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The risk in ultra-distance training is often in direct relation to overtraining, or more importantly under recovering. Over training is common in almost every sport and occurs when an athlete completes more training than their body can recover from. Tell-tale signs of overtraining include a decline in performance, increased inflammation, poor sleep quality, nausea, reduced motivation, decreased strength, tightness, training fatigue, increased heart rate, reduced immune system function and muscle/joint tenderness.
So how much is too much? The answer (unsatisfyingly) is: it depends. Managing load is highly individual and what is considered overtraining for one person may be completely manageable for another. And while there is a marked increase of risk found in people running over 15 hours per week, beginner runners may find 5 hours per week produce a similar outcome.
Avoid overtraining by slowly increasing training load over weeks, months and years. Listen to your body and make time for sufficient recovery be focusing on the 5 key concepts below:
Clocking 7-9 hours of sleep per night is widely recognised as the most important aspect of recovery. During this time the body works hard to repair and rebuild muscle through protein synthesis and human growth hormone. As training volume increases so too does the need for deep restful sleep ~ in high volume weeks allow time for 8+ hours of sleep, keeping your bedroom cool and dark if possible.
Fuelling the body with sufficient energy, protein, vitamins and minerals directly assists recovery and promotes sleep quality. If you’re lacking calories, iron or protein for example; it becomes hard for full muscle recovery to take place. When training volume is high, ensure to include a range of fruits, vegetables, protein (from animal or plant sources) and whole grains. Quality nutrition can help to reduce inflammation and help your body handle the physical stress.
Water helps to regulate body temperature, deliver energy to cells, promote joint health and remove waste while improving recovery, minimising cramping, injury risk and boosting performance. It’s recommended to regularly drink during longer runs and ensure you have adequate hydration on hand during hotter summer months to avoid heat exhaustion and dehydration.
When training load increases (either in intensity or volume) so too does stress on the body. This needs to be balanced with stress in other areas of life to reduce the risk of burnout. For example; during a high volume training block, aim to reduce work, family and relationship stress. High stress can contribute to poor sleep and therefore negatively impact recovery. Running an ultra on empty is a one-way trail to burn out!
Train smarter not harder when building distance. Clever programming allows time for hard training runs to be followed by sufficient recovery. Keep your easy/recovery runs easy and your hard sessions purposeful. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training sessions and adjust your program accordingly. There is no “one size fits all” training program. Consistent training is important as is knowing when you need more time to rest.
As an endurance athlete it’s important to be aware of the stress that high volume training puts on the body. It’s important to counteract this stress through mindfully including more active recovery when training load increases. Remember, better recovery results in the ability to handle larger training volumes and the opportunity to improve performance. Becoming aware of the stress inherent in high volume training allows you to program accordingly and maximise potential without compromising health.