The Overtraining Trap


Many of us have experienced a feeling of exhaustion that is not the usual tiredness from a hard training session. My classic case of overtraining was immediately after running my PB at the former Transvaal Marathon Champs in 1982. That race was one of my most perfect races ever! I was strong from start to finish, had the speed in my legs and won the race quite easily! I finished full of running and was so confident after this performance that I believed that if I now really trained hard, I would run another PB and finish in the top three at the SA Championships, six weeks later!

I started training straight after and gave myself no recovery time at all! Within a week I was back up to 25min 8km time trails and 40km training runs at 4min/km. Rest days? I did not need them – I was fit and strong, I thought. However, soon I started to feel tired and fatigued more often than usual, and comments like ‘tired, sluggish, sore legs’ appeared often in my training diary. But I continued to push myself!

At the SA Champs, I started at PB pace with the front group, but felt tired early on, and after halfway fatigue set in. Needless to say, it was a fight to the finish. I still managed eighth place, but was five minutes off my PB on a fast course at sea level. I was not ill or injured; it was simply a classic case of overtraining!

Overtraining is the result of training hard more frequently than your body can handle. Positive adaptation to training occurs when there is more build-up (anabolism) than breakdown (catabolism) and you get fitter, stronger and faster. When you train sensibly, your body builds up during the recovery between training sessions, allowing you to do future training easier, or at a faster pace, or with an increase in the distance you run.

During overtraining, the opposite occurs and your ability to recover and build up is outpaced by repetitive high intensity training (speed or distance), leading to a decrease in performance, or even illness and/or injury. You push your body beyond its ability to adapt to exertion. The crazy thing about this is that when it happens, many of us believe we need more or harder training, instead of less or easier training.

Overtraining is an individual thing – what you consider normal training may represent overtraining for the next runner. The training load that you can handle is determined by the following factors:
• Genetics
• Level of fitness
• Age
• Sex
• The sum total of all the other stresses in your life (work, family, social).

Overtraining is a result of poor management (coaching) of your body’s ability to recover and adapt. An athlete can train very hard and not become overtrained as long as there is sufficient allowance for recovery between workouts. Remember, hard training is not overtraining.

One of the attractions of a joining a big running club is that groups train together for six days a week, be they Comrades runners, triathletes, social runners or walkers, and the Club Captains usually draw up and publish training programmes for all these running ‘schools.’ It is important to remember the following:
• Use these programmes as a guide to plan your own personal programme.
• Take into account the factors mentioned above, especially age. A runner of 50 generally cannot do the same training as a 25-year-old!
• Know your personal thresholds and do not succumb to group peer pressure.

It is important to establish your balance between build-up and breakdown to prevent overtraining. Train and race hard, but always ensure proper and full recovery. Also, keep a simple training log or training diary and use this information to determine how you train. Here are two effective ways of keeping check on your recovery:
• Monitor your waking heart rate every morning. A variation of 5-10 beats a minute above your average means you have not recovered fully and are tired. Have an easy or short run that day.
• Log your RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) for each training session on a scale of 1-10 so that you can compare how you feel today against last week. For example, last week you did a 20km run in  two hours and your RPE was 5 (medium to hard effort), but this week when you do the same route your RPE is a 7 (the run felt hard). Clearly you have not recovered properly from training during this week, so a rest day might be needed.

• All running programmes are a guide only – adapt it to suit your needs.
• Have short/medium/long-term goals; do not train aimlessly.
• Ensure you are fully recovered and rested for your key workouts (speed/hills or long runs).
• Each session must have a specific purpose, even if that is simply an easy recovery run.
• Speed sessions are just that; do not add extra kilometres for the log book!
• Long steady runs are just that; do not turn them into speed sessions or race your mates.
• Only do a maximum of two longer runs a week, not three, as some runners try to fit in.
• I often see runners ‘add on’ a few kays to their club run. Why? A run of 19km is as good as a 21km run!
• Any athlete can become mentally stale. Keep training fun and enjoyable with plenty of variety. Do not run the same route more than once a week. Do different races to make your running interesting. Sometimes, athletes get locked into the same race programme every year, and this becomes boring. There are so many races on the calendar, so aim to try a new event every couple of months. An away run with friends and family should also be a must at least once a year.

REMEMBER, IT IS OK TO DO A SHORTHER RUN. I recently introduced an 8km run this year to our club programme (4km out easy and 4km faster return), and I actually saw a few runners going back out to do an extra 2km for the magical 10km. Why? Your fitness will not improve as a result of this extra 2km!

A REST DAY IS A REST DAY! Mondays are often many athletes’ scheduled rest day, yet some runners go spinning for 45 minutes and do gym for an hour. That is not rest! Your body needs a complete break from training at least once a week. Older runners should consider two rest days a week, e.g. Mondays and Fridays. Rest before and after key runs to maximise the training effect.

Overtraining often leads to illness (colds and flu mostly) and injury. When this happens, you are forced to rest. However, overtraining can simply affect performance in that you are not performing to your potential. An athlete can still perform reasonably well, as I did at the SA Marathon Champs mentioned above. I finished eighth in a decent time, but my performance should and would have been better had I taken notice of the signs of overtraining.

So what do you do in this case? Firstly, you need to acknowledge and understand that you are overtrained. This is often not easy for fit athletes to do, and even more difficult is to cut back on training! But it is crucial that you do just that. Cut back on the distance and intensity that you are running and rest more often. Take a week to 10 days of running every alternate day, reducing the distance but keeping the runs brisk – not fast, but not a jog.

Also, finish each run feeling you could do more, and at a faster pace. Hopefully after a week or two of this, you will start to feel strong and looking forward to your training. Then you can build up to normal training again, unless your target race is imminent, in which case you simply take it easy till race day.

In conclusion, continually evaluate your levels of fatigue, especially when you get into serious ultra-marathon training with bigger mileage weeks and longer runs – and you decide when your body needs some extra rest or easier running!


Derick Marcisz has well over 41 years of experience as a runner, cyclist and triathlete. As a runner, he has competed in track, cross-country and all road events, including Comrades. He has run 25 sub-2:30 marathons, with a PB of 2:17:17, and a half marathon PB of 1:05:36. Derick has two top 10 finishes at the Two Oceans Marathon, including a sixth placing in a PB 3:19.20. He has been involved in triathlon since 2000 and has competed in over 70 triathlons and duathlons at all distances from the Energade sprints to Ironman. Derick is currently coaching runners and triathletes of all ages and abilities.