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Overtraining 101: How To Overtrain

June 9th, 2000: by Robert Johnson

(Editor's note: Robert Johnson is recognized as a world's leader in overtraining. Less than four months after running a 2:23:11 marathon, he ran a 2:33:54 in near ideal conditions at the Vermont City Marathon on May 28th. He did so after logging many 125+ mile weeks at altitude while anemic)

1) Increase your mileage - by a lot and keep it there.
This is probably the most important ingredient to overtraining properly. Be forewarned however, it's not all that easy to figure out how much is too much. I mean if you aren't running a whole lot to begin with, it's possible that you could even double your mileage (from say 30 miles per week to 60 miles per week) and actually improve your performance. However, we don't want that to occur since our goal is overtrain - i.e. to work much harder than ever before and run much slower.

Another potential pitfall is that you likely are to get injured if you increase your mileage too much. In my book, being injured doesn't really count as overtraining and thus a very fine line must be walked. One wants to run so much that they overtrain but not so much that they become injured. That's why I recommend that it's best that only experienced runners try to overtrain. Inexperienced runners probably will become tired or injured very quickly and won't be able to make it to the starting line of their goal race where they hope to set their PW - personal worse.

O.k. that's enough background information. Let's learn from my actual training log as I increased my mileage perfectly. Admittedly, I did have some help as all of my running was done on trails and thus it was easier for me to avoid injury.

The first thing I did before jacking up my mileage was run a marathon as I wanted to make sure I was tired beforehand. Because I was having some calf problems heading into the race, I was a total wreck after the race and literally could barely walk for five days after the race. However, that didn't stop me from hitting an all-time weekly high of 130 miles the second week after the race, when my previous all-time high had been 125 miles which I had done once in my life.

I didn't actually plan on running this much. However, I got lost on one run and ended up doing a lot and thus decided to keep it going for the rest of the week. I had just moved to Flagstaff, AZ and was trying to help my brother get ready for the Olympic Trials. I wasn't working and thus had little better to do than run and figured I might as well do a ton and see what happened.

I then proceeded to average a little more than 125 miles for the next six weeks or so, reaching an a new all-time high of 152 in the process. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that all of this one done at 7,000 feet of altitude when I had never lived at altitude before.

2) Ignore all the symptoms of overtraining
If you are able to successfully do step A and get your mileage way, way up for an extended period of time, you are well on your way to overtraining. In a short time, you likely will start showing the two classic signs of overtraining - the inability to sleep well and poor race performances.

You should be very encouraged if these two symptoms show up as it probably means that you are running way too much. However, it's very important that you have the ability to come up with excuses or reasons for your inability to sleep and poor race performances other than overtraining. Otherwise you likely will back off your training and never properly achiever your goal of setting your personal worse at your goal race as you probably wouldn't even make it to your goal race.

Coming up for an excuse for my inability to sleep was really easy for me. I was waking up constantly during the night and not sleeping soundly but I blamed it on the fact that I recently moved and wasn't used to my new sleeping environment.

Can't Sleep Explanations:
Explanation #1) Bed Too Soft

Originally, I thought the bed I was sleeping on was too soft. After about three weeks on this bed, I changed beds but still couldn't sleep.

Explanation #2) Drinking Too Much Water
I then thought it was perhaps because I was making a point of drinking a lot of water since I was running a lot and living in such a dry environment and I was thus only waking up to go the bathroom. I discarded this theory after I realized that I when I woke up I didn't really need to go the bathroom, I just went because there is little better to do when you can't sleep at 3 a.m.

Explanation #3) Feeling Guilt About Being Lazy
I then came up with a rather novel explanation that I entitled "The Protestant Worth Ethic Explanation for Sleep Deprivation." It went as follows: I was waking up frequently only because I felt guilty because I didn't have a job for the first time. I was waking up early to prevent myself from sleeping really late and feeling a large amount of guilt for spending the day as a "lazy bum".

Explanation #4) Too Much Light
I then turned to the belief that there was too much light in my bedroom. After a couple of weeks, I bought one of those eye patches that makes everything dark so you can sleep, and I started to sleep a lot better. Thus I thought it was indeed the light all along as I now was sleeping like a baby. The fact that my improved sleep coincided perfectly with my marathon taper (and reduced mileage) didn't cross my mind until much later.

Discounting my poor performance in the three tune-up races (two 5ks and one 10k) was rather easy as I had no previous p.r.s to really compare them to. In the 2.5 years that I have been running seriously, I've barely run any races shorter than a half-marathon because minor injuries kept me from racing for about a year and thus when I did race I focused on longer races as I knew I had very little time to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon.

Poor Race Excuses:
Race No. 1 - 5k Road Race - Excuses: Course Not Certified, No Competition, Not Focused.

