Overtraining in your Running

Overtraining occurs when runners run too fast or too hard and stress their bodies more than the bodies can handle. There are two types of overtraining: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. Most runners are familiar with Sympathetic overtraining, because that is the type of overtraining that is discussed in running books and web sites. However, Parasympathetic overtraining is more serious and needs to be understood.

Our Nervous System

There are two components to our nervous system: The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic. Both components are in operation simultaneously, and they balance each other. When we experience stress, our Sympathetic system becomes dominate and causes our heart to beat faster to get more blood flow, our breathing rate to increase to get more oxygen, our sweat glands to function to cool us off, adrenal glands becomes active, etc. After the stress has passed, our Sympathetic system reduces its effect, and our Parasympathetic system becomes dominate and helps us recover. Our heart rate slows, breathing goes down, we stop sweating, etc. Our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems have opposite effects on our bodies: one to handle stress and the other to recover from the stress.


Runners overtrain when they run too fast or too far and have insufficient rest after their training, that is, they don't completely recover from previous stress before they subject their body to new stress. In doing this, they tax the operation of their Sympathetic system, and certain symptoms occur which signal that overtraining is taking place. The following list of sympathetic symptoms is from http://www.grapplearts.com/Overtraining-Article.htm
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced concentration
  • Apathy
  • Insomnia and/or troubled sleep
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Decreased performance
  • Delayed recovery from training
  • 'Intolerance' to training
  • Elevated morning rested pulse
  • Increase in injuries
  • Chronic muscle soreness
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent minor infections
  • Appetite loss
  • Decreased enthusiasm for training
The basic remedy for sympathetic overtraining is to give our bodies additional rest. The additional rest might need to be complete rest, or it might need to be a reduced activity level and/or cross training. While this overtraining is going on, the Parasympathic system is trying
to cause the body to recover from the stress, but its effects are overshadowed by the Sympathetic system.

Now, suppose runners ignore the symptoms of overtraining and continue to train at their high level of stress. Eventually, the Sympathetic system becomes exhausted. The Parasympathetic system then becomes dominate and attempts to cause the body to recover. The Sympathetic system isn't able to balance the recovery, and the body recovers too much. This is known as Parasympathetic overtraining. The web site linked above described it this way.
There is also another form of overtraining, 'parasympathetic' overtraining, that is associated with a decreased resting heart rate. This occurs because the athlete has been overtraining for so long that his hormonal and nervous systems become exhausted. This is fairly rare for martial competitors and really only occurs [in] endurance athletes with extreme training volumes.
Web sites I've studied give three symptoms of Parasympathetic overtraining: resting heart rate goes down, quick recovery from stress, such as recovery time between intervals, and no sleep disturbance. Notice that these symptoms are symptoms of recovery.

Am I suffering Parasympathic Overtraining?

If runners experience a drop in their resting heart rate or fast recovery times, they aren't necessarily suffering Parasympathetic overtraining. They may be experiencing the effects of a stronger body. How can they identify, then, the cause of the changes in their bodies?

Parasympathetic overtraining results when the Parasympathetic system becomes dominate due to the Sympathetic system ceasing to function properly. So, lets list the events that likely will have occurred when Parasympathetic overtraining occurs.
  1. Symptoms of Sympathetic overtraining occur. These are the symptoms that are usually discussed in running books. The major ones are listed above.
  2. These symptoms are ignored, or at least not compensated for adequately, and the Sympathetic system becomes exhausted and ceases to be the dominate component of our nervous system.
  3. The Parasympathetic system becomes dominate and puts our body into recovery mode. Because this recovery is not balanced by the Sympathetic system, the recovery goes too far, so to speak, and the resting heart rate decreases, and/or recovery times are decreased.
Each runner, who is experiencing parasympathetic symptoms will have to decide if he/she is suffering from Parasympathetic overload or is experiencing the effects of a stronger body. It seems to me that the key observation is whether #1 and #2 (given above) have occurred.

