half of your original training schedule if you haven’t done so already. Add in cross training as a substitute for one or two runs. You’re three weeks into recovery mode: how do you feel?
- You have a bad case of burnout. Take time off, and don’t start up until you feel not just physically ready, but also excited to run.