“Over It” Might Really Mean “Overtrained”

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

I am losing my enthusiasm.

After feeling so well prepared and ready for a big success in Richmond and then not getting there, it’s been a challenge trying to stoke the fire again.

I have gained so much fitness this year that I wanted to get back on the horse and try again.    With eight additional weeks of training, the Charleston Marathon seemed like a good choice to learn from my mistakes in Richmond and get just a little bit stronger.

Yet part of me just feels over it.  I thought I would be done training this hard by now.

In some ways, I am glad the DNF happened. What I am able to see now is that I was clinging on to my sub-three-hour goal so fiercely that it became like a wet bar of soap: the tighter I held on to it, the more easily it slipped away.

Afterwards, I rested and recovered and scaled back for a couple weeks.  Then I chose Charleston and put my nose back to the grindstone.  I quickly got back up to 70-85 miles a week and began watching my food intake carefully again.  Not too much, not too little, but just enough to get a little leaner and and a little faster.

Then I bombed a key marathon workout, the 2 x 6 miles.  Blowing one workout is no big deal, but this was a complete mental and partially physical unwillingness to come anywhere near the paces I normally do not struggle with.

But I let it go and kept up with my schedule as usual.  The next workout was fine.

A week later, what should have been an easy workout in the middle of my pace range felt like a struggle.  I hit my paces, but for some reason the slower-than-marathon-pace run felt unusually hard.  What was going on?

But then the next workout was great.  And then I had a really fantastic fast-finish long run.  Just what I needed for my confidence!  All better, right?

And hey, I’m almost at 3000 miles for the year of 2016!  If I run around ten miles a day for the month of December, I could do it.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Then came another bad workout.  This time on a cut-down run where each mile gets progressively faster.  These runs are always hard, but back in October, I had run a cut-down beautifully.  Textbook perfect and faster than I ever thought possible.  But last week, I could barely get below marathon pace without feeling defeated.  I ended the workout early.

I was yo-yoing from good to bad to mediocre and back again.

I needed some advice.  Marathon training is supposed to be hard and exhausting, but I was starting to get to the point of not really caring anymore.

I brought my concerns to my coach at Runners Connect.  Being a coach myself, it’s all too easy to try to be my own coach.  But that’s a lot like being your own lawyer.  When you coach yourself you have a fool for an athlete.

 “You’re running too much,” warned Coach Danny.   “More isn’t always better, especially with volume. Even though you aren’t tired physically, you are mentally, and I think that’s more of a sign of overtraining.”

Ideally, I should be concentrating more on nailing the workouts with fresher legs and scaling back on the easy miles in between.

In other words, my 10 mile super slow easy days that I thought were doing me so much good are actually sabotaging me.

The other thing Coach asked me to do is review my training.  “Look back at logs and find a string of weeks that you really nailed every workout and felt you broke through a plateau, or things were effortless,” he said.  “That’s the ‘sweet spot’ of your volume vs. intensity and you never want to get too far from it.”

Unfortunately, there was no clear correlation between big volume and bad performances.  I had some of my best workouts during some of my highest mileage.

Even so, I think the cumulative mileage is starting to show up in my workouts.  It seems that overtraining is a sneaky affliction because I don’t feel tired in the rest of my life.  My muscles are not sore.  My appetite and weight have been stable.  I’m not getting sick.

I’m just mentally tired.

I’m losing my enthusiasm.

So I’m scaling back.  I will not run today. I will not run any more 10 mile easy days before Charleston.  I will shift my focus away from mileage and concentrate on “training density,” which is making the workout days really count.

I will not get 3000 miles this year and that is just fine.

I will not aim for a sub-three-hour marathon in Charleston. (That was hard to type, so I’m going to type it again to make sure it sticks.)

I will not aim for a sub-three-hour marathon in Charleston.

It is still a goal of mine to cross the finish line under three hours.  I will do it someday but not this time.

After a year of great running without a great marathon, I just need to focus on finishing one well again, no matter what the time on the clock says.

I need to take a smaller bite out of the elephant instead of trying to eat it all at once.

I plan to pace myself slower than Richmond and hope to cross the finish line between 3:05 and 3:10. This is a conservative goal for me, but it would still be the fastest I’ve ever run that distance, so I’m going to prepare myself for it to hurt more than I ever have before.

And if I fail again, I will learn again.   And, eventually, after a nice long break, I will try again.

With enthusiasm.

