One Story of Overtraining

I’ve written a lot about various aspects of the health issues that I’ve been dealing with for some time now. To this point though, I haven’t said much about the specifics of what I’ve gone through physically. This has been in part because I think the specifics might be boring to the average reader, and in part because I have had such little understanding of what has been going on in my body that it’s felt like it would be impossible to put it into words in a way that would make any sense. Now though, as the light at the end of the tunnel has gotten generally brighter I feel like I have a better understanding of everything I’ve gone through, and I’ve had several people in the past several weeks tell me that they are curious as to more of the specifics of what I’ve gone through.

The story of all of this really goes back to 2011. Ever since sometime in the early part of that year things just didn’t quite feel right in my running. I felt great in everyday life, and I generally felt great when running slow and short, but anytime I tried to run hard (especially races) or long (over 5 hours) things just didn’t feel “right.” The problem was that things never really felt that bad either, just not all that good. So I tried to rest a bit more than usual, but mostly just powered through.

This all came crashing down though in the later part of the summer of 2012. I was feeling decent enough most of that summer, but sometime in late July or early August I started to have some very unusual things happening in my body. The first acute symptom was excessive urination, initially only when I was running. I can recall some runs at that time when I would need to take a piss every 10 or 15 minutes for four or more hours! For several days I didn’t think much of this, but then it started to occur all the time (not just when running), and then a week or two later I started to feel some dizziness, neck pain, and shooting pains in the back of my head. Again, these symptoms initially only occurred when I was running, but within a week or less I started to have them at numerous times throughout the day. By the end of August, I was also experiencing severe muscle weakness, fatigue, numbness, tingling, anxiety, random pains throughout nearly everywhere in my body, swollen eyelids, GI pain/issues, “brain fog,” severe lack of coordination/balance, and significant fluctuations in body temperature, appetite, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These were the things I remember most prominently. There were probably another dozen symptoms that I might have experienced in a given day at that time.

Around this time I was really scared. I was certain I had some sinister illness/condition and would be lucky to be alive in a year or two. I nearly went to the emergency room at least a half dozen times in August/September. Over time I saw about a half dozen doctors, tested for everything you can imagine, but no one was able to pinpoint any one specific thing. Slowly, I became better at living with my condition, and then, in very slow steps over time my condition seemed to be getting a little better.

By October or November, I began to consider the possibility of Overtraining Syndrome. When anyone had suggested this initially I just thought there was no way possible that I could have such acute and such severe symptoms simply as a result of too much physical stress/activity. I’m still not completely sure I trust this diagnosis, but as it is now eight months since the onset of acute symptoms, and I have not been able to nail down any other kind of diagnosis this seems more and more likely.

In the time since November, things have generally continued to improve, but it has certainly been a very up and down path. Most of December was a pretty good stretch, but then most of February I was feeling as bad as I had felt since September or October. March was the best I’ve felt since this all started, but now in the past week or so I seem to have gone back into a phase of feeling mediocre at best. The good news now is that a mediocre week would have been my best week back in September or October. On the good weeks now I feel almost “normal.” Fatigue, neck pain, heavy eyes, and muscle weakness seem to be the symptoms that have been the hardest to shake.

As you might imagine, I have read a lot about Overtraining Syndrome in the last several months. It’s a tough thing to completely trust as a diagnosis as there are no clinical tests that definitively show this condition. I have found a lot of things in my system that would back up the theory of Overtraining, most specifically poor adrenal function, low neurotransmitter levels, and poor fat and protein metabolism. Everyday though, I seem to have moments when I question if perhaps there is something else going on that I’m missing. Some lingering virus, or an autoimmune disorder, or even some kind of allergy or toxin. I have tested, and then retested, and then retested again for pretty much anything and everything that any doctors have come up with, but it’s still hard not to wonder if there’s something I’m just missing, some piece that would solve this whole mysterious puzzle.

With time though, I have come to trust the theory of Overtraining Syndrome more and more. A year ago I would have thought no way could overtraining possibly create the kind of medical condition that I have experienced these past eight months. However, when I started to read up on it, and started to talk to more doctors and more endurance athletes, there is in fact precedent for this kind of thing. I’m certainly nowhere near the first endurance athlete to go through something like this. I just always figured it wouldn’t happen to me because I trained a lot less than many people I know.