Tired Heart

An article titled "How Much is Too Much?" explains that
Most recreational athletes are more used to the notion that an elevated heart rate is the sign of overtraining, specifically during rest, and they’re right in their thinking. Fewer athletes are aware of, or ever experience, a heart that cannot beat fast enough. But professional triathletes are very aware of this phenomenon, especially those who engage in Ironman-style training and racing.
"There are days that I just can't get my HR to the zone I want it to be in," says Ironman and World Champion Karen Smyers. "This is a sign of not being recovered, and I reschedule the hard workout planned for that day. If you recognize it early, you can usually recover in a day or two. If you have pushed through it for a long time, you may need a much longer time to pull yourself out of the slump." Every triathlete who has done the big miles can relate to a time when the heart for some reason won’t beat fast enough under load. What is in question is exactly why this happens and what the physiological mechanism behind it might be.
The article gives the advantage of having a heart rate monitor.
"You won’t know you’re heart-tired without a heart rate monitor," [longtime American pro Mark] Montgomery says. "You feel OK, more or less, it’s just that you’re out there doing an amount of work that should have you up to 150 beats, but your heart is only at 125. Your heart rate monitor is the only way you’ll know it."

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gemini said...

Had the elevated heart rate and disinterested running state that suprised my household. This happened 2 weeks from taper wherein I rested but faulted a bit getting back into the swing of things. Ran a pb but not in the time I originally planned.

Karl said...

Went into parasympathetic stage after sympathetic. Resting HR suddenly went from long-term normal 48bpm to 52bpm for a week (sympath. stage?) to sudden 43 bpm over two days (parasymp.) and BAM! Immunity drops like a stone, bad chest infection and laid out for a week. Slowly rebuilding. I'm a road cyclist.

Anonymous said...

I was getting ready for my first cross country season, and I trained all summer doing about 50miles per week and at least two workouts a week. this was all great, and i never felt better, but I didnt rest between the transition from my summer training and my cross country season. I ran my best times (17s in the 5k) at the beginning, then by state i ran (19s in the 5k). I was so burnt out. but i rested for about 3-4days, then continued training for track, did awfull in my track season. So i baiscally trained for about 11-12month with minimal rest. I took still ran over the summer, but took it easy, but i still feel fatigued (dead legged, heavey legs, lack of motivation) but now im running in college and struggleing cus im menatlly and physically dead.i feel like im just going through the motions right now, but its hard to quit cause im on a scholarship so im stuck. WHAT SHOULD I DO AND HOW MUCH REST SHOULD I TAKE?

Allen said...


If you running for yourself and not on scholarship, I would suggest that you continue taking it easy as you did over the summer. I would also suggest that you include light cross training, such as swimming or cycling, to help keep your body "toned up" while you recover. In this case you could take as much time as needed for your recovery.

However, being on a scholarship complicates things. There could be other factors that are involved, such as your diet and your sleep. And, being in college, you have the stress of classes. So, my suggestion is to talk your coach and the appropriate college officials to see if they can help you make contact with a good sports doctor. It sounds like you need professional help with your recovery and with your future training so you don't have a relapse into burnout.

Anonymous said...

THANKS very much for those suggestions!

Evan said...

My situation is very similar to Anonymous. In my summer going from freshman to sophomore year (high school), I trained very diligently for cross country, slowly working up to around 45 mpw, and I felt amazing during the summer. No pain, no soreness, just flying through my runs. I dropped down the mileage a little bit during the season, and my first meet was very successful. My second meet was the best of the year, I was really in tip top shape. My third race I did not run as well, but still was a good showing. I then got sick and had a bad race the next week (attributed that to the sickness), and continued to have worse and worse performances, got sick again 2 weeks later (both times it was a bad case of the common cold), and finally culminating in a horrid performace at sectionals, causing me to lose my spot for the state meet. The last 2-3 weeks of the season I felt tired, my legs were always heavy, and even though i got a very large amount of sleep, I was still tired during the day and had trouble keeping my eyes open. My quads and calfs sometimes had minor pain during my runs as well. I am very frustrated with all of this, what should I do to ensure that this does not happen for track season, and how can/should I recover from it?

Allen said...

I don't know your physical condition, so my comments may be off mark. However, the pattern I see is that your overdoing it, and your body isn't ready for that level of training. You worked up to 45 mpw. You felt great during the summer. You had two great meets. Your third meet wasn't as good as the first two. You went downhill from there. Colds are common symptoms of bodies that can't handle the stress they are receiving.

Be sure you get a good night's sleep each night, and be sure you have a good diet. Approximately 65% complex carbs, 20% protein, and 15% fat (no trans fats). If you're not already doing this, take a rest day before each meet. 45 mpw means you're burning about 4500 calories, which translates to a pound and a third each week. So, don't skimp on food, just make sure it is proper food for an athlete.

