NCR-based runner Meenal Kotak remembers looking forward to claiming a personal best in the “24 hours World Championship” in November 2019. She gave her training all the attention it required, clocking mile after mile. However, she may have pushed too hard with not enough time for rest and recovery. Pretty soon, Kotak experienced the telltale signs of over-training — a frequent spate of injuries, including regularly hurting her knee, hip bursitis, and finally aggravating her sciatica. She also noticed a stagnancy in performance — she was improving, but not at the rate that the training warranted.
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“I realised it the hard way, reaching a stage where my sciatica was so aggravated that I had to stop running for a few months,” recalls Kotak, who was bedridden and on the verge of being operated on. She changed the way she trained to aid her recovery, taking regular breaks from running and mixing it with strength training. “The hardest part about this phase was the mental part. Just the fact it takes time for one to realise the benefits of mixing things or taking regular breaks instead of running and the need to be patient by being counterintuitive was difficult,” she says.
Kotak isn’t the only one who has dealt with the repercussions of training too much. Over-training is one of the most common causes of injuries, affecting both newbies and seasoned runners. Referred to as unexplained underperformance syndrome or UPS, it can lead to a dip in performance or increased fatigue, even after what the runner might consider as “sufficient rest”.
“When we talk of ‘marathon over-training, it is important to understand that over-training is usually relative to the training load a person is accustomed to,” believes Dr Aashish Contractor, Director, Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai. A serious marathon runner, for instance, will train up to, or sometimes even over 100 km a week, in season. “This may not be over-training for someone who is fit and has built up to it gradually,” he points out. On the other hand, even 20 km a week may be considered over-training for someone not used to it, he points out.
While for new runners it might seem excusable, it might come as a surprise that seasoned runners too sometimes can make this mistake. The problem is that over-training can be hard to diagnose. “Among the first signs are performance plateaus or declines. Resting heart rates can shift either up or down,” says Garmin Run Club Coach, Sarika Dipen Jain. Extreme fatigue and sore muscles could follow this. “Ultimately, over-training disrupts the delicate balance of multiple systems, throwing off hormones, the immune system, behaviour and mood,” points out Jain, adding that this could, in turn, cause a confusingly broad range of possible symptoms, including insomnia, irritability, anxiety, weight loss, anorexia, a loss of motivation, a lack of concentration and depression.
Training too much doesn’t help you get better at your sport. On the contrary, it causes your performance to plateau or decreases rather than improve. You may find you have less strength, agility, and endurance, which makes it more difficult to reach your training goals; it also slows your reaction time and running speed.
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One good thing about the current day and age is the availability of smartwatches with improved features. Many, such as Garmin’s Body Battery, Polar’s Recovery Pro and Fitbit’s Daily readiness score, let users get data on how well-rested they are to move on to their next workout. But data should not be the only factor and runners should also learn to “feel” whether they have recovered. The stress put on your body during training is also likely to impact hormone levels. “It is not unusual to find a runner suffering from emotional changes including - lack of concentration or focus on tasks, low self-esteem, poor motivation or even depression,” adds Jain.
According to her, the recovery time may vary from person to person. With a complete break in activities, one can expect to see improvements in as early as 2 weeks. But a full recovery would probably take a quarter or half a year itself.
“During this time, you can do gentle exercise to stay active. Listen to your body during this important time. If you begin training again and start to experience symptoms of over-training, return to resting,” says Jain, adding that one may need to slow down in all areas of your life. A professional or self-massage is a good option too, as is hot and cold therapy. “You can use a heating pad, sauna, or hot bath to soothe aching muscles. A cold shower or ice pack may help reduce pain and swelling in the short term,” explains Jain.
It’s not just the physical pain that over-training causes that should worry you; it can also lead to inflammation, especially if you have been exercising at a high intensity. According to Gregory Grosicki, PhD, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Georgia Southern University in a Nike.com article, instead of protecting you from external viruses and bacteria, your immune system focuses on how it can fix this inflammation. As a result, you become more vulnerable to outside pathogens.
Over-training also impacts your sleep quality, which has a cyclical effect on your running performance. When your stress hormones are out of balance, you may find it hard to relax and let go of tension at bedtime. This cuts into the crucial time your body needs to rest, repair, and restore itself during sleep. Lack of quality sleep can also lead to chronic fatigue and mood changes.
And yes, working out too much or too hard can impact your appetite. While, in general, exercising leads to a healthy appetite, over-training impacts your hormonal balance, which, in turn, influences how hungry or full you feel. It can cause exhaustion, decreased appetite, and weight loss.
So, how does one prevent over-training? Jain offers some suggestions. For starters, it is good to schedule regular rest days after long or demanding workouts. Also, one needs to take a break from targeting a muscle group for 1 or 2 days if you do weight or resistance training. It also helps to have a rest period during workouts, she adds. “Rest intervals can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. If needed, reduce the volume and intensity of your sessions. Also, schedule active rest days that include low-impact activities such as walking, yoga, or swimming. This will relieve muscle tightness and help you stay active while recovering from a strenuous workout.” she believes.