No one has been able to fully explain everything that goes on in the body when it is chronically overtrained, so I won’t attempt to either, but, essentially, overtraining occurs when the work-to-rest ratio is out of whack. That is when we do too much work with our body, as compared to the amount of rest we give it. In its simplest form pretty much every endurance athlete overtrains on occasion. Generally when this happens we get sore or fatigued to the point that our brain intervenes and effectively convinces us to give ourselves the necessary rest to rebound from this phase of overtraining. If done properly, this “overtraining” will actually make us stronger and faster for a period of time. The problems occur when we continue to overtrain on an ongoing basis. Eventually, this will lead us to what many sports doctors recognize as Stage 2, or sympathetic overtraining. This is when most people might start to notice some subtle symptoms: getting sick/injured easily; elevated resting heart rate; elevated cortisol levels; sleep issues; poor performance; etc. In hindsight, it’s easy for me to look back to that phase I mentioned above in early 2011 as the time that I almost certainly moved into this second stage. If we continue to push through this second stage (as I did for the second half of 2011 and the first half of 2012), we will eventually run up against Stage 3, or parasympathetic overtraining. This is when shit really hits the fan. This was last August for me. The good thing is that it’s pretty much impossible to go beyond this stage as your body loses its ability to train at all anymore. The bad thing is that once you go into Stage 3 it can take 6-12 months to feel mostly normal again. Many people are able to rebound with time and train and race hard again, while some people are never really able to do this again.

And so this is where I’m at now. Eight month into this third stage, and I’m certainly feeling significantly better than I was for the first several months. With time I feel confident that I will be able to live a fully healthy and very active life once again. I’ve already been able to take on a very moderate amount of light activity: hiking, running, biking, climbing, yoga, etc. I have no idea if I’ll be able to ever train and race at a high level again, but, overall, I’m really curious to see where this all goes. I feel too much in the midst of all of this still to say what the biggest things I’ve learned have been, but I know when I work through all of this and come out on the other end it will be one of the most valuable and educational things I’ve ever gone through.

Overtraining Syndrome is a very elusive and somewhat hypothetical condition, so much so that I still occasionally doubt if this is in fact what I’m dealing with. It is however, a legitimate enough of a concern that every endurance athlete should be aware of just how serious it can be. I’m sure I have bored some with the details of my experience here, but hopefully I have opened the eyes of at least a few people in a way that may help them from going through some of the scary, frustrating, and debilitating things that I’ve been through in the past eight months.

Anyone looking for more information on this topic, I would recommend checking out the sections in “The Lore of Running” dedicated to overtraining, and anything you can find on the subject by Phil Maffetone, most notably “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing.” Not the most creatively named book, and there are some things in it that I don’t necessarily agree with, but his sections on overtraining and the importance of proper rest, nutrition, and lifestyle contain a lot of valuable insight and advice.

Otherwise, as a last piece of advice, I would say to really truly listen to your body. If something feels like it’s “off” in your training and/or racing, it probably is. I “knew” something was wrong in my body for about 18 months, but didn’t do enough about it before it was too late.

There are 97 comments

  1. Julio C.

    Hi Geoff! Sorry for my english. Thanks to a friend of my who knew my situation got to this reading and although I am not an elite runner I never had excuse for stop giving my best effort in all my marathones especially with the goal of being able to qualify for Boston.

    Also, I tried to lower my times and I exercised every day (also for my work usually sleep very little)

    I rarely had injuries and in my country there is always good weather, so there was no excuse to go for a run and compete all year for 15 years in my maximun capacity…. until I started experiencing the same symptoms you had.

    I spent a lot of money on doctors and tests without none problems detected. I looked online and searched for other athletes and not found similar case … until today!. I have 14 months since I started with this and I learned that the only way to improve my condition was rest for a few months until my body lost the good condition and started again. Now my heart rate are higher with the same effort but I can run 21k to low pace without problems, however if I try to run at a high pace today I must rest next day.(a few months ago I could not run slow 2 days followed).

    Do not know if I can return to my previous condition, only the future will tell.

    Tips: Decrease eating so much flour as rice and bread

    white and increase the consumption of seeds (balance of insulin).

    Greetings and hope that we can recover, hopefully soon!

  2. Markus

    Thanks for this honest article Geoff,

    I have seen it so many times on all levels. People think there is no limit and they can go on forever. Unfortunately they hit the wall at one point.

    If you look to the more mature sport of marathon running top runners do one maybe two marathon races a year and only a couple of shorter ones. And even then the marathon career is limited in length.