Talk to your coach about your performance. If you wern't on a team, I would suggest that you take a week or two off for rest (light cross training is ok during the week), and then cut your distance by 25-50%. When you resumed your running, be sure you run heavy/light and follow the principle of the 10% rule. But, since you're on a team, you need to get your coach involved. I just hope he is an understanding person. and not a "no pain, no gain" guy.

Go back and reread the list of symptoms of over training and see how many fit you. Start taking your wakeup heart rate each morning.

Allen said...

Another comment on food. You need to eat enough food to maintain your current weight plus replace the 4500 calories you burn each week. Probably more like 5000 calories. Get rid of sugar, refined flour, sodas, coffee. Eat foods with a medium and low glycemic index. You can google glycemic index or similar words to learn about that. If you're hungry, eat some nuts instead of a candy bar. Drink 4-5 glasses of water each day.

Evan said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I seem to have most of the overtraining symptoms:fatigue, reduced concentration, troubled sleep, irritability, decreased performance, delayed recovery from training, increase in injuries, chronic muscle soreness, frequent minor infections, and decreased enthusiasm for training. On the other hand, I have a really good diet that I follow carefully, and I hydrate well too. I think it just comes down to that my body couldn't handle that kind of mileage, and I peaked way too early. Of course it is too late for all this now, because I was the 5th man on Varsity the whole season, and now I lost my chance to win a state championship. I guess I just have to prove myself during the winter and spring track season. I am going to take 2 weeks off between cross country and winter track, without any running. I am going to try to stay under 40 mpw for track.

Allen said...

It's good, Evan, that you have your diet and hydration under control. It sounds like you have a good plan for the coming year. I want to congratulation you on listening to your body and recognizing your symptoms! Good luck in your spring training. Let us know how that goes for you.

Evan said...

Thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

hey, this is just an update from my previous message. i have taken so far about 4-5weeks of complete rest, the soreness in my legs have gone down, but are STILL present. it's like a month of rest for me is equavilent to a day's rest for any other runner, i don't know how much rest im going to need, but all my muscles still feel really over worked, i went to try weights on upper body, but my musles feel fatigued and i feel no lactate respone whatsover, im not sure if i will be able to get back into running...its crazy that im still feeling these symptoms from training during the summer from more than a year ago...(and something i didn't mention but thought was interesting, the list say weight loss as a symptom..i have done the opposite, since last year xc[and i haven't gotten taller] i've went from 122/123 lbs to 138lbs weight change, so i gainded weight, but i think since im experiencing a lack ofappetite, i think it killed my "used to be" great metabolism, in result a weight gain rather than loss of weight...)im at a lost for what to do at this point...

Allen said...

Anon, your symptoms sound just like my symptoms after I had blood clots last January. I had no strength or endurance. I gained 38 pounds in two weeks due to swelling of my waist and legs. I ran 7 miles two days before and could only *walk* 100 feet afterwords. Now, after 10 months, I can only run 1/3 mile and then I have to walk about the same distance to recover. My total distance of running and walking is only up to four miles per run.

Since you're still suffering from an injury a year ago, I would suggest that you see a doctor ASAP. Your injury apparently isn't a "normal" one that you can treat yourself.

Anonymous said...

I Love to run each workout I aim to push myself harder than the last day.I even LOVE the way I feel after a hard workout.I can do this for 6 days and not feel HORRIBLE untill that 7th day.I cant even walk without it being a struggle.Then it takes about 3-4 days to get back into the swing of things.
I bet i am overtraining but I just dont know what to do, i feel like i am cheating if a run an easy day.

Allen said...

Anon, I think I understand your feelings to a degree. We do feel great after a run and want to push harder each day to increase our success and good feelings. It is good, though, to run heavy/light, because our bodies need at least 48 hours to recover from a heavy run. Your runs actually damage your body cells. Running is destructive to our bodies! It's during rest after a run that our bodies repair the damage to the cells and in the process become stronger. Thus, getting rest after each run is not only wise, it is necessary!

Heavy/light means that one day you have a good run (heavy stress on your body) and the next day you do a shorter run or a slower run or both to put less stress on your body. Some people will take the next day off from running and do cross training such as light cycling, light swimming, walking, hiking, etc. The key is that you have a day of heavy stress and a day of lighter stress.

