Are You Overtraining? Two Easy Tests

by Jen on August 25, 2011

It’s no secret that I’m not currently in intense training mode for anything (although I definitely have the itch now that I’m running pain-free again) but I know there are many of you training for fall races.

I am a huge advocate of following training plans when preparing for races – anything from 10Ks to sprint triathlons to marathons. The benefit of training plans is that they offer an easy and logical way to build mileage and prepare you for the event. The downfall is that it’s tempting to adopt the mindset that the plan is the end all/be all and you can’t modify skip workouts.

The truth of the matter is that there is no “perfect for everyone” training plan and it’s important to modify them to meet your specific needs. For instance, I find that when I get into high-mileage/peak zone that I need more rest than the average plan allows. After an 18 or 20 mile training run, I need a solid three days with NO running rather than the one off day that most plans suggest. (And ice baths…hurts so good!)

It’s important to take more rest or back off of the intensity when your body is sending signals that you may be overtraining. Some of the physical symptoms include:

  • A general feeling of fatigue that you can’t shake
  • Sleeping poorly and not having restful sleep
  • Getting sick – picking up colds and other bugs that are going around more frequently than normal due to a weakened immune system
  • Feeling down in the dumps and not motivated to train
  • A decrease in performance – struggling to maintain your normal pace or getting the “dead legs” sensation
  • Injuries, aches and pains

There are also two easy ways to test for overtraining. (Please note that these are only meant to serve as guidelines and not absolutes. Always consult with your physician before starting a new activity or if you are experiencing any negative effects from training)

Tracking Your Resting Heart Rate
The easiest way to tell if you are overtraining is to monitor your resting heart rate. This is your heart rate when your body is at complete rest – you should be lying down and awake but not recently active. The best time to take your resting heart rate is upon first waking up in the morning before you’ve even gotten out of bed.

Take your resting heart rate by lightly placing two fingers on the inside of the wrist to find the radial pulse or on the side of the neck to find the carotid pulse. Count the beats in 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to find the beats per minute.

The average adult resting heart rate is between 60-80 beats per minute but many highly conditioned athletes may have resting heart rates that are much lower. (Lance Armstrong had a resting heart rate of 32-34 bpm at his peak – insane!)

Don’t worry so much about what your baseline number is as long as it falls within or below the normal range. What you really want to watch for is any elevation. If your average number increases by 5-10 bpm, consider it a sign that you may need to take a rest day and back off of the intensity of your training.

Heart Rate Zone Training and Recovery
Many training plans call for speed work. In general, speed work is extremely effective to help increase pace and performance but if you are on the road to overtraining, pushing your body that hard can lead to injury.

Speed work usually cycles you through different heart rate zones. Tracking these zones requires the use of a heart rate monitor.

Calculate your maximum heart rate by 220-age, keeping in mind that this is just a rough guideline. To know your true maximum heart rate you would want to have a stress test done on a treadmill.

Zone 1 (65-75% of max)
Maximum heart rate x .65 or .75

Zone 2 (80-85% of max)
Maximum heart rate x .80 or .85

Zone 3 (86-90% of max)
Maximum heart rate x .86 or .90

How to apply this to test for overtraining…this would be especially useful at the beginning of a speed workout.
(Source – NASM: Essentials of Personal Fitness Training)

  1. Warm up in Zone 1 for 10 minutes
  2. Increase speed/intensity every 60 seconds until you reach Zone 3. This should include about a 2 minute climb through Zone 2.
  3. Push for 1 minute in Zone 3
  4. Decrease workload for 1 minute. You want to recover to a Zone 2 heart rate within that minute. If recovery does not happen that fast, consider yourself tired or overtrained and stay in Zone 1 or Zone 2 for the rest of the workout. It is not your day for speed work!

And as always, listen to your body. If it is telling you to take a break, take a break! It’s much easier to recover from overtraining at the beginning stages rather than letting it escalate to exhaustion or injury.

I hope you guys enjoyed this post! Now that I actually hold a personal training certification, I am really excited to do more informative posts like this one. I was hesitant to do them before due to lack of qualification. I must state one.more.time. for the record that these are just suggestions and always do what is right for you and listen to your body and you physician! The majority of the information in this post comes from general knowledge that I’ve gained over the years through YMCA and Personal Training certifications.

