Overtraining - Are You at Risk?

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Fri Oct 17th, 2008, No comments (be the first!)

In a New York Times article about the dangers of overtraining, the author told the story of a 15-year-old high school runner who became a victim of overtraining. He was running more miles in his training while running increasingly slower times in his races (1500m). The author quotes a doctor who has written about the condition: "…it is quite rare … and unlikely to strike someone running 20 miles a week or so." He also says that "If you are a runner and have a steady history of running 40-70 miles a week and now you are pushing it to 80, 90, 100 miles a week and your times are dropping and you are feeling sluggish, then I'll start to listen." This gives one the impression that unless you're a very high mileage runner, you've got nothing to worry about in terms of overtraining.    

However, this is only one form of overtraining and affects only a small number of the total running population. I have known runners suffering from this type of overtraining and it's not a pretty sight. They show many of the same symptoms as people with chronic fatigue syndrome: depression, lack of energy and elevated heart rate. It can take a very long time to recover, depending on the seriousness of the episode. But, like I said, it's only one form of overtraining. 

There's another type of overtraining that is very common and it happens when you train at a level that is consistently beyond what your conditioning — and even more importantly — what your technique can handle. 

This kind of overtraining can happen to any runner at any level of conditioning, from beginners to elites. Any runner who stretches themselves too far beyond their current capabilities runs the risk of injury, especially if their running technique is less than optimal. I've seen many beginning runners who start training for a marathon within their first year of regular running. It is common to see these folks set back by some sort of injury caused by their body's inability to keep up with what their mind would like to accomplish. If an elite runner has a weakness in their running form, such as overstriding, they too are at risk of an overtraining injury. 

In the Times article the author states that, "Overtraining is an unintended consequence of the only known way for athletes to improve – by pushing their bodies and stressing themselves by deliberately going faster or longer than feels comfortable." Then she quotes the high school runner's father (a cardiologist himself) as saying, "Training a little bit beyond your capabilities is the only way to get better…" 

I don't agree that "the only known way for athletes it improve" is by "pushing their bodies." It strikes me as odd that the only way to improve one's running performance is to run more mileage and leave out one of the most effective ways to really get better. Working on your running technique and learning to be a highly efficient runner should be your first step towards improving your performance. Spend your workouts working on relaxing, improving your stride mechanics, breathing and balance … then add distance, and then add strength and speed work to your training regimen, you'll get much more bang for your buck and better results for the work you put in.

The notion that improvement only happens when you push yourself close to the edge is what gives running a bad name as a high injury sport. As soon as you run beyond what your technique or conditioning safely allows, you are overtraining. 

The reason the Kenyans consistently win races is because they are not only highly conditioned, they have great running form and I believe they are some of the most efficient runners in the world.

Technique, Distance, Speed – Intelligent Training
 When we coach runners in the Chi Running technique, the first thing we work on is running technique. Once that is refined and made more efficient, we then we teach the runner to maintain that running technique for longer and longer distances. This helps the runner build a good biomechanical base so that every mile is easier on the body, no matter how many miles. Building a distance base then increases the runner's aerobic capacity (their ability of their muscles to absorb oxygen). After that, the last stage is to add in speed work (based on good technique) so that the runner becomes familiar with what is needed to run at faster speeds. This is not based totally on strength conditioning but is a blend of good running technique, good aerobic capacity, and good cardiovascular capacity (your body's ability to pump more blood). 

If you are training for a specific event, adjust your training runs to include race-specific training. Improving your performance isn't just about running more miles to get better – it's learning how to train in a more intelligent way by listening to your body and adjusting your training to meet your running goals without getting injured or overtrained. If you remain sensitive to your body's capabilities as you gradually increase the intensity of your workouts, you can avoid any overtraining injuries or setbacks.

A runner friend once told me, "Runners who train long miles are slow learners." Well, I have trained for many miles for many years. It’s how I developed Chi Running. However, running long miles is not the only way to improve your running. It's not how many miles you train, it's how wisely you train. If you're running your workouts with good technique, your recovery time should be very low or nonexistent. Learn to listen to your body. If you're feeling any adverse effects from your workout, it's your body telling you that something's not quite right. From the Chi Running approach, if you have sore calves and quads after your workouts, t you're too reliant on your legs and not taking enough advantage of your core muscles to get the job done. It all comes down to having good running technique as your foundation and building from there. 
 
As explained in the Chi Running book, it is hard to overtrain practicing the fundamentals of the Chi Running technique:

  • Good posture
  • Relaxed limbs
  • Loose joints
  • Engaged core muscles
  • A focused mind
  • Good breathing technique


Too many runners, coaches and running publications today are putting too much emphasis on leg strength and conditioning and not enough focus on technique. If you're training for a marathon and running 50-60 miles a week with inefficient running technique, you're wasting a lot of your training miles. In the Chi Running approach, the emphasis in training is on perfecting how you run… on as many levels as possible. Then — speed, longer distance, or whatever your goal might be — becomes a wonderful byproduct of your training without the risk of injury and overtraining.

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A Chi Running Love Letter

About three weeks ago I had a very strong memory of what it felt like to run when I was 7. The freedom, the exhilaration, the laughter. What happened in the intervening 41 years? 

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