What’s the Difference Between Pushing Hard and Overtraining?

When training it’s important to learn the difference between pushing hard and pushing too much, and track your performance to ensure you’re not overdoing it.
Pushing hard. This might mean running fast intervals, hill repeats, or for many kilometres in a long run. The goal is to stress the body just beyond your fitness level to gradually increase the stress loads on your body and ensure recovery. This may mean adding a couple speed intervals, bumping up to one or two more hill repeats, or covering a few more kilometres in a long run.For instance, if you’re currently running six intervals of two minutes at a hard effort and three minutes easy to recover, you could push harder by adding one or two more intervals to the workout, or reduce the recovery time to two minutes. It’s about evolution rather than revolution.

I’m currently training to climb Mount Rainier in August and have been recovering from a long bout of bronchitis. I just started doing weekly hard-effort hill repeats three weeks ago, and I planned to increase the number of intervals this week.

When I got out on the hill, my body said no. I finished my usual six repeats and stopped because I had crossed my fatigue threshold – the point at which my performance began to decline. My pace and form were suffering by the sixth rep, and had I pushed to get through a seventh, I would have delayed my recovery. If I continued down that path, week after week, to stay on the schedule I had planned, I would have eventually reached a state of overtraining.

Overtraining. This happens over time, when we continue to push even though our bodies are telling us we’re fully cooked. Overtraining starts out as a flame, and if we continue to push through our fatigue, it turns into a forest fire that can only be put out with rest and recovery.

Common symptoms of overtraining include the inability to finish a workout, poor energy levels, insomnia, weight gain or loss, aches and pains, depression and personality changes, sickness, an elevated resting heart rate on several consecutive mornings, and halted progress.

Track your training response. To avoid overtraining, you must progress from your current fitness level, balance hard workouts with active recovery and rest, and listen to how your body responds to training.

When I coach athletes online, I have them log not just their workout stats but also their “training response,” or how they felt during the workout. They use a simple three-colour scale:

Yellow means, “I felt strong and could have done more today.”

Orange means, “I felt okay, but nothing to write home about. I didn’t feel awful, but I also didn’t feel particularly good either.”

Red means, “I was in a bad place for much of the workout and struggled to finish. I could have played the role of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves after this run.”

If your log has lots of yellow days and a few orange days, you are on the right track and your body is adapting well. If, however, you begin to see a trend in consistent orange days and some red days, you’re on your way to overtraining and you need to ease back on the throttle to recover.

Improved performance has more to do with optimal stress progression and recovery than pushing harder or through pain. And when you learn the difference, you’ll be on your way to faster, longer, stronger runs.


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