Overtraining: My Story

I absolutely hate to admit this but I am currently in the midst of digging out of a hole from overtraining.  It’s a huge hit to my ego and I’m doing the best I can right now to not react and let me body and mind recover properly so at some point this summer I will have the ability to once again hit the trails and do what I absolutely love.

Over the last several weeks, knowing that I was in a hole, I immediately sought advice and recommendations from several friends, runners, and coaches, explaining my symptoms and looking for answers as to how I could begin to recover.  At first it seemed like I was hopeless, a sure-fire sign that I was immediately taking the worst case scenario and projecting it as my reality; this was my default negative thought-pattern-mind at work.  Now, after some time and proper reflection on the situation I have been able to assess why I am at this place.

Here’s how it went down:

After recovering from an Achilles injury in December I got back to training full steam by mid-January.  Having had time off, 6 weeks total, I was rearing to go, to put in a big base that I could use to propel myself into the summer race season.  As the weeks went by and I slowly increased my volume by 10-15%, it got to the point where I was averaging 115-120 miles per week with over 18-20k of vertical gain, during non-rest weeks.  And the kicker?  I was absolutely flying, experiencing breakthrough workouts seemingly every couple of weeks.  I felt invincible.  Then, in the beginning of April the wheels started falling off.

After putting in an insane 3 week block (360 miles, 60,000ft of vertical gain), I got in the car that following Monday and made the two-day drive to Zion National Park.  Mistake number one.  Having planned a rest week that week, as my focus was crewing for Betsy at the Zion 100 Miler, I did not properly anticipate the stressors that would occur.  First of all, driving that far, without taking stops to stretch out and loosen up by body, I was putting undue stress on my entire system.  The sedentary form of driving is not ideal for letting a body recover in the way that I needed it to.  Secondly, the planning of rest weeks was complete shit on my part.  In order to properly crew for someone racing 100 miles it takes staying up all night to make sure the runner is properly cared for. I didn’t take into account the sleeplessness that would occur. Mistake number two.  Lastly, having barely slept for a couple of days, I began a week-long road trip the day after Zion to drive back home.  Within that trip I ramped the running back up.  That following week was another big one, 120 miles, 22,000ft of gain.  Toward the end of the week, after a 32+ miler to cap it off, things began to get much worse.  The following week, while taking no regard for my lack of rest and recovery, I once again put in a massive week (100+ miles with a shitload of vertical gain).  During that week I began to loath the idea of getting out the door to get in my daily workout. I knew that I was breaking.

Now that I am able to process this experience I have realized that it wasn’t just the running that was causing my breakdown.  Starting in March I was dealing with a good amount of personal stress that was ultimately keeping my fight or flight mechanism (sympathetic system) running full tilt, even during rest weeks.  Basically, because of my elevated emotional stress, my cortisol levels never had the chance to balance out…I was red-lining it with all sorts of stress.  It wasn’t just the running, it was everything that was happening in my life.  Symptoms such as insomnia, deal-legs, and apathy began to creep in mightily.  I was just not recovering, even in weeks that were down weeks in terms of mileage.

After a few weeks of trying to get my body back into balance I toed the line at the McDonald Forest 50k.  From the start I knew something was wrong.  Two minutes into the race my heart rates were nearing LT (lactic threshold).  As hard as I tried I could not keep my heart rate down to a sensible level for racing.  A few miles in, at the top of a 12 minute climb, I was reduced to walking.  Even with my turtle-paced speed my heart rate was CRANKING at 181bpm, 3 beats below my max heart rate. This is NOT what you want to happen.  At that point I pulled the plug on the race which in hindsight was the smartest thing that I could do at the time, even if it was a blow to my ego.   It hit me then and there that I was overtrained, something was severly out of whack,  I just didn’t know how bad my condition was.