What are your signs that you are overtraining? For me it’s prolonged muscle soreness (especially in my calf muscles), fatigue and dreading runs.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa August 25, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I like the few days off after a long run idea. Generally I don’t have a day off after my LR (on Sunday) until Friday. Yikes. I just completed a 13 on Sunday and when I went for 3 on Tuesday, it was a struggle. My shin splints are out in full force. I’m skipping my run today to hopefully recover a little more and rest up for my 10 this weekend. I think I may need to rearrange my rest days

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2 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

melissa – it sounds like you are making the right decision to skip your run today. better to take care of those shins now! and yeah, play around with your rest days and see what works for you!

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3 LeeAnn August 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I love this post and look forward to more like it. Congrats on your certification!

My joints definitely tell me when I overtrain – soreness in knees and hips usually.

Just a suggestion – now that you will doing more technical posts, maybe you want to post a general caveat somewhere on your blog so you don’t have to keep repeating it. And sorry – I know that it is my profession (and your husband’s) that cause everyone to be so careful and include disclaimers, caveats, etc.

take care!

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4 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm

leeann – most definitely something that i will be adding to the site! i agree, easier just to have one disclaimer statement rather than having to repeat it over and over!

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5 Krista (kristastes) August 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Great post! My friend is a track coach (trains both short and long distance HS girls)…he has his sprinters do a lot of long distance running at HR zone 1/2 only and apparently they are fast as ever when they compete in 100m/400m/800m races. I didn’t believe him that this method works, but if you think about minimizing over-training, it makes sense. And times don’t lie! I really wanted him to guest post this topic for me but he’s been procrastinating since LAST summer haha. Keep up these posts lady, I like them!!

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6 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

that is so cool! i would love to read a guest post about that. it’s crazy how many different schools of thoughts there are out there…and how many of them work!

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7 Joanna Stebing August 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I completely agree with you on the 20 miler thing… when I get to the point where I’m running 20 miles at a time, I ALWAYS take 3-4 days off in between each one. For instance, the last couple weeks before my marathon I’ll do two 20′s a week… allows for good recovery time, I’m not dragging, but I’m definitely getting the work in. Then that last week I’ll cut it down a bit and do some shorter runs, in anticipation of resting a bit for the race. :)

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8 Jen August 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm

These are great tips, Ms. Personal Trainer :) Like you said, it’s so important to know your body. Training plans are great guides, but sometimes not following them to a T and taking an unplanned rest day or two is best. Looking forward to more posts like this!

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9 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm

thanks jen! :)

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10 Chase August 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm

One of my Team in Training coaches told me about your blog and I absolutely love it! You are a machine to tackle all that you do and you are smart to let your body heal before you run again…as hard as that may be. I’m training for my first marathon in San Francisco and cannot wait to cross that finish line. I hope you’ll be able to start training again soon!

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11 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

chase – thanks so much for your comment. i’m so happy that your coach referred you to my blog.

so exciting that you are training for your first marathon. trust me, crossing that finish line will make all of the hours spent training totally worthwhile! :)

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12 Emily@RunningPerspective August 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I LOVE THIS POST!!! thank youuu girl!!!!
when i am overtraining i def feel SO RUN DOWN and am underperforming in my running pace….and i am just like you my body just likes to get injured so i cannot run long distances and then follow it the next day with a run….learned my lesson!

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13 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

thanks emily! it’s great that you’ve figured out that you need that day off after a long run!

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14 Margaret August 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm

It’s funny, I’ve just been monitoring my heart rate, it gets really high with running and trying to figure out way sto get it to slow down. i definitely get the dead legs, I try to spin as crosstraining and after a long run, my legs are mush in spin class. definitely need to incorporate more rest days, I think I’d enjoy it more if I did. But sometimes, I love the feeling of pushing yourself, and the satisfied feeling of staying committed, it makes me feel strong, and the pain makes me feel alive. :)

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15 Jen Williamson August 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I LOVE this post! Keep the info comin’! :)

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16 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

thanks! i’m really excited write these types of posts!

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17 Holly @ RUST BELT RUNNER August 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Great post and a resource for me to come back to again!

I generally just get an overwhelming sense of dreading my runs. (Loss of spring in my step?) I find if I take those extra few days off, I come back so excited to run that my training wasn’t really negatively impacted.

That’s actually kind of where I am at this week.

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18 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm

oh holly, i am sorry to hear that you are there this week. i hope you get some rest and get that spring back into your step!

