Running in the ‘Wrong’ Kind of Tired: Diagnosing and solving a constant state of fatigue

“There is no tired in distance running,” Alberto Salazar said this. The completely OCD runner in me loves this quote because it succinctly sums things up pretty well, namely that being tired is more just a given, it comes with the territory.
tired runner
That said, there are LEVELS of tiredness. The longer that you’re a runner the better you are able to distinguish the levels of fatigue. There is the sort of tired you face the day after a hard workout that kicked your butt…you sort of ‘dread’ that easy run because you know it will not be easy in any sense of the word. But you work through that tiredness and just suck it up.

There is the feeling of tired during a hard workout, as the gruel-fest drags on you’re not really tired so much as suffering. That’s another thing you just accept, it’s part of the game.

Then there are the levels of tired that are different, wrong, you know it’s wrong because it’s not tired so much as bone-marrow deep fatigue. Where you’re struggling from the first steps, and you know something is off. This kind of fatigue isn’t ‘normal’ and the longer you live in this state you start to hope something is wrong because at least then you can pinpoint why your running, and your body, seems to be going AWOL on you. At least if there is a ‘problem’ you can look for an answer.

Digging for that answer is tricky because it can be one of many factors, or many of the many factors.
What makes it more difficult is that because us distance runners are completely used to feeling tired, figuring out that you’re running in the ‘wrong level’ of tired can take some time and by then your problem, and your mental sanity, could be getting worse for the wear.

Common ‘wrong levels’ of fatigue sources:

* Medical: I’m going to put this one straight up first because it’s usually the ‘easiest’ thing to pinpoint or at least get the ball rolling. Get a blood panel done and check for some common ailments.
- Low iron: I did a whole post on that one HERE. Bottom line, make sure the doctor reading your tests is one used to working with athletes. A runner may fall in the ‘normal range’ for iron levels but that’s for the sofa surfing normal person…a runner will want to fall on the higher end of that range. I also take a supplement in addition to any food I eat…better safe than sorry.
- Hypo-thyroid: I had/have this fun one too and trust me it is NOT a fun road to travel. You talk about tired; again seek out a professional who knows runners. Your Free T and T-4 levels NEED to be more up to code than the normal sofa person.

* Over-trained: This one is quite common; with us type-A’s we tend to go with the motto ‘more is better, even more is even better.’ But that’s not always true, and doing needless ‘more’ for the sake of doing more is a fast way to dig yourself into an over-trained hole. It takes a while to dig, but if your hard workouts and race times start to nose-dive this is one of the first places to look. Look over your training log, taper back the volume and intensity for a day or two and if things start to improve you’ve got your answer. I did an article on this for Running Times you can read HERE.

track runner

Tired from exertion is one thing…but sometimes you KNOW something is off.

* Under-fueled: I’ll cut to the chase, weight and runners, food and runners is a land-mine of a topic. We know being lean is an unavoidable fact when tied to performance, but taken too far and your performance will also nose-dive. Running also burns a heck of a lot of fuel and if you’re training volume is way outpacing your intake you’ll feel the similar symptoms of over-training. Actually, sometimes just bumping up your caloric intake rather than cutting back the training at all can sometimes do the trick.

* Mental burn-out: There is the physically over-trained state and the mentally tapped out state I’ll call burn-out. Running is incredibly mental and ‘hyping yourself up’ into the hard workout and all-out race scenarios takes a lot of mental energy. You use too much of that mental energy and you can be left mentally zapped by the end of the season. Again, refer to my Running Times article for more on this but also remember that if you come to literally dread your runs you may be treading into mental burn-out land. Maybe you’re getting too obsessed with splits and times and putting too much pressure (read more on that HERE) and chucking the watch for some workouts or your easy days can help with that. Also make sure to get back to WHY you started running and keeping it fun.

* Training adjustment phase: I’ll quickly address this, if you’re new to a particular coach, running group or program it’s very common for the adjustment phase to wipe you. Even if the volume is the same, a different training philosophy (maybe you’re doing a lot more core/weight work) means different kinds of workouts. Be patient, sometimes you’ll have to take a few steps back to, in the long term, make big leaps forward.

