Ultrarunning and Overtraining


by Dr. Adam Friedman

I had a brief consult with Johnson the other day. I was finishing up my workout on the basketball court, here in Moyogalpa and he had just finished his training run for the day. We chatted a bit about his training. He told me he probably wasn't going to run in the race in Managua on Sunday. This is a big race that if he won, he'd have a place in the New York Marathon, in the fall. He said he felt run-down and weak, as if he had no desire to run anymore. Those are pretty clear signs of overtraining. Johnson, is a good example of what many high-level athletes run into; a wealth of heart (both physiologically and mentally) but not enough training smarts. Training smarter, not harder is difficult for two reasons:

1. Most of us have had 'coaches' when we were little (Little League Dads, well-meaning but clueless assistant coaches) who instilled in us ridiculous ideas of what we should be doing.  Most detrimental is the idea that failure is the result of not trying hard enough.  If you want to succeed, you're going to have to train 'harder' than the other guy.  To remedy this is not an easy fix.

2. Change is scary and no one likes to be afraid. When asked to change a training routine, the athlete needs to be able to take a leap of faith that the new way is not just different, but better.

From the brief talks I've had with Johnson, I've gathered he's running upwards of an hour and a half most days.  I told him to take the next three days off and do nothing but stretch and relax. If, after reassessing on Friday, he still feels lethargic and heavy in his muscles, don't run on Sunday. There will always be other races and the risk of doing greater damage, both to his muscles and joints as well as his immune system. People who overtrain are chronically ill. Colds last weeks instead of days and strains and sprains last months instead of weeks.

One other thing I recommended he try is to take his true resting heart rate (taken first thing in the morning, before getting out of bed). A sure sign of overtraining is an elevated resting heart rate due to the body's inability to function optimally.

When next we meet, I'll get a better handle on his diet and training program.

Until next time...