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What is overtraining (and why runners need to avoid it)?

In early 2021 I was training for a marathon. Denied of racing in 2020 due to the pandemic, I, along with some of my club mates, were signed up for the Richmond marathon. It was a bit of a punt as there was still uncertainty due to ongoing lockdowns. Unfortunately with 3 weeks to go to race day, the event was cancelled. However, a smaller event had popped up a week later, on private land at Dorney Lake, making it more likely to go ahead.


Faced with the decision of carrying on training for the rescheduled marathon two months later, or signing up for this new race (with the possibility that it could be cancelled), I opted for the former. With a couple more months to train, I figured, I could grow my fitness and guarantee a faster marathon time for my efforts. My club mates thought differently, and signed up for Dorney Lake.


Their results came in, and they smashed it, all hitting their target times. Given that many of us had trained together and generally been on the same level, I assumed that their times would serve as a benchmark for me to be able to improve upon with the benefit of more training.


However, as the weeks went on, I noticed that I was feeling more and more sluggish. The long runs in particular were really starting to drag. While I didn't pick up any injuries, I often felt sore, and nothing seemed quite as fluid or sharp as it had several weeks earlier.


By the time the marathon came around I was flat. I'd run myself into the ground in training and my body wanted a break, not to somehow elevate itself to a new performance level. I ended up running 2:58:54, at least 5 minutes slower than I'd hoped for, and I pretty much hated every minute of it.


I had missed my window to capitalise on peak fitness earlier in the year, and instead chosen to race while in a state of overtraining. In addition to declining performance, I ticked all the other boxes of overtraining:

  • More muscle soreness than usual after a workout

  • Inability to train at a previously manageable level

  • The sensation of 'heavy' legs

  • Longer recovery periods after a workout

  • Constantly wanting to skip or cut short workouts

There's a popular training mantra, "it's better for a runner to be 10% undertrained, than 1% overtrained". I was aware of this, however dismissed it (I mean, those percentages don't look favourable for undertraining do they?), and had to learn it the hard way.


It stands to reason, you can't be in peak fitness all year round. Planning your training to peak at the right time in relation to your goal race is where good coaching can come in. Sometimes you need other people to tell you to back off, as it can be hard to follow the signs of overtraining even if you know they are there. I now deliberately coach with the goal of keeping my athletes overall slightly undertrained, as not only do I believe that it leads to happier and healthier athletes, but better performances too.


My hunch is that overtraining is more common among those who follow a 'polarised' or '80/20' training systems, with its tendency to promote hard workouts, and high mileage. With less space for racing, there is the temptation to train hard rather than trust that race day can lift performance levels. That's why I prefer training systems such as the Easy Interval Method or the Norwegian Model, as they are designed to keep athletes feeling fresh and race ready for longer periods of time, rather than the risk of aiming to peak once or twice a year and potentially get it wrong. Jakob Ingebrigtsen is the perfect example of this, always showing up to race whether it's indoors in March, the Diamond League and global championships through the spring/summer, and even cross country in December. It's fair to say he knows a thing or two about training. Watch the clip to hear succinctly what he believes the single biggest mistake that athletes make to be.



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