Endurance athletes are known for having a tendency to overtrain. It seems that many endurance athletes are on a tightrope, trying to balance between training hard and overtraining. Many athletes, especially at the elite level, have experienced the effects from overtraining. I have a personal experience with overtraining, and in my case, I fell completely off the tightrope.
Overtraining has a clinical diagnosis and is referred to as overtraining syndrome (OTS). The definition of overtraining is a maladaptive response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in neurological, endocrine, physiological and immunological changes (Kreher and Schwartz, 2012). In other words overtraining syndrome can cause fatigue, mood changes, and increased susceptibility to illness and injury.
My experience with overtraining happened when I was in graduate school and training for a marathon. At the time I was running between 60-80 miles per week, swimming and biking as an active member of the triathlon team, while also writing my thesis, applying for my dietetic internship, maintaining good grades, and trying to make time to eat and sleep. I should have known better.
I can remember the exact day I pushed myself too far and fell off the tightrope. I had a track workout that day. This was about three weeks before my November marathon and it was a cold and dreary day. I ate breakfast, put on my running gear, and headed outside to start my warm-up to the track. I was not feeling it. My legs felt like a heavy weight was attached to my feet and they were stiff. I briefly thought about giving up and just going home, but I pushed on. I started to feel a little better as I approached the track. I decided I would at least start the workout and reassess how I was feeling after my first few 800-meter repeats. The first few repeats felt okay. My legs were still a little heavy, but I did not want to be a quitter. I had to keep going. I pushed through 6 of the 8 x 800’s and decided to complete the workout despite barely making my time goal for the repeats. I was in pain during the last two repeats and they were slower than the first 6. I remember being so frustrated because I was supposed to run negative splits. After taking a few minutes to catch my breath, I started to jog home. It seemed like my legs refused to move. They felt sore and it was almost like my entire leg was cramping up. I had to stop and ended up walking the two miles back to the house.
I had to take two days off. Things did not feel quite right, but with marathon training it can be expected to feel sore and tired. I was beginning my taper leading up to marathon day and figured I would start to feel better with less mileage. This had happened during previous marathons, but this time it was different. It was a struggle to get out the door and the soreness and fatigue did not go away as my mileage dropped. With only a few days until the marathon I was a little worried, but I had traveled to California for the race and there was no backing out.
On race day it was perfect weather for a marathon. That morning was about 60 degrees with a slight breeze. I got caught up in the excitement and nervousness of race day. I was optimistic that my legs would feel fresh as they had for previous marathons. The race started and I was off trying to position myself in the crowd of runners and find a pack of racers to help pace me. I was hitting my goal time for the first several miles. I felt good but not great. The pain and discomfort started at about mile 10. I had a heart rate monitor and my heart rate was above goal. I started to get worried, but pushed on. At the half marathon mark I really started to feel the pain. It is hard to describe, but it was as if every muscle in my legs were tightening up and it was getting worse with every mile. At mile 18 I started to slow down. My heart rate was well above goal and my legs just could not keep up with the pace. I made it to mile 22 and could not hold on any longer. I had to walk. I had experienced pain in previous marathons, but it was the kind of pain where you just grit your teeth and keep going. This pain was different. It was so bad I was contemplating giving up. I half walked and jogged for two miles knowing that I could not give up. Somehow I mustered up the strength to jog the last two miles and crossed the finish line.
I could barely move after that race. I had to hold onto things just to get around. I took the following month off from running. When I did start running again, I could barely run a 9-minute mile without feeling like my heart was going to come out of my chest. My heart rate was going dangerously high and 4 miles felt like 12. I lost 5 pounds in the matter of a few weeks and I could barely sleep. I felt high energy and exhausted at the same time. I went to the doctor and found out I was experiencing a hyperthyroid. In other words, my thyroid was over producing thyroid hormone. There was nothing I could do but wait for my thyroid levels to normalize. I had to take it very easy with training for another month before my heart rate started to normalize and I started to feel normal again.
Athletes over train often. In fact over training can be a part of a healthy training program. It is chronic overtraining that can cause health problems including adrenal insufficiency. Over training without adequate rest can result in dysfunction of the adrenal glands and they are no longer able to maintain proper hormone levels (Brooks and Carter 2013). As a result athletic performance is severely compromised.
Symptoms of overtraining syndrome include weight loss, lack of mental concentration, anxiety, awakening unrefreshed, and heavy, sore, stiff muscles. Looking back I realize that I was likely experiencing most of these symptoms. I wonder if I had taken a day off instead of doing that track workout if my marathon experience would have been different. My body was screaming for rest and I did not listen.
For many athletes overtraining can be career ending. They may never run or participate in sport at the same capacity again. Luckily I was able to have success after this experience. This experience has made me more aware of my body and knowing when to push myself and when to back off. I have a better appreciation of rest days and I have mastered fueling strategies that help my body recover faster and keep me going longer during long, hard workouts.
Prevention of overtraining is key. Training must include proper nutrition, while balancing training and recovery, and stress management. Hopefully my story will help you recognize the symptoms and consequences of overtraining so you can keep your balance on the training tightrope towards a successful season.
Brooks, KA and Carter JG. Overtraining, Exercise, and Adrenal Insufficiency. Journal of Novel Physiotherapies. 2013; 16:125
Kreher JB and Schwartz JB. Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. Athletic Training. 2012: volume 4, number 2.