Off The Road: The Litmus Test ... Too Much of a Good Thing

by Russ Ebbets

A “litmus test” is an idiom for a testing action that either proves an assumption or confirms an intervention that repeatedly works. The saying comes from the chemistry inspired use of litmus paper. Litmus paper is a chemically treated slip of paper that reacts with selected environments to show the presence of or lack of certain chemicals, most frequently acids and bases.

Overtraining (OT), for most runners, is an ill-defined concept that always looms as a potential threat somewhere in the shadows of the future. Avoidance of OT becomes “a good question” where common running lore abounds with varying levels of accuracy. More often this information is based as much on myth as magic.

But there are tests that can be used that are accurate, that can provide warning signs and indicate one’s current state of health. All that is necessary is the discipline to test and the good sense to heed.

Few would argue that all training stresses the body. In fact, those who adhere to the aerobic paradigm of fitness training would dismiss this thought as a “no brainer.” One’s heartrate can be used to detect OT. Just as heartrate variations can be used to chart work intensity and recovery status in interval training heartrates can be used to chart prolonged fatigue following a workout.

Using one’s morning waking heartrate is an accurate sign of how restful one’s overnight sleep has been. What needs to be done is to chart morning heartrates over a period of time (2-3 weeks) to establish a baseline average for the waking morning heartrate. Daily variations of 2-3 beats should be expected. But variations of greater than 10% are a sign that recovery from the previous day’s workout is not complete.

The easiest way to monitor the morning heartrate is with a Fitbit but if need be one can count the pulse for 60 seconds to find the desired beats per minute.

A second test to monitor OT is the chart heartrate changes from a horizontal/lying down position to a vertical/standing position. Changes greater than 10 beats per minute would be significant and seen as an early sign of overtraining.

For speed and power athletes use of a vertical jump (i.e. – jump and reach) can also detect signs of OT (Figure 1). The vertical jump is considered the premier test for athleticism, actually the litmus test for athleticism. It involves coordinating the upper and lower body in an explosive manner to momentarily defy gravity.

Prolonged fatigue for a speed power athlete can be evidenced with a lack of explosive power or in the case of the vertical jump the decreased ability to jump. One needs to have a baseline jump from early in a training cycle or training period that can be used as a baseline. The test can be administered periodically throughout the reminder of a season’s training cycles.

Would a vertical jump work for a distance runner? Yes, but one needs to understand that the deeper one gets into distance running there is a loss of the ability to jump vertically due to the nature of the two activities. Running is a horizontal movement that deadens one’s ability to jump vertically. Jumping also might not be the wisest thing to do for a master athlete. If jumping rope is not part of one’s routine training regimen better to skip this test.

The final test for OT is to use litmus paper. The acid-base balance of the body hovers around 7.2-7.3 on a 14 point scale. This value is sightly alkaline. This is significant of our mineral reserves which are alkaline in nature. Fatigue (OT) or illness (physiologic injury) deplete the mineral reserve of the body and allows for an acidic environment within the body.

In the short term rest and attention to a healthful diet can rectify this situation in a matter of days. Long-term existence in an acidic body state will lead to decreased performances, prolonged recovery times, attitude changes, illnesses due to decreased immunity and the eventual slide into degenerative disease states such as chronic fatigue, osteoporosis or something worse.

Testing one’s morning urine, it should be the initial voiding, will give an indication of one’s health status. Ideally one would like to see an acidic urine test to signify and alkaline body state. An alkaline test is indicative of an acidic body state. That is not a typo.

Alkaline urine is the result of depleted mineral stores in the body where the kidneys have been forced to produce ammonia, a basic fluid, to neutralize the excessive acidic state. The spillover of ammonia into the voided urine produces a ark green reaction on the litmus paper, significant of an alkaline reading.

Daily testing will develop a pH baseline of hopefully “good” (acidic urine pH days) that will correlate with a productive training schedule. Excessively hard workouts, poor personal habits, neglect of one’s sleep or diet can negatively impact health. An alkaline reading of the morning urine will be a gentle reminder to redirect one’s efforts. Where does one get pH paper? may be the easiest means to get the desired pH paper or on Amazon.

The absence of a coach, or a trusted advisor to “pull in the reins,” can prove to be a causative factor. In many regards this makes sense as one’s over-motivation or continued resolve to “go the extra mile” can drive one past the point of healthy participation

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “brave men play close to the line.” That goes for women too. In essence, playing close to the line is what performance training is all about. Testing limits, pushing one limits is what is necessary to improve and succeed. The constant reality is that one can exceed one’s limits on any given day or week and veer into a physiologic state that is not conducive to physical development and health. Hopefully these simple monitoring tips offer some ideas on how to “play close to the line” by identifying just where “the line” is and allow one to capitalize on that knowledge.

RussEbbetsEndTortunreFINAL.jpgRuss Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His most recent book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. He can be contacted at

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