Overtrained or overstrained?

Often overtrained is poor nomenclature for overstrained. Most of us are actually running less than we’d like, stressing more than we should, working as much as we must, and taking less rest days than sick days. In this state we can end up training far less consistently than is necessary to perform well in any feat of endurance.

by Kristina Pattison, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Recreational running starts for many people as an innocent escape from the daily grind. A space to release some pent up energy and let go of nagging stressors. A time to breathe and sweat and listen to the rhythm of ones own heart beat and footfalls. But if training becomes more results oriented, it can become an additional stressor.

As the culture of endurance digs deeper and deeper into the recesses of human psychology, training morphs into a battleground: never stop exploring (your crazy), suffer better (than everyone), just do it (no matter what)…

Until your body just says no.

Physiologically, stress is a cue to the body that a physical reaction is necessary. The nervous system interprets something in the environment as a threat to homeostasis—or a calm state of rest. The endocrine system responds to prepare the body for a response. And the cardiorespiratory system is primed to move the body to create or find safety.

During a normal recreational run, the endocrine system will release some endorphins to get the body moving: blood vessels dilate, bronchioles dilate, muscles burn fuel, epithelium sweats to keep the body cool, all is good. During an ideal run, movement is optimized, time and effort dissolve, and the brain can start to enter into a different pattern of brain waves associated with a meditative-like state, known as “flow”.

But let’s say the same run is performed under the psychological stress of having less time available than one needs for the run. You’re body needs an extra kick, your endocrine system is already pumping out some cortisol, your heart rate is already elevated, your blood pressure elevated, blood vessels and airways dilated before you start. You force your body to run faster than normal, using more anaerobic metabolism and kicking in some extra sugar burning to get the job done. Your effort and performance are mismatched. Afterwards you’re still rushed, cortisol is still excreted blocking the parasympathetic nervous system from allowing the body to return to homeostasis. Your brain is caught in a different wavelength bouncing around between topic to topic, distracted and ineffective.

Before long, you’re back at home after a long day, and you feel run down. But you can’t sleep. You’re up all night, tossing and turning thinking of the following days and past days events and to-dos, you can’t get comfortable. Cortisol is sweeping through your body, preparing you to keep going because your mind is assessing all the dangers of not getting through your to do list. You get out of bed, exhausted, slam some coffee to get your eyes open and repeat the same cycle again, and again, and again.

Using the body’s stress response as a fuel source is risky business. And short term gains are generally obliterated by long term inability to sustain training volume. Eventually, the adrenal glands get tired of pumping out emergency hormones, and they just stop. Every little thing from walking up stairs to getting out of bed seems hard. Running becomes another agenda bullet, check-box, or burden.

But before running yourself ragged, try some tried and true methods of regaining the fun in your run. Remember these tidbits:

  1. The only thing you have to lose is your expectations. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish in a day or a season, or even a lifetime. Learning to dial back on expecting to get something—place, recognition, even happiness—from running is a good place to start. Sometimes races are just plain old character building experiences. And there is great value (and good stories) in having some character!
  2. Treat each run like a treat. Looking for those small, delightful things on each run that bring you joy can reset the psychological stress response and allow the brain to move toward a place of “rest, digest, breathe, and move easy.”
  3. Your journey is a beautiful and unique story. Every day brings opportunities to build and tell a story for which we should be grateful. Starting with now, what is bringing you joy in this moment? Or what are you grateful for right now? What does a peaceful state of mind look like? Finding these small gems along your path can relieve pressure from focus on results or accomplishments.
  4. Start doing you. No one has the same historical footprint as you and no one will live through your mind or body ever again. It’s easy to find inspiring people and stories online these days, but the nitty gritty details of personal, daily restoration are often left hidden. When your mind and body are worn down you’ll know before anyone and you know best what will help. All the advice, elite interviews and coach guidance in the world will not replace deep breathing, meditation, quite time, nutritious food, or sleep.
  5. Find your flow. To become a skilled runner means much more than speed or results. There are various ways to optimize your movement overground, and one way is to allow yourself to run at your own speed and with your own style!

The next time you start to force yourself to run against your will, think again. Letting your body grow and develop naturally and organically is the key to endurance and longevity in any sport.

Kristina Pattison is an orthopedic physical therapist who spends her free time running in the mountains with her husband, Drew, and her pups, Blaze and Juniper.

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