Running fatigue is common among new runners. But what is it, what are the signs, and how can you recover from it? Let’s look at this complex issue more closely to help you have the best running experience possible.
What is running fatigue?
For most people, running fatigue is a state of feeling overly tired or constantly fighting injuries. It usually builds up over several months and somewhat differs from normal fatigue caused by consistent training.
With normal running fatigue, your legs may feel tired some days. This is what marathon runners call “cumulative fatigue.” This type of fatigue is a good thing. It trains your body to work through fatigue and tired legs, which can help you finish out marathon races without feeling absolutely exhausted at the end.
When your legs are fatigued, many runners recommend running at a slower pace. Running through sickness or pain is not ideal, but tired legs can still do the work at a slower pace.
On the other hand, excessive running fatigue is not a good thing, and running through it can cause more severe issues down the line. For example, if you can never hit your intended paces and your legs always feel tired, you’re probably too fatigued, and it’s time to take a break.
The key is finding a balance between cumulative fatigue and excessive fatigue to improve your aerobic fitness without overdoing it.
What causes running fatigue?
Running fatigue is caused by a combination of lifestyle and training methods. Common factors include:
- An excessive training routine: If you’re training too hard and running fast too often, you’re more likely to experience extreme running fatigue. Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing, and running fast shouldn’t be your ultimate goal for every run. In fact, it’s best to complete most of your runs at a slower pace. This is known as 80/20 training and is a strategy used by many elite runners.
- An unhealthy diet: Whether you’re not getting enough calories or the right type of calories, a poor diet will definitely affect your body’s ability to keep up with the training demands.
- Work or family stress: Dealing with stressful situations at home or work can also affect your physical health, including how you feel when exercising. You might feel more emotionally and physically drained, making it harder to reach your running goals and contributing to overall fatigue.
- Lack of sleep: Not getting enough sleep regularly or having poor-quality sleep will affect your body’s ability to recover from physical exercise. Running is hard on the body, and your muscles need time to rest and rebuild. If they’re unable to do so, you’re more likely to feel excessively fatigued.
Signs of running fatigue
If you’re new to running, it can be hard to determine what’s “normal” fatigue and what’s not. Some of the most common signs of excessive running fatigue include:1
- Unusual and persistent muscle soreness
- Difficulty training at a previously manageable level
- A feeling of “heaviness” in the legs, even when running slowly
- Significant performance plateaus or declines
- Difficulty recovering from runs
- Severe mood swings
- Inability to relax
- Poor-quality sleep
- A general lack of energy
- Loss of motivation to run
- Frequent illness
- Increased blood pressure and resting heart rate
- Weight loss and appetite loss
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Constipation or diarrhea
5 tips to recover from running fatigue
If you feel you’re dealing with runner’s fatigue, taking steps to recover is your best bet. The following tips are all helpful ways to get back to feeling great again.
1. Limit extra stressors
As we mentioned, stressors related to your work or home life can cause emotional and physical exhaustion. If you’ve been amping up your training sessions, try to reduce other stressors however you can. That might mean resting instead of tackling that home project you had planned for the weekend, not working overtime, or saying “no” to extra social commitments. Protecting your rest time will reduce your likelihood of getting exhausted and burned out, which will contribute to fatigue.
2. Fuel your body wisely
Make sure you’re getting enough calories each day and that your diet is well-balanced and full of the vital nutrients your body needs to fuel your runs and recover. You’ll need adequate sources of lean protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and, of course, plenty of fruits and vegetables to battle fatigue. Here’s a thorough resource we put together on the best diet for runners if you need more help with your diet.
3. Focus on sleep hygiene
When you sleep, your muscles relax, repair themselves, and your body restores its energy.2 It’s vital for improving your physical performance and preventing injuries. However, simply getting 8 hours a night isn’t enough to fight off fatigue. You also want to make sure you’re getting good quality sleep by focusing on your sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is certain behaviors that help promote good sleep. For example:3
- Going to bed and waking at the same time each day.
- Avoid or eliminate screen time in bed and up to 2 hours before bedtime.
- Don’t drink caffeinated beverages too late in the afternoon.
- Avoid alcohol if it interferes with your sleep.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet and comfortable.
- Lower the temperature before you go to sleep.
- Turn off bright lights and make sure your room is dark.
- Establish a calming bedtime routine. (It could include reading, meditation, or a warm bath.)
4. Prioritize stretching and strength training
Stretching and strength training do more than just build muscles for runners. Cross-training improves strength, endurance, flexibility, helps prevent injuries, and also helps your body recover from the stress of running.4 With consistent strength training, you’ll also improve your cardio fitness and running performance, reducing how quickly you get fatigued. All of these benefits work together to help your body work through fatigue and prevent burnout.
5. Listen to your body when training and resting
More isn’t always better when it comes to running. Although it might be tempting to push through pain or exhaustion in the name of progress, it’s often better to listen to what your body’s telling you. If you’re consistently struggling to reach your running goals, it’s probably time to rest or give yourself a break with easier workouts. If you continually push through exhaustion, you could end up overtraining and burn out completely. Just remember that it’s okay to stop your run and pick it back up another day if you feel like you need to.
The same goes for resting. Taking a rest day doesn’t necessarily mean you need to lay around and watch TV all day. Instead, do some foam rolling while you watch or choose an active recovery activity like walking or yoga to fill your free time.
Am I fatigued or overtrained from running?
Runner fatigue and overtraining might feel similar, but they’re not the same.
- Runner fatigue is a normal part of the training process, and although excessive, long-term fatigue is not good for you, running through cumulative fatigue is how you become a stronger and faster runner.
- On the other hand, overtraining is a condition where you experience extreme fatigue, poor performance, and burnout because you’re doing too much, too quickly. It can drastically increase your risk for injuries, and you might suffer from symptoms for weeks or months as a result.
Many of the symptoms of overtraining are the same or similar to what you might experience with excessive runner fatigue, but you know your body best. If you feel like you’re doing too much, it’s okay to take a break. Or, if you’re worried that a nagging pain might become a performance-altering injury, don’t be afraid to take a few days off.
Key Takeaways:Running fatigue is a normal part of the training process, but at a certain point, it can become excessive. Knowing the signs of excessive running fatigue can help you determine when it’s time to slow down and focus on recovery by prioritizing factors like proper nutrition, rest, sleep hygiene, and a balanced training routine.
- Goolsby, M. A., MD. (n.d.). Overtraining: What It Is, Symptoms, and Recovery. Hospital for Special Surgery. https://www.hss.edu/article_overtraining.asp
- Suni, E. (2022, August 29). What Happens When You Sleep? Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep
- ASA Authors & ReviewersSleep Physician at American Sleep Association Reviewers and WritersBoard-certified sleep M.D. physicians, scientists, editors and writers for ASA. (n.d.). Sleep Hygiene Tips, Research & Treatments. American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-hygiene-tips/
- Furman Institute of Running & Scientific Training. (2020). Strength Training for the Runner [Slides]. Www.Furman.Edu. https://www.furman.edu/first/wp-content/uploads/sites/168/2020/01/16_oct2324.pdf