What to do when you get training fatigue

Do you find it hard to stick with a training plan? Have you ever wondered whether to "push on" or "give up" when you are feeling exhausted?

You might not have to do either of these two things - you should be able to find the "happy medium".

Given all of the event cancellations in 2020, it is hard not to have developed at least some mental fatigue following a training plan two, or even three times, only to have the "prize" ripped out from under your feet. The prize of course being the opportunity to take part in the event and reap the rewards of all of your training effort.

Fatigue is essentially caused by doing more cumulative training than your body is capable of recovering from, but running volume is not the only thing that effects your fatigue levels.


Factors that influence your fatigue levels:

  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Mental Health
  • Heat and Humidity

If any one of these factors is compromised, then it affects your body's ability to recover from training. If this process goes on for days, weeks or months, then you are essentially taking more cookies out of the energy jar, than you are capable of putting back in. The result of this is usually injury or exhaustion. These are essentially our body's protective mechanism to force us to rest and recover.

How do you know if you are fatigued?

Almost all of my training plans are based on a 4-week training block cycle. 3 weeks of building up the volume, then a week of recovery. The recovery week has reduced volume, and also usually reduced intensity, but it is not complete rest.

If you are training within your body's limits, then at the end of the recovery week you should be feeling refreshed and excited to start the next 4-week block. If this is not the case, then you are probably training too hard.

Looking at those 5 factors above - you don't necessarily have to reduce your running mileage to improve your recovery, you might be able to sleep an extra hour a night and clean up your diet. Unfortunately though, reducing your running volume is probably the easiest factor to control.


What are your best training options if you are feeling fatigued?

If you are struggling to tick every box on a training plan due to fatigue or exhaustion, then you need to make some adjustments. Pushing ahead and ignoring these warning signs is unlikely to end well. You probably don't need to stop training completely though. You need to find the happy medium.

    1. If you reach the end of a planned recovery week and you do not feel refreshed or recharged, then you could try having another recover week. Being quite a bit "undercooked" with your training is a lot better than being even slightly "overcooked" in terms of both your health and your race performance.
    2. You can substitute some of your runs for cross training sessions. This could be cycling, rowing, swimming, elliptical, or some other sort of low impact training. These lower impact activities tend to take less cookies out of the jar, so your recovery time will be faster.
    3. You could split your long runs into two. This could be morning and evening on the same day, or evening one day and then the following morning, or just two consecutive days.
    4. You could drop down a level on the training plan. i.e. if you are following the intermediate or advanced level of a plan, then you could drop back to the beginner or intermediate level respectively.
    5. You could swap your long run for the equivalent time (not distance) of hiking.
    6. You could drop down your race distance if that is an option. e.g. decide to race a half marathon instead of a full marathon, or perhaps a 25k event instead of a 50k. This might feel like a huge compromise or even a "cop-out", but it will still allow you to have your "prize" and not completely break yourself in the process. You can always sign up for the bigger event again the following year.


Staying healthy is the key.

Why do you run? Most likely because you enjoy the physical and mental health benefits that it brings.

Entering a big event and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is often a good thing. It teaches you things about yourself, and helps you grow and develop as a person. But, running needs to be sustainable, and it needs to be fun for you to continue to get these benefits.

So if you are feeling completely overwhelmed by your goal, or too exhausted to continue on your current trajectory, then you need to change something. It might be more sleep, it might be more cross training, or it might be less running.

You decide what works best for you, but make a decision that keeps running fun.