Yep, round two.
I was out for my daily walk today around the neighborhood. On the bike path, just past Thump Coffee, there is a twenty-foot kicker hill. While walking up to it I felt like I was at mile 139.4 of an Ironman, feeling as though there was no energy left to tap into. My legs were heavy, bordering on pure apathy, and my heart rate was jacked 40 beats higher than what it normally is walking up a hill. If I’m to learn yet another lesson in humility then this has got to be it.
I’m currently in a bout of overtraining syndrome (OTS), approximately ten weeks in. This is a repeat performance of 2017 when my body shut down after running big miles while training for ultra-marathons. Simply, it sucks. There’s no other way to put it. I thought that I’d put this chapter of life behind me a few years ago. Apparently, I needed one more lesson.
I started to feel the symptoms of overtraining syndrome on the heels of a yearly March training camp in Tucson, AZ. Over the course of ten days, I had put more hours in than ever before within that timespan. The shoe started to drop after I decided to continue to St. George, UT, from AZ, for a four day Castelli Tri-team camp. It was there when I first felt that something wasn’t right. After returning home to Oregon, I took some time to recover to then go into a small training block which would lead me to race Ironman Galveston 70.3 in early April. Once home, I experienced a week of workouts that started to become way more challenging than normal, another sign that something was off. Then, one day I went out for a run and knew the wheels were totally off the rails. While running on flats my heart rate was in the mid-160’s doing 11:00 pace. Normally at that heart rate, I’m running in the low to mid 6’s. Sure, it could have been a one-off, we all have those, but after several more days of the same symptoms I shut it down. That was April 1st. Today, June 19th, my symptoms are even worse. Yep, I did it again.
Last time I dipped into overtraining syndrome I blamed my coach, which was me and my ego. This time, my coach, Mike, used all of the information that I was giving him at the time to make the right training decisions. Unfortunately, I left out one key element. Unbeknownst to him, I was purposefully under-eating. I, in no way, place blame on Mike for what is currently happening. He is playing a key role in getting me back in the saddle.
So, how and why did this happen again? Well, it started in December when I saw a picture of a pro triathlete whom I’ve looked up to for a couple of years now. He was jacked, ripped, fit, lean, etc. In my mind, I made the irrational decision that if I wanted to one-day turn pro then I’d have to look like him. Therefore, I chose to chronically under-eat so I could achieve that misguided goal of being as “fit-looking” like him. Simply, I didn’t think that the body I had was good enough. And so began the chase after my new goal. For the next few months, I started to limit the number of calories I consumed each day. One example of this detrimental behavior came on Feb 11th (my sober birthday) when I went out on a six-hour ride to celebrate six years of sobriety. After the effort, having burned close to 6-7k calories for the day (uneducated estimate) all I had was a small burrito from Parilla. Best guess is that I under-ate by close to three thousand calories for the day. That became my norm. On average, for three months, I under-ate by one to three thousand calories per day. When you do the math on how many calories I did not take in over that timeframe, it was no surprise that my body shut down. Three months of eating half of what I should have been eating certainly did me in.
I’ve gone through ebb’s and flow’s when it comes to being comfortable in my own skin over my life. It comes down to my insecurity with myself as an athlete, and that I will never hit my goals with the body that I have. The trick is that no one in the world is telling me to lose weight. In fact, in many instances, I’ve been told that I’ve got a good frame and muscle mass to excel. Unfortunately, I stand as the only one that is not believing this. My mind and ego were telling me that I wasn’t good enough. It’s a self-sabotaging behavior that continues to be a challenge to work through. Also, this obsessive-compulsive behavior can be directly linked to my history of being an addict, which in my case, is the tendency to want more of whatever I’m craving.
Fortunately, this time around, having gone through this in the past, I largely knew what I needed to do to start the recovery process. Within a day I consulted with my endocrinologist, had a full blood panel drawn (including adrenals), and upped my game with therapy. The first set of tests showed that I had dipped back into hypothyroidism, a condition that I’ve been dealing with for a few years. Since 2017 I’ve been on a daily dose of Levothyroxine to help combat the issue. Unfortunately, I had done enough damage to warrant my number going back into the red (hypo). Immediately, my endocrinologist upped my dose a tiny bit to help offset the issue. That move, along with combined rest and recovery, helped put me back into a normal TSH range and out of hypothyroidism within six weeks, but it wasn’t enough for me to be able to start training again as my body still felt awful. Of note, the other tests that I took as a precaution, apart from a normal blood panel any doctor would recommend, were my T3, T4, ACTH, DHEA, Cortisol, and total/bioavailable/free Testosterone. All 25 test results I received came back completely normal with no red flags. (It is important to note here that adrenals are much more complicated than just doing the five indicator tests that I had done. For me, these were the tests that best suited my needs and indicated to my endocrinologist and general practitioner that I was in the clear adrenally speaking).