My first race was a 5k road race. I went into the race thinking I should break 15 minutes, but ended up barely breaking 16 minutes. I think the fact that I ran so much slower than I could have imagined made it easy to come up with explanation. I mean the race really was a joke. It wasn't certified and thus I thought perhaps the course was long. Additionally, I won the race by more than a minute. Thus even if the course wasn't long, maybe I just had trouble pushing myself with no competition. I ran fairly well the first mile when I had some people to run with but didn't after I got way far ahead. Additionally, it was my first race back after the marathon.

Race No. 2 - 5k Track Race - Excuses: 10k Canceled at Last Minute, Improper Warmup, Ex-girlfriend Distraction.
My second race of the spring was run on the track and it also was a disaster. Once again, I ran well for the first mile and then just faded badly - the last mile was close to my marathon pace. Since I knew the distance was accurate and there was plenty of competition, I had to look for new excuses and they were easy to come-by.

I originally was planning on running the 10k. However, it was canceled right when I began to warm-up for it and I was told that I could run in the 5k which started in like 10 minutes. This would be distracting for anyone let alone someone who was only running in the fourth track race of their life, and I clearly was distracted during the race.

I started the race great and was running in second place for the first mile and was thinking I was going to win the race . For some reason though, when I came through the mile, I was thinking I only had 3. 5 laps to go which would have meant I was running a 3k.

Needless to say, afterwards, I was complaining that my mind wasn't focused properly. Was it cause the 10k was canceled? I didn't think so but perhaps. The only other explanation was that my ex-girlfriend was at the meet and you think that also might distract you but I didn't think it did at all. If anything, you'd think that would cause you to run even faster rather than slower.

It didn't really cross my mind to think that something physical might be wrong with me so I blamed my mental approach. I thought perhaps I didn't know how to run hard in the shorter distances as I hadn't raced them much before. I just explained away the final 2 mile fade as "being mental" and figured I'd be more focused next time.

Race No. 3 - 10k Track Race - Excuses: Bad Tactics, Tried to Run By Myself:
My last warmup ace of the spring was much like my first two race races - fine for the first 1/3rd and then a complete disaster. I was running in the Mt. Sac 10k and realized that the field would go out really fast. I decided I would try to run my own race and run even splits.

I ended up running practically the entire race by myself and really running poorly for the final 4 miles. After the race I was very confused. I had never run a 10k before but it's not all that short of race and my marathon time equates to a 10k time of close to 30 minutes whereas I had barely broken 32 minutes.

I tried blamed the whole fiasco on the fact that I had tried to run the whole race by myself instead of going out a little faster and working with the pack. However, I started to doubt this explanation as I was running so slowly at the end of the race that it should have felt easy even if I was running by myself or even if I wasn't going all out due to a lack of focus, but it didn't feel easy at all.

Considering that previously I had always run pretty consistently but I had bombed in three straight races, I started to look into physical explanations into why I might be running so poorly. I figured I was either anemic, overtraining or both.

I probably would have checked for anemia a lot earlier had it not been for the fact that I had been taking a liquid iron supplement since the time I had moved to altitude. Additionally, I was living with my identical twin brother and we were running virtually the same workouts and eating the same foods and he had previously had his ferritin (iron stores) level checked and it was fine so I assumed mine was as well.

I finally got my blood tested and found out that my ferritin level was low. I then got on super-doses of liquid iron and was under the impression that my iron level should return to normal within two weeks. At the same time, I reduced my mileage - first due to many activities associated with the going to the Olympic Trials to watch my brother compete and then due to my marathon taper.

I began to sleep better but continued to run very poorly. At one workout,I was going so slowly that I almost just quit in the middle of it and called it a season. However, I continued as the Vermont City Marathon had already purchased my ticket to the race and I would feel bad about canceling at the last minute.

Moreover, while I was running way below what I expected, I still figured at the very worse I would run a 2:28 marathon which would place me in the top 5 and earn me some prize money. I mean I had run a 2:29 marathon in my very first marathon on 60 miles a week and now was running twice that much. Even if I had been overdoing it or was anemic, I figured I had to be in pretty great aerobic shape as I had been running so much and thus I'd do allright once I tapered and increased my iron intake.

Coming Back Around?
My optimist take on things received some validation during very next workout which went very well. The only one all spring that was a pleasant surprise. I had zero confidence going into it, but got on the track and felt great and ran 5 miles in 25:20 when I thought I'd run over 26:00. I thought to myself, "I backed off the mileage, started sleeping more, upped my iron intake and things are starting to come around."

I then had my ferritin retested and it was still low. This concerned me a bit but I didn't really care as long as I was running well. I thought perhaps it takes a while for the increased iron levels to show up on a test. I'll be fine at the race.

The Marathon: Complete Disaster
Unfortunately, I wasn't fine at the race. I felt fine for about 8 miles (I now realize this happened in all of my races, felt fine for about 1/3rd of the race) and was running in the lead pack and then the wheels just fell off. I don't believe in dropping out for the most part and thus I finished but it wasn't pretty.

