If you're experiencing the classic symptoms of overtraining, the problem may not be too much activity, but too little fuel.
The first thing you notice may be poor performance, not just in a race, but also in your regular routine. Maybe you can't keep up your regular pace. If you force yourself, 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 become depressed, intolerant of slight pain, and have trouble sleeping.
All these are obvious signs which go along with training beyond a reasonable limit. But suppose you haven't changed your routine for a long time. Maybe you're having trouble working out at a level that felt easy six months ago. The problem may simply be not enough carbohydrates to fuel your muscles.
Check your weight. If you've lost weight unintentionally, the first thing you should do is have a checkup with your doctor. Sudden weight loss can be the first sign of illness. If your doctor finds nothing wrong, your weight loss probably means you're not eating properly.
You can make a rough estimate of how many calories you need based on your weight, the kind of job you have, and your training program ("Running & FitNews," October 1989). People who exercise regularly should eat about 60 percent of those calories from carbohydrates, 25 percent from fat and 15 percent from protein.
If you check your energy needs and match them against your average diet, do you come up short? Try to eat more complex carbohydrates. You may need extra whole-grain breads and cereals, rice and pasta, fresh fruits and vegetables. As long as an increase in carbohydrates doesn't make you sneak over your normal healthy weight, you're probably on the right track. If you have trouble estimating your energy needs and planning an appropriate diet, talk to a registered dietitian or a nutritionist.
If your average daily calorie count seems to be about right, are you matching your eating pattern to your activity level? You probably don't need the same number of calories every day, and every week. Many runners taper during the winter, and then build toward spring races. How about marathon or triathlon training? During three or four months, your training might push up your calorie needs by a factor of two or even three.
After a long run, your carbohydrate stores will be at a fairly low level. It takes extra fuel to refill your tank. An average calorie intake just may not be enough to allow you to bounce back. Remember, a 15-mile run by itself takes about 1,500 calories. You'll need more carbohydrates after that, compared to an easy day. Similarly, a 50-mile week will use twice as many calories as a 25-mile week, and the extra calories should be replaced by carbohydrates.
In addition to eating extra carbohydrates, you may also want to try one of the energy replacement drinks you can buy at a sporting goods store. Choose one containing glucose polymers rather than simple sugars.
On the whole your body will tell you what it needs. During the evening after a 20-miler you may feel like eating everything in sight. But sometimes a very hard effort may depress your appetite, so you need to be thoughtful about your training and eating.
If you've been having problems that feel like overtraining, make sure you're eating enough carbohydrates. If the average seems about right, make sure you match your intake, day by day, to your training load. Your car won't run on empty, nor will your body. Put those carbohydrates back in your muscles at the same rate you use them.