3 Keys to Avoid Overtraining

Overtraining syndrome is a buzzword that gets batted around the distance running world. And while it strikes fear in the heart of runners everywhere, finding a concrete definition is a challenge. However, I’m not here to pick at nuances in the definition. Fatigue in general has a number of causes, and being on the wrong side of the line can be catastrophic for performance. I’d like to share 3 things we implement with the ZAP Team and our ZAP Coaching Clients to avoid any version of overtraining to build healthy consistency in our training.

Avoid Overtraining Tip 1: Intentional Rest

Rest is a clear remedy for overtraining and fatigue. It’s also the key ingredient to improving fitness. When an athlete is experiencing fatigue, a plateau in performance or a lack of enthusiasm with their running, rest is often the missing ingredient. Sometimes it requires taking 1 step backward to take 2 steps forward.

We implement structured pullbacks in training to avoid overtraining and reach peak performance at the right time.
Photo from @janemonti26.2 at Race Results Weekly.

Just like a recipe, the dose and implementation of rest is crucial. Sometimes taking true rest for 1-2 weeks is necessary – injury being the clearest example. But rest can take many forms. Generally, we include a planned pullback in training every 12-16 weeks even when an athlete is healthy. And this type of rest is not complete time off.

We typically structure those planned pullbacks after a big race and training block. This allows the body to fully absorb the training and the race effort. The result is a bump in fitness 2-4 weeks later.

For our pro athletes the pullback is usually 1-2 days off from running and another 3-4 days of shorter, easy running. This typically means we’ll skip 1-2 workouts and replace them with easy running before transitioning back into full training. For our non-professional coaching clients this is typically 2-4 days off from running followed by 4-6 days of every other day, short, easy running.

This type of pullback includes enough running to maintain fitness and the body’s structural strength to be able to handle full training. But it’s enough of a break to freshen up the legs, fully realize the hard training from the previous 12-16 weeks, and re-energize the body for what’s to come.

Avoid Overtraining Tip 2: Workout at 85%

We preach this ad nauseam at our Adult Running Vacations. 90-95% of your hard workouts should be done at 85% effort. Meaning, you should be finishing your hard workouts feeling like you could have run faster or done more. In marathon training virtually every workout should be done this way.

Keeping the effort in check ensures that your workouts are staying largely in the aerobic range rather than anaerobic. For long distance runners this is imperative. Spending too much time in the anaerobic zone (95-100% effort) can erode aerobic fitness. Even for shorter events like the 5k, the aerobic component is still 85-90% of the race. So if you’re consistently sacrificing the 90% for the 10% in training performance will suffer. It’s also a fast track to overtraining.

The aerobic base is the foundation on which all distance running is built. Neglecting this base by overemphasizing anaerobic work can crumble that foundation and push you into overtraining. If you’re interested in geeking out on the dangers too much anaerobic presents on the cellular level, check out this brief explanation by Steve Magness.

The bottom line is, most people over cook their workouts. Less is often more when it comes to pushing the intensity envelope.

Avoid Overtraining Tip 3: Space Out Workouts

Creating more space between workouts can be accomplished in 2 different ways. Both ways have the effect of reducing the risk of overtraining and injury. The first is to get out of the 7-day week mindset. With our pro team we operate on 9-10 day weeks. Essentially, instead of trying to fit in 2 hard workouts and a long run in 7 days we fit them into 9-10 days. This allows the athletes to better recover from the hard workouts. It’s also helpful in being able to increase mileage during marathon and half marathon training without overtraining.

For most runners, having that kind of inconsistent schedule isn’t practical. The solution I implement with most coaching clients is to focus on 2 days during the week: 1 hard workout and 1 long run. This is universally applied in half marathon and marathon training. In half and full training, the amount of running is an important factor and it’s difficult to run more while handling the same amount of intensity as you would training for a 5k or 10k. It’s also difficult to handle 18+ mile long runs along with 2 harder workouts in a 7 day window.

1 Step Back, 2 Steps Forward

Structured pullbacks, controlled workouts, and creating space between hard sessions are all concepts that support each other. And they all center around the importance of keeping intensity and frequency of intensity in check.

In our culture the response to not getting what you want is almost always to work harder. We respond this way to our running performance as well. But in distance running working harder is rarely the answer. Working smarter is. Working smarter typically means taking 1 step back to take 2 steps forward. These strategies are focused on restraining our instinct to push, push, push. They are instead focused on taking a step back to see the forest for the trees, forcing us to be more patient in the short run in order to reach higher heights in the long run.

Not Subscribed to Our Newsletter? Click Here to Receive Regular Running Tips & a Free 12 Week Half Marathon Training Plan

Interested in Learning more about ZAP’s 1-on-1 Coaching Services? Click Here.