In the ultra-running world the prevalence of overtraining was largely brought to light for the mainstream in an article in Outside Magazine called “Running on Empty.”  Check out the article here:  https://www.outsideonline.com/1986361/running-empty.  Many of the feelings and symptoms that are discussed in the article rang true for me.  After reading the article for myself I immediately thought the worst.  Perhaps I had dug a deep enough hole where I might have to take a full year off, or even more! I hated that notion and did not accept it one single bit.  Fortunately, after much research and professional consult, I found that I had not gone that far.  The chronic training patterns that I displayed in the winter and spring were luckily not enough to put me over the top and into the blackhole of total burnout.

One article in particular helped me to see that I wasn’t in such a dire situation.  My physiotherapist and gait coach, Joe Uhan, had recently done a piece on overtraining for irunfar.com:  http://www.irunfar.com/2013/09/overtraining-syndrome-part-one.html.  The article helped as a guide for me to understand where I was at.  Rather than suffering from full-blown overtraining syndrome (OTS) I noticed that I fell more into the non-functional overreaching category.  Furthermore, with the advice of one well-respected coach in particular, the key to knowing that I wasn’t full-blown OTS was that my sleep patterns had returned and my appetite was voracious.  I found myself not being able to eat enough!  It is my understanding that two major symptoms of OTS are prolonged insomnia and loss of apptite. I’m sure there are others but it was those two in particular that helped me make an semi-accurate assessment of my state.

I have learned several lessons in this process.  One: I need to pay better attention and listen to my body.  Two: I cannot play the “miles” game.  I got addicted (surprise, surprise) to chasing miles and that pattern of behavior helped in my downfall.  Perhaps one day I will return to the high mileage that I was doing earlier in the year, simply because it was fun as hell, it may just be several months before that happens.  Three:  I must not discount how much the emotional stress that I was experiencing factored into my situation.  Four:  I need to re-learn to respect the sport of ultra-running.  I had that respect at one time but I had lost it.  To have success it takes a lot more than just running a bunch of miles. Five: I must learn to detach from certain goals.  I admit it, I was hellbent on returning to Pine to Palm 100 this September to have a breakout race of sorts.  With being so attached to that goal I carried so much internal pressure to succeed.  That pressure created tension and fear of losing (missing out).  That fear turned into a drive for success that just was not sustainable for me. Finally:  I know that I can’t do this alone.  I may be able to coach the hell out of the athletes I work with but when it comes to coaching myself, it just doesn’t work.

As of today I’m on the mend both physically and mentally.  From a personal standpoint the emotional stress that I was dealing with in the winter/spring has begun to diminish.  Physically I’m taking the time to let my body balance itself out.  That being said I’m easing back in to training, taking it one day at a time.  And you know what?  I’m really enjoying it, for the right reasons.  As for my current symptoms I still feel the slight sensation of having “dead-legs.”  Otherwise, things are improving ever so slowly.  Most importantly my resting heart rate has begun to normalize and my motivation is slowly resurfacing. Moving forward, over the next few months I’m going to be doing some good miles in zone 1 (a very chill effort and heart rate). I need to rebuild my system. In terms of fear, I’ve been able to gradually let go of it, knowing  that it was such a prominent factor into causing me to overtrain.  I am very grateful for having learned this.

My hope is that someone out there, somewhere, can relate to this story.   It’s a cautionary tale, one that can hopefully resonate with many of my fellow athletes.  Being overtrained simply sucks, it’s just not worth it. As hard as it is for me to swallow my pride and to admit to all of this, I know it’s for a good reason.

As I further ponder this entry I am reminded that I must check in with myself from time to time and ask the simple question:  Why am I doing this?  Just recently I posed to the athletes that I coach that simple question.  What are your “whys?”  Now, if I am to successfully move forward in my endeavors, I must plan to look into the mirror and honestly ask that of myself.  In just one month, after putting my “whys” on paper, many of my sentiments have changed.  It’s amazing to me what can happen in such a short period of time.