Running rehab specialist Matt Phillips reveals how to spot the signs of overtraining

Whether you are a runner, cyclist or triathlete, overtraining can actually have an adverse effect on your wellbeing and increase the risk of injury. It’s great to feel fit, but even if you are feeling very strong at the moment, you may still be at risk of your body breaking down.

The problem is, we are not always aware of the symptoms of overtraining and when we are the steps we take to rectify it are often misguided. Let’s take a closer look…

Modern life stresses

Given the stresses and strains of our hectic modern lifestyle, the time we find to participate in our chosen outdoor activity is precious. For runners, cyclists and triathletes, this is the activity that restores balance to our lives, and fuels us both mentally and physically to cope with whatever life throws at us. In theory, anyway…

If you stopped and asked yourself, ‘Am I truly feeling better for all of this exercise I am doing?’ what would the answer be? For a surprisingly high number of people involved in active exercise, the answer is often ‘No – I don’t actually feel better for all of this effort I’m making!’

Symptoms of overtraining

At certain times of the year, if you are preparing for competition or have just completed a particularly gruelling session, you may well feel utterly destroyed but, as a rule you should, by definition, feel better for the exercise you do. Other signs that may indicate that you are overdoing things include constant fatigue and low energy, a constant stiff sensation in muscles, flu-like symptoms and not feeling like you’re getting any fitter.

Plan your sessions to avoid overtraining

One of the best ways to avoid overtraining is to follow the 20/80 rule. This means that 20 per cent of your weekly training should be medium to high intensity, e.g. sprints, intervals, hill work, etc. In these sessions you will be building explosive speed, strength and endurance and should finish feeling like you have worked to your maximum.

The other 80 per cent of your week however needs to be at low intensity, i.e. an intensity at which you could maintain a conversation.  

Change your diet

Obviously, nutrition plays a huge part in fuelling you for workouts, but so does recovery. Making significant, long lasting changes to your diet takes time, patience & dedication – traits that the overtrained athlete does not generally have.

Make dietary changes by all means, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that you can therefore continue with your current level of activity.

Stretch after training

Stretching can often feel good, but as far as reducing the amount of soreness you feel over the next few days (DOMS: delayed onset of muscle soreness) studies show that runners who miss out their post-run stretch do not suffer more next day soreness, and some are even less sore.

The most probable cause for stiffness in muscles is simply doing too much – pushing your body beyond its thresholds. This should be expected after a hard session but, if it’s a long term everyday sensation, you simply have to reduce the frequency, intensity and/or duration of your training sessions.

Finding the solution

Physical activity can have a huge amount of benefits, both mentally and physically, but is important to remember that it also places stress on the body. Your body does not have unlimited energy reserves and depends heavily on rest and nutrition for adequate recuperation.

Pushing yourself too hard too often is easily done, especially when you are doing something you love. So it is vital we structure our training appropriately and keep an eye out for signs of overtraining. If it does happen, pull back slightly. Make the appropriate changes to avoid it happening again, and you will soon see balance restored.

More information

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury & Performance Specialist at StrideUK and hosts the podcast RunchatLive. Visit his website at runchatlive.com.