In near perfect conditions, I ran 2:33:54, by far the slowest of my 4 marathons when I had set a p.r. in each of the previous three. It's almost inconceivable to me that I could run so slowly. I ran more than 10 minutes (or about 25 seconds per mile) slower than what I ran in my last marathon less than 4 months previously.

The weird thing is that I'm not that upset about my race at all. It was so bad that I know that there was something physically wrong with me and thus there's no reason to be upset. Whether it was simple overtraining, anemia or overtraining and anemia I'll probably never know.

Badge of Honor
In fact, as an official member of Overtrainers Anonymous, I feel a bit of pride as I now have joined the ranks of many of America's top marathoners. At this year's US Olympic Marathon Trials, the top two seeds in American record holder David Morris and Joe LeMay ran 2:29:26 and 2:36:42 respectively. Last Fall, 2:13 marathoner Terrence Mahon ran a 2:36:39 at New York.

Previously, I couldn't comprehend how these three guys could run so slowly. I mean I could see them having a bad day and running 2:20 or even 2:25 but I just didn't understand how one could run 2:30 or worse. Now I know and am proud to be a member of the club.

If the biggest obstacle that I have to overcome to succeed as a runner is that I have a tendency to work too hard, I can live with that.

Let's just hope it doesn't happen again.

The only thing that really troubled me after the race is that I wondered how I could run the 25:20 5 mile workout about 10 days before the race run so badly in the race. I mean it made no sense. I had been running a ton and obviously was aerobically fit, but how come it all disappeared on race day?

The best explanation came from 1976 Boston marathon winner Jack Fultz who wrote me in an email:

"You demonstrated the classic signs of chronic overtraining. The low iron is symptomatic of that as well. With enough short term rest, your reservoirs begin to fill back up and you can pull out a single workout like the 25:20 five miler but it probably leaves you back in the hole - despite it giving you a mental lift. You've been working hard for a long time so there is a lot of fitness there but it is like having a lot of money in the bank but the ATM is closed so you can't access your fitness."

Concluding Remarks

Having read my horror story, I'm sure a few of you are fearful that you might overtrain. It's definitely possible, but I wouldn't worry too much about.

The main thing I'd tell you to look for is a string of sub-par workouts followed by a series of sub-par races. You're bound to have off days or even a week or two where you don't feel too hot, but if it continues for an extended period of time, you probably need a break.

It was a little easier for me to miss all of the signs of overtraining than most because I was living and running in a completely new environment and thus it was hard to make comparisons to past workouts. Most of my workouts on unmeasured courses by time (which I highly recommend so that you aren't obsessed with hitting a certain time) and many of the few track workouts that I did were done on a dirt track at 3,200 feet of altitude which was bound to make things slower than normal (I just didn't know how much). Additionally, I hadn't really raced any shorter races in a few years and thus while I thought my race times were really slow, I didn't have any verified times to use as a comparison.

Additionally, my whole goal all along was to help my brother get ready for the Olympic Trials and thus I really wasn't too concerned about my performance. As a result, many of my workouts were a bit haphazard (I'd pace Weldon for a s long as I could, take a break and then pace some more) and it was thus doubly tough to realize I was working out poorly. One thing I remember now is that I was complaining a lot about feeling an abnormal burning sensation in my thighs when I was working out or coming off a really high week, but I ignored it at the time as I was more focused on Weldon.

I knew I was taking a chance but have always been somewhat of a gambler - high risk, high reward. I still firmly believe that you'll run better the more you run as long as you can tolerate it. Maybe I did too much, but it probably will help me in the future.

It also was a bit of a fluke that I ended up running three marathons in 7 months which was a bit much for me. I ran one in October and didn't qualify for the Trials and thus had to rush things to come back in February to try to run Las Vegas as that was the last best shot to qualify. After Vegas, I normally would have taken time off but I didn't have that choice as I moved to Flagstaff to help train with my brother.

Final Advice
If you're overtraining, you'll probably realize it sooner or later. So that you can catch things before they get too bad, I'd recommend that you start taking your pulse a couple times a week when you wake up. When you're overtraining, you're resting pulse rate will rise normally and thus you'll know to back off. When I began to fear that I was overtraining, I considered taking my pulse but didn't as I didn't have a normal pulse with which to compare it.

Lastly, if you're moving to altitude, be sure to start taking an iron supplement and have your ferritin tested before you go to altitude and then ever 3-4 weeks once you get to altitude to make sure it doesn't start declining.

Comments, questions? Send them to Robert at [email protected] or post them on our Message Board.

Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com, has been running all of his life, but only competing seriously since the Fall of 1997. A series of stress fractures resulted in Robert being only the fourth man on his high school cross country team and in him not running competitively in college. However, his love of the sport never died and he was able to return to competing in the sport once he backed off, allowed his body to heal and gradually got back into things - slowly building up a base so that his body would be strong enough to handle the rigors of serious training.

Since returning to competitive running, Robert has progressed quickly, and he just missed out on qualifying for the 2000 US Men's Olympic Marathon Trials by running a 2:23:11 marathon at the 2000 Las Vegas Marathon.

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