9 Responses

  1. Well, Claire... Yet again, you have written a post that perfectly described my experience last year and also serves as a cautionary tale for me as I prep for Boston. After my missed marathon due to sickness last year and then Kiawah 5 weeks later in which I was just overtrained and demotivated, I made the same choice as you when I turned around and decided to train for Albany... go for a PR, but run it conservatively. In other words, I didn't aim for what I believed I was capable of on the perfect day (a sub-3:30 at the time), but a PR still the same. It was the right choice because I was fried, mentally and physically. Like you, I was hanging so hard onto that goal, that I had to ask myself if the goal meant more than the experience,... If I needed that magic time for my own validation of my abilities, or to prove it to others,... If I was willing, after all that training, to give it my all at the risk of blowing up again and being disappointed. In the end, I decided, I needed a good experience more than the time. I didn't need to prove it to others or myself, because, truthfully, no one else really gives a damn about our times (right?!) and I know I'll get that time (and then some!) when the day is right. I knew I didn't have enough fight left in me mentally or physically to suffer like I knew was possible if I went for it. I just wanted a time good enough to guarantee Boston entry. THAT was the choice I made, and as I am now in the middle of Boston training, I am glad I did! However, I will tell you hard part... I am now more than a year past my original goal marathon and I STILL haven't proven it. I made the difficult choice to postpone another marathon season, to give myself a mental break (despite continuing to up my mileage), and to focus on speed. And now I am training for Boston, and while fitter than ever, this will be the hardest course I will likely ever run since I live on flat lands. So, I face another choice... The running calculators tell me I should now be capable of a 3:22. But, again, this is Boston and all it's glorious hills and I want to enjoy the experience and not feel like death at the end. So here I go again, aiming for a sub 3:30 when I believe I am capable of more. Yet it will be a PR if I can do it. Crazy, right? But here's my point... I think running is about patience. The right day, the right training, the right course. Heck, the right HORMONES! It all has to align! If it were easy, we wouldn't be drawn to this sport. The bad races leave us hungry for the good ones. The good races keep us engaged with training and searching for our next great endeavor. Like you, I'm looking for that sweet spot in training, because I know my day is coming. It might not be Boston, but it will come. As will yours. And those "failures"? Well, they've given me compassion and empathy for other runners when they have similar experiences. That heartache will make you a better coach! Which in my books, is way better than hitting that magical time.
  2. You've come so far in a relatively short period of time, in terms of years running. Similar to my story (I'm 46 and started running at 43), though you're a MUCH better runner. My first marathon attempt (less than a year after I started running) was a disaster, but because my goal was just to finish, I didn't have much anxiety before the race. The marathon I ran a few weeks ago was different. Although I was far better trained, I had a definite time goal and it was pretty aggressive for my level of fitness. I was surprised at how nervous I was leading up to the race. It kept me awake at night for the last few days before the race. For me, some of that anxiety was due to uncertainty about what pace I would be able to maintain at a sea level race since I live and train at 6000 ft. I knew I could not sustain my goal pace at altitude and needed the oxygen boost to have a chance. The day before the race, I decided that I should err on the side of a conservative pace rather than risk another bad marathon, which would have discouraged me from ever trying to race that distance again. You saw the result on Strava: I fell about three minutes short of my stretch goal, but it was still a huge success for me. With the progress I've made in training and that experience to build my confidence, I feel pretty good about what is possible for me in the future. You should feel the same. You'll get that sub three hour race. Your training run yesterday was spectacular. Very inspiring! I think you could beat three hours at Charleston, but I really like your decision to back off a little on the goal time to keep your enthusiasm intact. I think your patience will be rewarded in a big way in your next marathon after Charleston.
    • Thank you for sharing, Troy. I guess I've been feeling like I'm racing the clock--not just in races but in life. Everyone talks about how much you slow down after 40 and I want to squeeze every ounce of speed out of myself before that happens. What I need to keep reminding myself of is what you brought up, that I've only been doing this for a few years. My running age is still very young. I'll get there.
      • I'm sure you've heard that runners who start in their 30's see improvements in performance for around 7 years on average. It's true that the clock is ticking but you're still in this 7-year window, right? Even if you were beyond that, I know others who have seen improvements much later from changes in training. For example, one of the people I follow on Strava - Lisa - was a pure marathoner from her 20's to around age 42, when she had knee trouble and was advised by doctors to stop running. She followed that advice for a couple of years and started cycling and swimming instead. Eventually she added back in running at a lower volume (~25 mi/wk) and was surprised to find that all of this crosstraining had made her a faster runner than in her pure marathon days. Incidentally, aside from being the two fastest 40+ female runners I follow, there is something else you have in common that I think might be a significant factor. Lisa lives not far from me in the foothills of the Sandia mountains. Because of where her house is located, she starts most of her runs with a 200ish foot downhill segment over a mile and a half or so, and she finishes most of her runs climbing that same hill. Sound familiar? I ran this morning with another person I follow on Strava - Mike - and he and I often talk about different training strategies and look for patterns (we are both PhD engineers so looking for patterns is what we do professionally). We talked about this topic on our run today - is there a significant benefit to starting training runs downhill and finishing uphill? We think there is, as it forces you to warm up with an easier effort and to work harder at the end of the run when you are most fatigued. I'm oversimplifying the discussion points of course, but I thought you might be interested in our "hypothesis".
  3. Motivation comes in cycles, with peaks and troughs sometimes depending on the time of year, pressures from work, physical health, or just the natural progression of things like the market value of an equity. Everyone goes through slumps; even the best NBA teams encounter losing streaks throughout the season. It's something that needs to be taken in stride, I think, and let the body work its way out of it as it feels ready. Two weeks ago I was sick for a week and couldn't run, could hardly leave the house. Then I recovered and had an outstanding week. This week's been another lacuna in my training because pressure from work has encroached on my sleep. There's no point trying to churn out interval workouts or whatever just for the sake of ticking them off in the calendar when I'm hardly sleeping at night. So I wouldn't use the present progressive "am losing" to describe the situation, as it implies a future where motivation will be lost altogether. Rather, something like "experiencing a dip in motivation."
    • That is a good point. Motivation has never been an issue for me, so not caring if I hit certain workouts is new for me. But dropping my mileage has produced almost immediate results, so I'm hoping that it was just temporary.
  4. Goals change. Situations change. I am glad you are refocusing your efforts and listening to your body. My goals for Boston are so wildly different than my goals for my first marathon last year due to my injury. They will both be great experiences, I am sure. In fact, I'm kinda looking forward to a low stress training and know that the speed and competitive edge that I had and love will eventually come back. Just have to wait.
    • Thanks, Veena. I wouldn't call it "listening to my body," though. It's listening to my coach! My body is a liar and cannot be trusted. It would tell me to eat potato chips all day and mainline merlot. Or it would tell me to keep running 80 miles a week, because I'm not sore or tired. Redefining my goals is a big learning experience for me, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

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