* Not recovering: This actually is a ‘baby-category’ of the over-training but I’ll re-emphasize it here. If you’re not taking your easy days EASY then you’re blur all the lines between hard and easy days and then when you want to HIT those hard days you won’t be able to.

Pinpointing 1) that you’re in the ‘wrong level’ of tiredness is the first battle 2) finding a way to turn that feeling around so you can get back to the ‘normal’ constant tiredness that comes with running is the second. It may take time, but be patient, because once you’re back on track you’ll be running much better and your entire outlook on your running will too. You should never hate your running…it’s too good to hate. ;)

1) Have you ever experienced any of these ‘wrong levels’ of fatigue?
PAH-LEEEZ…sometimes I feel like I’ve written the book on them. ;) There’s that sarcastic humor of mine.

2) Is there a few I missed, do you have any to add to the list?

3) Was there ever a time you hated your running?
I will say I never hated my running and I thank the running gods for that, many people who get stuck in a ‘wrong level’ type of situation can end up sucking the passion from their sport. I never lost that…I did however hate feeling super-tired, flash to hypo-thyroid days.

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15 Responses to Running in the ‘Wrong’ Kind of Tired: Diagnosing and solving a constant state of fatigue

  1. Great post – this was something I hadn’t thought about.

    I’m not even there yet – I just want to run! I’ve started to notice a HUGE difference if I take a day off before a race. On the flipside, I am absolutely wiped after a long run. It pays to listen to your body. But, as you say, type-As are notoriously bad at that!

  2. Love Love Love that you posted this!!! I just had a blood panel done yesterday! My dr is checking everything. Everything. Iron, thyroid….all of it. I just started running again and I swore I was going to take it slow this time. (last time I yanked a tummy muscle)<< not good! Anyway, I love this Cait and it really helps me so much! Is it wrong if I don't want to do any lower body workouts while I run? I am running 3 days a week and doing some yoga and arms on the other, but that's it. I just don't want to tire my legs out. :)
    You're awesome Cait!!

    • awww, u’re so sweet! i’m glad u got all that blood work done…it’s SO important to make sure all is on the up and up when u’re a runner. :) be careful with that tummy muscle, and because i’m pretty sure it was ur psoas make sure u do core work and keep up that yoga! as for legs, i’d say maybe not worry about doing much actual weight-work with legs, but squats and lunges a few times a week might be good. :)

  3. I had anemia a few years ago and still struggle with it some today. You are right about “normal” levels. Endurance athletes have to watch iron and other nutrients a lot more than your average couch potato or even recreational athlete who does the occasional 5K or Zumba class, etc. A lot of doctors just don’t get that either, definitely important to find one who understands athletes.

    • oh man, finding a doc who UNDERSTANDS runners is key. also one who, when u go in and say, “help me with such-and-such” their response isn’t just, “well, just take time off.” :P

  4. Julia @ Pain, Pride, Perseverance

    ohhhh! i love this. i think i am getting more in touch with when something is a “bad” tired and when it is good. I think it all goes along with listening to and learning more about how my body responds to running and accommodating it rather than just doing what i want all the time;) im pretty sure i have written a book as well friend so no worries;)

  5. Dennis

    I swear youre a freaking mind reader. Seriously, are you in my head or have my house bugged. My registered dietician wife is working my problem as I type. She had thyroid issues and is worried about my vitamin D levels again. Struggling is an understatement.

    • yes, i do read minds and i also jump super high for peanuts! ;) jk. actually the whole hypothyroid issue was a NIGHTMARE!! hang in there buddy, seriously, it gets better! but make sure if u are, see an endocrinologist and make sure u get med’s. (along with a good diet too…hehe)

  6. Fantastic post Cait and I really like your point about consulting doctor’s who ‘get’ athletes – it does make such a difference.

  7. Ana

    How did you know you had hypothyroid? And what can I do to prevent getting hypothyroid?

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