Luckily, around this time my girlfriend Tracey moved to town from Colorado and chose to stay in a friends’ condo up at Seventh Mountain resort for several weeks while we worked out our living situation. I was able to use her place to get away from distractions and stay in bed binging on Netflix teen drama’s (Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, Outer Banks, The Society…you name it) for two straight weeks. Yep, you heard that right. Mindless TV was the right antidote during this time. I only left her place to see my training clients. Strangely enough, when this two-week quarantine was done I felt worse, proven mostly by my erratic resting heart rate and heavy legs. Clearly, there was more work to be done.
The fear of the unknown can be scary to some. For me, it’s downright terrifying. The mental rollercoaster that I have experienced through this has been erratic at best. I’ve completely lost my shit and broke down crying twice. Countless times anger comes sweeping in as I remind myself of my age given what I want to achieve (once again everyone on my team has indicated that turning pro in early to mid-forties is still very much a possibility regardless of this current setback). I find myself getting pissed off that I feel like I’m operating on a limited schedule to reach my peak. Having a presumptive six-month setback doesn’t sit well regarding this stress. It is my sincere wish that I can finally get over this age-related timetable and just live in the moment, in the day-to-day, and truly be invested in the process and not the outcome. My challenge with this is that it is my default setting to listen to the bullshit stories my mind tells me. One day at a time.
Fast forward a few weeks and here I am. With the help of a few key docs/trainers/athletes, I’m gaining more knowledge as to how long this bout will take to pass given my symptoms. Overtraining syndrome is tricky because there is no clear diagnosis. Scientific studies are hard to come by and there just isn’t enough information out there that can help us understand what exactly OTS is, as well as what a clear path to recovery looks like. For now, I can only rely on the specialists out there that have helped other athletes like me get through it. My current daily activities to recovery include light walks, lifting, and logging such things as my mood, sleep quality, body feel, and resting heart rate. The general sense of my timeframe, made by much smarter people than myself, is that if everything goes right and I stay diligent in not doing too much I could be back training to a normal capacity by October. If this is the case this process will take six whole months. This is my favorite article that helps further explain the mysteries of OTS: Running on Empty – Outside Magazine
My hope in writing this post is to help bring more awareness to the subject of overtraining. I share my story as a cautionary tale in the hopes that other athletes know that overtraining syndrome is a very real, and a very scary thing. It should not be taken lightly. Within the ultra-running community alone I can name six runners, male and female, who I know that have gone too far and dug holes so deep that prevents them from ever competing at a high level again. One, in particular, cannot even run to this day. He simply walked away from the sport, after competing at the highest level, to start a completely new life. It has been twelve years since his last run.
Being in the midst of this battle I am happy to say that eating enough is not a problem right now. For the first month of OTS, I went on a binge of sorts to eat whatever calories I could find, most notably by way of cheeseburgers and doughnuts. After that re-correction in calories, I settled in and stuck with eating a clean whole foods diet with the hopes that it will aid in my recovery. I feel that I’ve corrected the ship in this regard. Plus, given where I want to go I don’t have any more big mistakes like this left in me. The time is now to get this right.
As endurance athletes, we sometimes push ourselves to the limit to see how far we can go in our respective sports. That’s what’s fun about it. Breaking through physical and mental barriers, once thought impossible, is a fantastic way to live and challenge ourselves. Just please, do not push too far and end up where I am today. I’ve done it twice now and it is simply a waste of time.
And now for the silver linings. First, my girlfriend Tracey finally moved to Bend after two years of dating long distance. She has been so helpful and patient with my recovery process. She even moved here six weeks early to help me through my challenges. I cannot thank her enough for how supportive she’s been. Also, it is not lost on me that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Even if I were healthy by the fall I am choosing to not even consider racing (if racing does come back this year) until 2021. That being said, I picked a good year to be out of commission. Lastly, through all of the heartache, anger, discomfort, and irritability that I’ve experienced because of dealing with overtraining syndrome, not once, have I had the urge to drink or use. That’s pretty damn cool.