We all know the classic symptoms of overtraining. First, you notice you’re performing poorly, not just in a race or training, but in your everyday routine. Your regular comfortable pace may feel suspiciously like a tempo effort. If you force it, you feel wiped out afterward. The next day your resting pulse may be higher than usual. You may feel tired and irritable most of the day. Or you may not be able to stay asleep through the night.
All signs point to pushing the miles, walking a line between training hard and breaking down. Finding the balance between putting in the necessary miles and allowing for proper recovery is the ultimate goal for all athletes. Too often, we push ourselves harder than we should and we become almost overtrained and desperate for recovery.
But sometimes the problem doesn’t stem from too much activity. Working without enough fuel can also cause the same frustrating and debilitating symptoms.
When you’re fighting fatigue, backing off your training is important but it isn’t the only way to break the symptoms. The amount and types of food you put into your body before–and even more importantly, after–your workouts can help the recovery process.
Here are a few simple but effective nutrition tweaks you can make to help dig out of the overtraining hole.
Increase Your Caloric Intake (Duh!)
As athletes, the answer to our woes almost always includes upping our food intake. Injured? Eat more. Don’t feel like getting out for your late afternoon workout? Maybe a snack will help. Fatigued? You guessed it. Load up with nourishing, dense and delicious foods. Yesterday, I couldn’t put together my planned hard effort. So instead, I ran easy and made sure to have an extra big pancake dinner.
You get the idea: more food cures all. If you’re overtired, ask if you’re getting in enough calories. As athletes, eating is a job and it can be a struggle to eat enough calories to fuel the daily expenditure. A lack of calories means muscles aren’t getting the nutrients and fuel they need to recover.
Often, runners and exercise enthusiasts use this caloric deficit to lose weight, hit a “racing weight,” or perhaps just to be healthier in general. Unfortunately, losing weight and training hard are two diametrically opposite goals; you need to restrict calories to lose weight, and you need to consume calories to train hard.
So, if you find yourself feeling lethargic or riding that line between overtraining and optimal training, it’s crucial to put your weight-loss goals on hiatus for a few weeks and give your body the fuel it needs to recover.
Pack on the Protein
I’m definitely guilty of falling into the trap of a carbohydrates-only diet. Carbs are like rocket fuel. Eating a lot of them throughout the day or before exercise will improve the quality of your workout. In fact, according to studies, a higher carb diet can decrease perceived effort during a tough workout AND in some cases, reduce the risk of becoming overtrained. But if carbs are rocket fuel, proteins are our building blocks. And we can’t run fast or work out hard without a strong foundation.
Protein is the primary muscle-building nutrient needed to repair the micro-tears inflicted on the muscles with every challenging workout. It’s critical that runners who are in danger of overtraining consume ample amounts of high-protein foods. Extra protein consumption provides the essential nutrients and amino acids needed for muscle repair during the period of recovery.
The most complete proteins come from animal sources such as fish, poultry and limited amounts of red meat. If you think you’re slightly overtrained or riding that fine line, consider adding salmon, tuna and chicken to your menu. These protein sources also have other essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and iron.
Protein isn’t in meat alone. By mixing a wide range of grains, legumes, soy, and nuts, people on plant-based diets can get a full range of essential amino acids.
Focus on Fruits And Veggies
A stack of pancakes is a great place to turn at the onset of fatigue. The carbs refuel and replenish the depleted glycogen stores that may have contributed to the symptoms of overtraining. They’re an ideal solution for some acute tiredness. But, unless you’re straying from the standard hotcake, they won’t have all of the micronutrients you need to get over the bout of overtraining.
Behind protein and carbs, fruits and vegetables are a vital power food for combatting possible overtraining. If it grows out of the ground, chances are it’s a nutrient-dense food containing high quantities of essential vitamins and minerals necessary for muscle repair.
Focus on adding at least one fruit or vegetable to each meal you eat. It’s a good rule of thumb in general but it’s particularly helpful when you’re sluggish. This will ensure you consume all the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants you need to fuel optimally and repair your muscles.