You’ve signed up for a half marathon, a 5K, or a new weight loss regimen, and now you’re pondering how much running is required. It’s something that plagues most runners, “JUST HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO RUN EACH WEEK to meet my goals?”
It’s no surprise that this should be at the forefront of our minds. After all, running is a delicate balance of training properly, but not overdoing it to the point of injury. Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is real and is defined as the point where an athlete performs more training than the body can recover from, to the point where performance declines. We know recovery days are an integral part of training, yet there’s the long standing notion that the harder you train the more gain you’ll achieve. Truly, this is a very delicate balance, particularly to maintain muscle mass and your inspiration.
When you run or perform cardio activity, you are putting energy demands on your body, the result of which is a catabolic process in which your cortisol level is increased and testosterone is decreased. Several things happen in this shift of chemicals. First, effective protein synthesis is altered resulting in a loss of muscle mass and strength. Secondly, as if that weren’t bad enough, increased cortisol contributes to fat accumulation. Uh oh! This might be an argument NOT to run..or at least to be smart about your training and your nutritional plan! Finally, catabolic activity creates a decrease in testosterone, which builds new muscle tissue. When you overtrain, which is often the case for most endurance runners (I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about that!!!), you risk losing muscle, gaining fat, and increase your chance of injuries.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH? HOW DO YOU FIND A BALANCE?
There are two variables to consider when determining your weekly miles for cardio activity:
- Be Realistic in your goal
- Your body’s response to cardio activity – know the 5 symptoms of overtraining!
In being realistic, you must determine how many weekly miles you are willing and able to run. Runner’s World provides a great reference point for ideal weekly totals across each target distance and according to “elite” and “mortal” levels. Using this as a guide is critical because it allows you to think about your goal and what is reasonable in your lifestyle. If you have little time, energy, and motivation, gearing up for a half marathon is unrealistic and will most certainly result in injury, burnout, fatigue, weight gain, and overall “TOO MUCH!” So, once you have set a Realistic Goal, and you’ve engaged in your training plan, the second variable is equally important: attend to your body’s response.
The following symptoms are a signal that you must give your body a rest from training:
- Chronic soreness – We aren’t talking about the “good pain” following in the day after a workout, this is ongoing pain in which your body is unable to recover from the demands being placed upon it.
- Weight gain/No muscle gain – As already mentioned, with the perpetual bodily stress of overtraining, elevated cortisol causes ongoing catabolic activity in which fat is stored and muscle is wasted.
- Illness – Your cortisol stress hormone drives many systems, including your immunity. Overtraining causes chronic “fight or flight” mode and will shut down bodily systems deemed unnecessary to your survival, including immunity (and reproduction!). Elite endurance athletes are known to become sick at the end of of a competition or a very demanding training cycle.
- Life Imbalances/Obsessive Behavior – If relationships, social life, career, and sleep are being put on hold while obsessive thoughts of exercise dominate your thoughts, it’s definitely time to take a break!
- Food binges or cravings – Overtraining can create a nutritional imbalance and it can also trigger compensatory cravings. If Starbucks, wine, chips, and all things “less healthy” are a part of your repertoire to reward or to “get by,” it’s time to look at your fueling strategy and also to consider more recovery time. Sure eating chips provides a salty boost of electrolytes, but so does the healthier alternative of drinking Coconut water. Comfort foods are a sure sign that life is out of balance!
- Mood Swings – With overtraining, your body releases excessive amounts of adrenaline resulting in perpetual adrenal fatigue. Chronically heightened adrenaline alters the production of calming, happy hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. As a result, irritability, depression, mood swings, and general anxiousness and agitation are marked and ongoing.
- No more “Fun Factor” – We typically start an exercise program because it’s fun, it feels good, and generally feeds the soul. Sure there are down days when you’re not as motivated, but when the “fun factor” is markedly noticeable, absent across most workout days and you find yourself just dragging through the motions out of willpower, exercise is out of balance.
Scaling back or recovery doesn’t mean to quit. Instead, take some time for proper recovery and rest, which may not mean time off, rather an alternate exercise, one with less intensity or complexity, lower resistance, less reps, and longer rest periods
Most importantly and routinely overlooked, proper nutrition is a critical part of the recovery process, with more attention required for protein uptake to protect from muscle wasting as well as increased antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods for cellular healing.
The Organic Superfoods I recommend and use routinely to protect muscles and to decrease recovery time include:
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Be realistic, listen to your body’s response, control your nutrition, and repeat. This cycle will keep you injury free and focused on your goal, with head and heart in the game!