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19 Beth Thomas August 25, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Jen- Great post. I’ve been reading your archived blog posts regarding your marathon training. I’m training the the NYC marathon and your blog has been so helpful/inspiring.

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20 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:43 pm

thanks beth! great to hear from you. so excited to hear that you’re training for NYC!

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21 Kristy@RunTheLongRoad August 25, 2011 at 3:17 pm

if i have a case of “dead legs” on 2 to 3 runs within a week, i back off. for me, that’s a sure sign of overtraining.

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22 Sara August 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm

This post is so timely. I’m almost half way through training for my first marathon. Up until now I’ve followed my training schedule perfectly but as the mileage adds up I’m realizing other parts of my life are kind of going down. It hit home that you said “constant fatigue and restless nights”. That pretty much sums up the past two weeks for me. I’m going to start adjusting my running plans to see if it makes a difference.

My goal is to GET to the starting line of the race. If I don’t, all of this is for nothing.

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23 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

sara – LOVE the last line of your comment. so true.

there is a big difference between “powering through when you’re a little tired” and being so fatigued that it’s clear your body needs a break! a couple of days off will not make or break your all the work you’ve put in!

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24 Brittany (A Healthy Slice of Life) August 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

According to your signs to watch for, I’m definitely over training!! … or maybe just pregnant ;)

This will be a great post to refer to when I am able to train again, though :)

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25 Jen August 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

haha! love it!

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26 Bethany August 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm

This is so great! Overtraining is an easy misshap, that is an easy trap for us over-achievers! Thanks for your insight :)

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27 Jen August 25, 2011 at 7:02 pm

This post is just what I needed today! I’m curious, when you would rest for 3 days after your 18-20 mile runs did you do very much cross training? If so, what would you do? I have a very hard time figuring out how much rest my body needs and I think I still overdue it with cross training (Elliptical, for example)when I am “resting” from running.

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28 Holly @ Pink Runner August 25, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Haha oh… I forgot about the ice baths! I took them every weekend in the Spring when training for my first full marathon. I actually got used to them and would play on my iphone while I drank my recovery shake in the tub!

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29 Ginger August 25, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Great post with lots of great information! I love the pic of the ice bath! I do the same thing — put that hoodie on before I get in!

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30 Jo August 25, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Great post! I have been REALLY active lately- (hiking, biking, running, walking) and have been wondering why I feel fatigued/unable to get a good nights sleep. It’s almost like my muscles have a deep ache & feel restless at night. My muscles don’t ever really feel that sore/strained so I assumed I wasn’t overdoing it. I never even thought that maybe my body is screaming for a rest. Do more posts like this please! : )

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31 JennyV August 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I’m another runner training for her first marathon. I have run two half-marathons without specific training but have committed to a running plan for the marathon. Unfortunately, I’m 8 weeks out and dreading waking up for all the runs. I am doing a 3+2 program; 3 running days + 2 cross-training days so it’s tough to take any days off of running b/c they’re all pretty vital to the plan (speed, tempo, long run) — hoping I can find my running swagger again! :)

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32 Eve August 26, 2011 at 1:15 am

Great post :)

Since you’re explaining the value of knowing what your resting HR is. The most effective methods used to calculate training heart rate is the Karvonen Formula. Witch factors in your resting heart rate:)
Its more personal this way :)

Karvonen Formula: ((220 – Age)- RH X %intensity)+RH. Ex: (220-31=189)-56= 133×70%= 93 bpm
the zones are also different a bit:

Average sedentary condition: Intensity 60-70%
Getting Fit: Intensity 65-75%
Fit: Intensity 75-90%

:)

PS Congrats on getting your certification :)

Eve
Personal Trainer — Steve Nash Fitness Club Vancouver BC

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33 Whitney August 26, 2011 at 8:21 am

I know when I am overtraining because my IT band starts to flare up! ugh! I am training for my first marathon and have learned that my body cannot run three days consecutively without the it band problem. I am following a training plan and it is very hard to not want to follow it to a T, but on the other hand without it I’m not sure the motivation would be there to do the daily run/workout! Interesting! :)

Where will you be doing your personal training? I live right outside of Charlotte :)

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34 Early Am Runner August 27, 2011 at 9:15 am

Just stumbled on your blog. Awesome post.

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35 Megan@eatmybeets August 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Awesome post! Very informative.

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