Sarah Russell

Written by Sarah Russell


Are You on the Verge of Overtraining?

Subliminal (or maybe not so?) messages all around us tell to keep pushing harder; “sweat is fat crying”, or how about the more traditional “go hard or go home”. You know how we feel about taking it easy on your recovery days, and we have talked about how you can run 23% faster if you run 80% easy, but what if you have already overdone it, and you managed to avoid the dreaded “i” word, but you just feel exhausted on every run.

We know just how awful that feels:

Each coach at Runners Connect has been there before, and we want to make sure you can recognize the symptoms, so you can get back to feeling good while running as quickly as possible.

Overtraining syndrome might not be something you’ve ever thought about or even heard of, but according to Dr Mark Wotherspoon, Consultant in Sport and Exercise Medicine at and Southampton Football Club in the UK, it’s on the increase, especially amongst recreational and beginner runners.

We are going to show you how to self diagnose overtraining, so you can get on your way to recovery quickly.

More recreational and beginner runners are suffering from overtraining. Are you one of them? We will help you speed recovery to get back to running faster

What is overtraining syndrome?

The term ‘overtraining’ can be misleading as it implies that ‘training’ is the root of the problem, when in actual fact, the individual runner’s ability to recover is the key factor.

‘I actually prefer the term Under Performance Syndrome (UPS)’ explains Dr Wotherspoon ‘Overtraining syndrome implies that the athlete is engaging in a high volume of training, when in fact what’s far more important is the volume of training in relation to what’s going on in the rest of your life.

Here’s the deal:

Your body isn’t a machine and it can’t cope with a full day in the office then 3 hours of training on top. We’re seeing more and more recreational and club level athletes who are trying to juggle families, a full time job, and trying to train like a professional athlete. It’s just never going to work and will inevitably lead to breakdown’.

It is often only with the benefit of hindsight that runners fully recognize periods of overtraining. Ironically the normal reaction to poor results is to increase the volume and intensity of training even more, putting the ‘underperformance’ down to not training hard enough.

The spiral of overtraining and poor performance then begins, and if not caught in time, leads to full blown overtraining syndrome. It can be difficult to define the line between training hard and overtraining.

Listen to this:

‘UPS develops on a continuum’ explains Dr Wotherspoon ‘the initial stages are known as ‘over-reaching’, where the runner may be fatigued, but after a few days rest can recover and resume training. However, if you ignore those initial signs of tiredness and mood changes, continuing to train without sufficient rest; you could end up with full blown UPS; and recovery could take months.

[bctt tweet=”The difference a few days can make; over reaching takes a few days to recover, overtraining takes months!”]

Symptoms of UPS

Dr Richard Budgett , Chief Medical Officer for the 2012 Olympic Games and former Director of the British Olympic Medical Centre is one of the world’s leading experts on UPS.

A rowing Olympic gold medallist in 1984, he knows a thing or two about exercise and has dedicated his career to research and treatment of UPS in endurance athletes. He defines UPS as “a persistent, unexplained performance deficit (recognized by coach and athlete) despite 2 weeks of relative rest”.

It gets worse:

Despite years of research, there is still no official diagnostic test for UPS, and it is notoriously difficult to diagnose and quantify. In addition, signs and symptoms of UPS are complex and multifactorial.

He suggests however, that if an athlete is showing a number of the following symptoms and other medical conditions have been eliminated, then UPS must be suspected:

  • History of heavy training and competition (relative to lifestyle)
  • Decrease in training capacity (especially ability to recover from sessions)
  • Drop in performance
  • Fatigued, washed out, drained and lacking in energy
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Increased anxiety and irritability
  • Sleep disturbances (found in 90% of cases) insomnia, nightmares, poor sleep quality
  • Frequent infections (particularly upper respiratory tract)
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Mild muscle soreness, general aches and pains
  • Increased incidence of injuries

[bctt tweet=”Full list of the signs and symptoms of Under Performance Syndrome (Overtraining) to refer back to.”]