Running heavy/light and making small increases in your distance or speed will help you avoid overtraining. Be aware that it is normal for runners to hit peaks and then go into a slump. The slump is your bodies way of telling you that it needs rest. The way to get out of a slump is to take a day or two or whatever you need off from running and do light cross training or even days of complete rest. Then, when you feel OK, go back into your running.

In the meantime, observe your body during and after each run for signs of overtraining. The signs are listed in my post. If you have some of the signs, back off for a day or two or what ever you need to give your body time to recover. And, remember the 48-hour thing. Consider days of light stress as being part of your training.

Matt said...

okay so I have a little different situation. I am a division 1 distance runner and going into my sophomore year(summer before) My mileage was beginning to get pretty high. My highest mileage week before this summer was 70 and as I got above that my body felt more and more tired but nothing major. My problem really began to occur towards the end of an 86 mile week. Thursday of that week I got NO sleep at all. I laid in bed and just couldn't sleep. The next 3 nights I slept an average of about 3-4 hours a night. I was running 86 miles that week all in singles. I didn't experience any of the other symptoms other than just being sore and tired. All of this training was prescribed by my coach, I didn't do anything I wasn't supposed to. I thought it might have been a relaxation problem at first but then came across this overtraining syndrome in books. During the fall season my mileage got up around 80 and I was fine. I hit 85 miles again and again began having trouble sleeping. This time it was just a couple nights of 4-5 hours of sleep. I know my body is strong enough to handle this type of training. I have great p.r.'s to back the type of training I do(15:00 5k, 8:40 3k, 25:15 8k) and I know there are many others on our team that have had no problems with the training. Am I overtraining?

ayarella said...

Hi Matt,

I would say yes- you are in the sympathetic overtrained state. DON'T ignore it. I'm dealing with the parasympathetic stage now... brutal.

Anonymous said...

i put myself into full-on parasympathetic overtraining in just 20 days of hard low-carb dieting combined with weightfliting, cardio and interval training (I'm a bodybuider) combined total of only 5 hours a week.

Had a resting HR of just 37. Didn't have another period for 3 months after I resumed normal training and eating.

People in hard training need to eat enough. For me it was clearly just the calories alone that did it, since my workload was only 2/3 of normal, maybe less.

pursuingsub17 said...

Glad I found this. For the last 3 weeks I've had what only can be described as "legs that feel like lead" and a lack of mental energy to train. I've done marathons and half ironman races in the past 3 years and now I can't run over 10k without feeling a heaviness in my legs and a rapidly reducing desire to train. Never thought of overtraining - I associate that only with injury. Really, I've been strength training and then running again without time off since my last half ironman in July, 2011.

I'm taking this season off and just doing a couple small sprint races and one half marathon. I'm hoping reducing my training volume and intensity will be the cure for next season!

Allen said...


I hope the time off helps. Also, be sure you run heavy/light. Sports docs say our bodies need at least 48 hours between heavy workouts, and light cross training or light runs help with that 48 hours.

Boshbee said...

I'm 52 and racewalk 5k every three days, and have been doing this for three months with an almost unbroken string. I set PR's every time out and absolutely leave it all out on the track. I go so hard that I feel almost drunk as I stagger back to the car.

For the past week, I have felt deeply tired and last time out, I started out strong, then faded.

For those of you young bucks who train every day, you're probably laughing at my long periods off, but they have worked for me.

My question is, even with 3 days between workout, could I still be overtraining?

Allen said...

Hi Boshbee,

Overtraining is always a possibility, regardless of how much rest a person is getting. We're all different and our bodies react differently to the same conditions.

Here are two suggestions.

1. Instead of walking with high intensity every three days, try reducing the intensity of your walks, such that you alternate your high intensity walks with walks of less intensity (keep your high intensity walks at a lower intensity than you're now doing). Your low intensity walks should be walks that you enjoy and walks in which you could carry on a conversation with a friend. Runners call this low intensity workout LSD or long slow distance.

You're not a youngster anymore, and you need to temper your workouts to be within the limits of your body. Read my articles in this blog on stress and rest and slumps. Also, read the essay in my blog by George "doc" Sheehan on the basics of jogging.

It sounds like your walks of high intensity are equivalent to a runner always sprinting. I don't recommend, nor does the running literature, that runners always sprint. We recommend that most of ones running be LSD, Unless they are on a team and are coached by a trained adviser, runners should almost never sprint.

2. Go to your doctor for a good checkout to see if there is some hidden condition in your body that might cause the conditions you describe.