Over Training and Burnout | June 16, 2010
Locked in that first bear hug of ultrarunning enthusiasm and wild to take on more challenges, you’re probably not thinking about the possibility of overdoing it. But as spring turns to summer and summer to fall and you pile one race on top of another, barely letting up on your hard training between races, you might find yourself one night tossing and turning in bed, unable to fall sleep, your legs sore and jumpy, and you’re thinking, “Uh-oh.” Welcome to another dimension of your chosen sport. Cue music: de,de,de,dee…de,de,de,dee. You’ve just crossed into…the Over Training Zone…Ruh Roh!
Ultrarunning is, after all, a demanding sport, especially if you’re chasing faster times or ramping up to conquer new distances. To improve, you need to get out of your comfort zone. You have to add miles, add tempo, push when you’re fatigued, and dig deeper than you thought was possible. It’s the easiest thing in the world to push yourself a little too far, too fast, and then compound the mistake by not giving your body sufficient time to rest and recover. Persist in this pattern and eventually you’ll start feeling symptoms of over training.
Typical signs of over training include general fatigue, lingering muscle soreness, restless sleep, irritability, and elevated resting heart rate. While conditions such as fatigue and muscle soreness are natural reactions to ultra training, the over training version of these problems persist beyond the point where you would normally recover and bounce back. Even after a decent night’s sleep, you might feel drained and achy the next day. When you go out for your next run, instead of feeling energetic and charged up, you toil through the workout feeling tired and stressed out. A favorite run through the woods that used to be a joy now seems like a chore. You’re motivation to get out the door and run drops off a cliff. And despite the seemingly greater effort you put into running, your performance flattens out or even gets worse. You push through a familiar ten mile run, running as hard as ever, and are surprised to find it’s taken you an extra twenty minutes to finish. What the hell?!
The basic remedy for over training is more rest. Give your training schedule a hard look. Are you allowing adequate recovery time after your hard workout days and after your long runs? Are you taking just one rest day a week? You might need at least two days or even three. Are you doing too many workouts with high intensity and not enough easy, recovery style workouts? Are you piling up a string of high mileage weeks without occasionally cycling in an easy week with reduced mileage? Are you sticking to your workout plan with no regard to how you feel? Sometimes your body lets you know it’s time to rest. Pay attention. Avoid doing junk miles when a good rest might be a lot more beneficial. Give yourself a thorough break after a hard race effort. You might be motivated to dive back into a harder routine than ever, but let your body recover first and ramp back up slowly. With more rest in your training schedule, you should feel the over training symptoms fade and your enthusiasm for running return.
Beginners to the sport don’t need to worry initially about burnout, the other condition that long time ultrarunners often experience, but it’s something to keep in mind for the long haul. Burnout seems to be more a mental than a physical issue with runners. It usually results from following an unvaried routine of continuous training and racing until running becomes very stale, repetitive and uninspiring. It leads to you feeling very apathetic about training and racing. You feel reluctant to set new goals. You find excuses for skipping runs and keeping races off your calendar. The perceived drudgery of running trumps in your mind all the reasons you used to enjoy running. Having met the initial goals that you set when ultrarunning was fresh, you move onto other interests and before you know it, you’re out of the sport altogether.
Since burnout usually results from getting stuck in a rut and growing tired of the same old routines, workouts, and races, overcoming burnout involves changing things up. First, try getting more rest. Maybe your burnout is linked to long term over training fatigue. Cut back for awhile on the workouts that can be really daunting and stressful like difficult long runs, tempo runs, and speedwork. Change up your mix of hard and easy runs and rest days. Seek out some different running routes and different terrain. Invite some new running partners along. Try taking a break from running altogether and see if your motivation doesn’t return all by itself once you’ve had some time away from running. Another strategy that works for some runners is to drop down to shorter distances and shorter races for awhile. Training for a 10K or a half marathon is a significant break from your long slow distance ultra routine and can reawaken your excitement for running. Traveling to distant events and exploring new race courses is another way to get back in touch with what makes ultrarunning the enjoyable sport that it is.
Of course, depending on your circumstances, over training and burnout might not be exclusively running related. Stress from other areas of your life could also be compounding or interacting with the problems you’re having with your running life. But the running is definitely something you can work on. Get the rest you need. Change up your routine. Get running back to a place where it helps you reduce stress, not create it. You can also follow the sage and oft repeated advice of my teenage daughter, “Take a chill pill, Dad.”