Dr Wotherspoon agrees. “There are three main parts to UPS” he explains “Immune suppression is the first. People train hard, don’t get enough recovery, they become immune suppressed, suffer from colds and illness and keep training harder and harder, further suppressing the immune system.

Second is more psychological. We often see months of low-grade depression, which has gone before UPS. Athletes fall into a cycle of low level depression, low mood and lack of sleep. This is a much bigger part than many people realize.

Thirdly, performance in races and training drops off, runners are exhausted and run slower times, but then train harder to try and improve their performance, this leads to even lower performances and a vicious circle”.

How long to recovery?

If you recognize a number of these symptoms or patterns, it could indicate that you are on the verge of UPS. Budgett advises that, depending on the severity and duration of the symptoms, you need to significantly reduce the volume and intensity of your schedule or even stop training altogether.

Hopefully within 2 weeks of rest or light training, you should start to see some improvements and be able to gradually build back up again. Also, spend this time reassessing your training plan, pay attention to good nutrition and get as much sleep as you can.

Who gets it?

The risk of overtraining syndrome is something we all need to be concerned about, not just elite runners.

Although it’s thought that around 65% of elite endurance athletes will experience some symptoms of ‘overtraining’ during their sporting careers; what’s more worrying is the rapid increase of UPS in recreational and average club level runners; due to combining heavy training with an already stressful lifestyle.

This is surprising:

It’s thought that more than 20% of beginner and club level runners may suffer extended periods of overtraining syndrome at some point in their lives.

If you have a typical ‘A type’ personality, you’re more likely to be at risk.

Characteristics such as being driven, determined, successful, high achieving, and competitive are regularly seen in those who suffer. “You do have to do a reasonable amount of exercise to suffer from UPS” says Dr Wotherspoon “Cycling and triathlon are becoming more common, and people find they get quite good and then want to push on, compete in their age group and they try to train like a professional athlete. You just can’t do that on top of a full day at work”.

[bctt tweet=”More than 20% of beginner and recreational runners (65% of elites) may suffer extended periods of overtraining. “]

Training type

Research has shown that athletes who undertake prolonged periods of high volume and repetitive training are most at risk. It would seem that lack of variety and lack of recovery are the two biggest risk factors – yet another reason to mix up your training and keep things fresh.

Periodization in the training program is therefore paramount. This basically means that the schedule must have periods of hard training or ‘over reaching’ with planned phases of recovery allowing the body to repair and adapt.

Runners often find it hard to accept that it’s essential to rest and are scared to take a day off. But it’s during those essential ‘recover’ phases when the body gets stronger and faster.


What amounts to ‘too much’ training for one runner, will be insufficient for another; we’re all different.

What’s the bottom line?

Learn to listen to your body, get in tune with the signs and signals, and act on the feedback.

If you’re constantly weary and struggling through training, then back off and cut your training load down before overtraining takes hold. UPS should not be inevitable and if caught in time you can head it off, recover and learn from your mistakes.

Training doesn’t have to be hard all the time; have the confidence to do a bit less and take more rest days. More isn’t always better.

Next Monday we are going to cover what you can do to Recover from URP, but until then, if you suspect this may be you, take a read of our previous posts on the topic:

Defining the line between hard training and overtraining

The causes and symptoms of overtraining 

Eating yourself out of overtraining

How fatigue, illness, and overtraining can affect your resting heart rate

[bctt tweet=”This post may have saved me from falling into the overtraining trap; take a read!”]

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Budgett R. Fatigue and underperformance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome. Br J Sports Med. 1998;32:107-110

Rushall, B. S. (1981). A tool for measuring stress in elite athletes. In Y. Hanin (Ed.), Stress and anxiety in sport. Moscow: Physical Culture and Sport Publishers. 65

Rushall, B. S. (1987). Daily analyses of life demands for athletes. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.

Budgett R, Newsholme E, Lehmann M, et al. Redefining the overtraining syndrome as the unexplained underperformance syndrome. Br J Sports Med. 2000;34:67-68

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