How to avoid overtraining


Top Running With Us coach Tom Craggs gives his top tips on how to avoid overtraining and the warning signs of overtraining syndrome to watch out for.


Running With Us coaches
Nick Anderson and Tom Craggs

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To improve as an athlete, whether a beginner or an elite, you need to stress your body. As you recover, rest and adapt the stress you create through training allows you to get fitter and stronger. As a coach though when I ask runners about stress, the response I usually get is about muscles and joints….and normally something aching, injured or just a bit rusty. This is understandable, the body of your racing car is what you see first and we want that paintwork shiny and undented. However, I am as interested in what is under the bonnet, your engine, oil and fuel.

For endurance athletes, adrenal health is a critical consideration in deciding what training to do, when to build that training and when to cut back. This article covers some basic considerations when you aim to get a rounded sense of your health and performance.

Keeping it on a level

As you exercise your body releases hormones in order to keep your body in balance, called homeostasis. Hormonal changes occur to allow you to meet your increased energy needs, balance your hydration and manage your stress reactions in order to perform. After exercise, your hormones work to restore your energy levels and hydration and assist proteins to repair and rebuild damaged muscle fibres and tissues. There are many hormones involved when you train and race but let’s look at a few key ones;

  • Stress hormones - Three key stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. help increase energy levels, circulation, respiration and blood sugar levels when we exercise.   
  • Sex hormones - Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all involved with growth metabolism, reproductive health, strength and endurance.  

The stress hormones at catabolic meaning they break down large molecules to create energy and the sex hormones are anabolic which means they use energy to build up molecules. When we have the correct balance our body recovers well and we see a good response to our training but when the balance tips things can start to go array…

Running on flat

Cortisol and other stress hormones allow are to perform playing a critical ‘fight or flight response’. Overtraining though comes when our excessive demands for these energy giving hormones outstrips our body’s ability to produce it our body starts to breakdown and remain in a more sustained catabolic state with suppressed sex hormones, damaging our ability to train and recovery and reducing our immune and reproductive health. 

If ignored, overtraining syndrome (OTS) can be a very serious condition which can take months and even years to recover from. Don’t think you need to be running 120 miles a week either - our busy and stressful work, social and family lives can mirror many of the effects and the combination of training and life factors makes this a real consideration for thousands of everyday people.  

Check under the bonnet

As coaches, we use regular blood tests with athletes we work with and monitor levels of cortisol, testosterone and estrogen over periods of time to establish a baseline for individual athletes and check for significant differences, particularly in hard training cycles. In addition, we check for sustained markers of inflammation namely cytokines and C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a plasma protein produced by the liver which changes in response to acute and sustained stress and infection. 

The warning signs

In addition to blood tests it’s important to be mindful of other key warning signs of damaging hormonal changes:

  • Lack of progression: Despite increasing the quality and/or quantity of your training, your progression slows or reverses. You’re working harder in sessions that have felt easy in the past.
  • Injuries and niggles: Consistently getting injuries or persistent niggles that don’t clear or keep reappearing.
  • Muscle fatigue and slow recovery: Really struggling to recover from your harder sessions and feeling flat regularly. 
  • Mood swings and sensitivity: Finding yourself regularly irritable and moody. 
  • Loss of motivation: Simply no longer enjoying your training, seeing running as a ‘chore’ and fearing your hard sessions as well as a loss of focus and dtermination in sessions and races.
  • Weight loss or gain: Overtraining increases the likelihood of rapid and hard-to-explain weight fluctuations.
  • Cravings: Its common to find yourself craving sugar and processed foods to help give you an energy boost not produced by your adrenal system. 
  • Tiredness: Constant, or periods of extreme tiredness. A decreased ability to achieve a deep sleep phase, often indicated by an increase in movement during sleep is another sign.
  • Illness: Upper respiratory infections are a very common OTS indicator.
  • Loss of libido: Overtraining causes a reduction in anabolic hormones, which can result in reduced sex drive.
  • Blood deficiencies: Aside from checking your hormones blood tests can also reveal OTS markers such as a drop in ferritin (a protein that stores iron), B12 and magnesium.

In order to get a good balance or catabolic and anabolic hormones we recommend a few key steps;

1. Have a plan: A sensible, structured and balance training plan that takes gives you a planned and sustainable progression is the first port of call. A good plan will see you move through different types of training at different times of the year, balance rest and recovery with harder sessions and ensure you have lighter weeks.

2. Be ready to adapt: Keep an eye on the warning signs and your blood markers and be prepared to step off your plan and take extra rest or recovery sessions if needed. 

3. Write it down: Tracking both your volumes and intensity of training but also your blood test values and motivation is key to monitoring your body and adaptation over time. A good training diary should include all this data, review it on a weekly basis. 

4. Take the hard with the easy: Alternate hard and easy sessions to ensure your body rebuilds at a cellular level and make sure you include at least one full rest day each week. Include cutback weeks, where intensity and volume are reduced, every third or fourth week. Schedule periods of total rest after key races such as a marathon. A heart rate monitor and activity tracker can be a great tool in helping you understand the ‘load factor’ of your sessions and just how long your body needs before its ready for another hard session. 

5: Life priorities: Look at all the external forces around your training - work and social life pressures, emotional upheaval and relationship stress will massively impact on your ability to recover. Manage these where you can but if you can’t you might need to accept that training will need to cut back for a period. 

6: Fuel your recovery: A balanced diet packed full of micronutrients from varied healthy sources will help keep your body ticking over. Ensure good intake of key vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin C, magnesium, B vitamins and zinc.

7: Sleep yourself fit: Anabolic hormones are released during your deep sleep cycles and there’s a direct link between athletes getting regular poor sleep and increased risk of OTS. Banish phones, tablets, laptops and TVs from the bedroom, and avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol late at night.

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