Use This Simple Rule to Find Out if You Are at Risk of Overtraining
Chances are you know someone who runs their daily runs too fast, or doesn’t take adequate rest. They are racing their training – and they’re not even getting medals in return. Instead, after getting better and faster for a period of time, the reward is feeling increasingly sluggish and tired. Running might become a chore, rather than a joy; mile splits start getting slower and the race PRs never materialize. It might sound dramatic, but overtraining syndrome is real — it was eloquently covered in this Outside Magazine article, which should become required reading for all endurance athletes.
The good news: there is a simple way of figuring out whether you are training too much or too hard. Forget about heart rate monitoring, blood tests, or urine analysis.
Instead, look at your past few weeks of training and see if you are following the rule of Four Efforts.
What is the rule of Four Efforts?
Simply, it states that you should have no more than four “efforts” in any given week. An effort is anything that stresses your system — any exercise (not only running) that makes you gasp for air, or sweat buckets, or gives you the gift of sore muscles the next day or two.
An easy, conversational run is not an effort. A hard run where you leave it all out on the road or track is an effort. So is spin class or a HIITs workout. Even a yoga class that makes your muscles tremble as you struggle to hold a pose counts as an effort. The week itself counts as an effort, too.
So let’s say you run three times a week, do yoga once a week, spin once a week, and lift weights twice a week: once after spin to work on upper body, and once as a stand-alone workout, when you focus on lower body. That’s a total of six days of healthy exercise. But, you’re training for a half marathon, so you’re trying to run all of your miles as fast as you can because you want to really get the most out of them.
So how many “efforts” is that? For a runner, that’s anywhere from six to seven, depending on the type of yoga. Hot yoga would definitely be an effort, gentle yoga at your local YMCA — maybe not.
Here's a quick summary of the efforts in example above:
- The week: 1x
- Running: 3x
- Spin class: 1x
- Weights: 2x
- Total: 7
How many efforts you should have in the week: up to 4
If running speed or endurance aren’t important to you and you don’t care about getting faster, that might be OK. Maybe you want to burn more calories to promote weight loss and you have a limited time you can spend a week on working out. This high intensity training might be the way to go (for a while, anyway).
But if you are focused on running -- as you should be when you are training for a race where you hope to run a personal best -- then something’s got to give.
So what can you do?
Here’s one alternative:
Add two runs for a total of five a week. Get rid of the weighs and spin – not forever, just while you are in this specific race training cycle. Keep the yoga if it’s a gentler stretch-type thing, nothing that makes your muscles sore the next day.
Next, structure two – up to three – of your runs as hard or moderate runs. The rest should be at easy conversational pace, or recovery runs (on the days after you’ve had a hard-effort run).
Some people call easy or runs “junk miles,” thinking that if you only run easy, low-effort miles, you are doing nothing to improve. But when strategically coupled with the running workouts appropriate for the race distance for which you are training, those easy miles are anything but junk.
Hard or moderate runs are typically a tempo, hills or interval (speed) workout. And - this is key! - long runs are considered hard efforts, even if you run them at an "easy" pace.
So if you are training for a half marathon, in addition to your long run, you might have one tempo run where you will practice running a bit faster than race pace, some hill repeats to make your legs stronger, or an interval workout – usually half-mile and mile repeats (longer stuff, because your are training for a long distance race, after all). That, along with the week itself, makes four efforts — plenty for your body to be pushed and stressed, but not too much so it doesn’t have the time to recover and adapt.
Does that make sense?
To sum up, here are a few common mistakes I see runners make, which lead to overtraining, injury or both:
1. Run fast, all the time
If your goal is to achieve the fastest mile splits you can on every run, you are guaranteed to fail -- simply put, you cannot get faster forever. Don't turn into the Gingerbread (Wo)man every time you get out the door. You'll break.
2. Run all long runs at goal race pace
This is such a massive no-no that I don't think I could stress it enough. Your race pace is supposed to feel so hard that at the finish line, you have nothing left to give. If you run all of your long runs at this pace, make no mistake, you will get injured. And if you are able to run all your long runs at a certain pace that you then match at your race... well, you did not "race" in the true sense of the word. More experienced runners can throw in some race-pace intervals within certain long runs, but those should be well thought-out workouts sprinkled strategically into the overall training plan. So, again, if you want to avoid injury - do not run your long runs at race pace. Please.
3. Do it all
Let me briefly introduce you to the concept of specificity of training (we'll talk about it in more detail another time). Simply put: the body makes adaptations that reflect the type of stresses it is subjected to over the course of training. To give an obvious example, you cannot adequately prepare for a marathon by swimming -- even if you swam a 10K every day.
What does this have to do with runner mistakes? The problem is that many people love doing things outside of running - yoga, weight training, barre class, zumba. They are fun activities, social outings, and so on. But when you are in the thick of a marathon training program, you will be running - a lot. If I am coaching you, you better believe me when I tell you that I will push you to what I deem to be your limits as a runner, so you can become the best runner you can be. Does that leave room for yoga? Perhaps. Zumba and Orange Theory class, though? Most likely not. Something's got to give. So, if you download a free marathon training plan and decide that this is how you will achieve your next 26.2 PR, then please -- follow the plan and don't pile more work on top of it.
Remember: the rule of four efforts. It will keep you happy, healthy, and in love with this running thing!