    Ultrarunning is a bit different, part of it because it's not so competitive (I am sure people will disagree with me on this one) and because running is only one of the skills a ultrarunner has to have.

    In my running life which now almost spans over 3 decades, I have seen a lot of great runners come and go. But only a few made an impact over a couple decades. I just would like to mention two of them with total different approaches and abilities:

    Yannis Kouros would be the first one to mention for the road ultras. He never did many races but when he raced he performed on an exceptional level.

    The other one would be Karl Meltzer for the trail ultras. Karl is by far not the fastest trail runner on the planet but he seem to train smart and makes the best out of his abilities.

    The thing is that we all have limits, like it or not. Yes we can push the limits quite a bit but sometimes its also a good thing to take it easier on yourself to give your body and mind a break.

    Markus

  3. Tyler

    I just reread your post and it sounds almost 100% like my friend with Lyme. For somebody who spends as much time in the woods as you do, ticks must be a concern. Frequent urination, GI issues, brain fog, swollen joints, tingling and heavy extremities, headaches. It all matches up. She had several negative tests for Lyme, but Western Blot confirmed it. I hope you get a definitive diagnosis and get healthy soon.

  4. J.Xander

    tite,

    So true about Dr.'s. I would like to add "Never trust doctors who make you feel stupid or insane".. or who whip out the prescription pad immediately after your explanation of symptoms."

    Geoff,

    Thanks for reminding us that we are all mortals and that even elite runners struggle with physical setbacks and injury. I wonder if a lot of runners feel alone in their plague of physical issues and management of the bodies systems.

  5. Ben Nephew

    This ruins my theory of racing to stay healthy, Geoff! Honestly, I find that I'm most likely to get hurt during periods of just training. I enjoy training hard, and when I don't have any races I see no reason to rest very much. When I have races, I enjoy tapering and have no problems taking some easy miles to recover.

    Do you think your issue was not enough recovery time between races, or that your races were so long and stressful that even though you did take some time off, the accumulated stress over your racing schedule was too much?

    I see a lot similarities between you and Wardian. The damage seemed to accumulated slowly, you were both probably just slightly over the limit to what you could handle over the long term. I think with Mike the family stress was probably a big factor in his injuries. Do you think moving to high altitude had anything to do with the start of your illness?

  6. Guest

    Your honesty is great! I see lots of athletes with these issues and feel it needs to be talked about more. You should also research fibromyalgia. I wish you great health!

  7. StephenJ

    Seems illogical. Unless he uses somebody else's blood, it would be like using electricity to run a generator to produce more electricity. Blood doping allows athletes to artificially save red blood cells for later use during a race.

  8. Matt

    This is a very interesting post and I love the high quality discussion in the comments. I'd like, if I may, to ask a couple of questions.

    Assuming it is overtraining how do you (or your doctors) refer to it; do you call it chronic fatigue or ME or anything else? That's just out of interest.

    I wanted to ask your opinion about two things that I've heard that I think relate to your post – they're to do with the rather in fashion topic of carbohydrates. I have no proof of these points but they were said by people that I believe have researched well so…

    I've heard it said that burning carbs causes a lot of inflammation and pollution in the body. This was said by Barry Murray (interviewed on Talk Ultra a few episodes before your appearance Geoff). He claimed that to run the kind of distances an ultra runner does on just carbohydrate would cause enough extra stress on the body to be a big contributing factor to health issues. He mentioned your case by name: he admitted to not knowing any specifics but said something like "I'll bet he eats a lot of carbs and I bet that is a major contributing factor" [not a direct quote].

    Another thing I heard, said by Nora Gedgaudas, is that it is impossible for a body to absorb vitamin D no matter how big the dose without there being fat present in the body. She claims there is no point supplementing vit. D if there's no saturated fat in the diet and that the best way to obtain vit. D is to get it through saturated animal fats.

    Thanks again for the post Geoff,

    Matt

  9. Geoff

    Matt,

    interesting thoughts for sure.

    As far as carbs i would say that i've always been a pretty average Carb eater. I've certainly never tried a low carb diet, but i also have always eaten as many vegetables and meat (for the past 5 years) as just about anyone I know. I tried a very low carb, and completely gluten free diet for about two months in the fall and didn't seem to have any improvement of my symptoms in that time. since then i have continued to eat far less carbs than i used to.

    in terms of fats I have always eaten as much or more fats than anyone I know. Olive Oil, Butter, Coconut oil, Udos oil (mostly flax), Avocado, and dairy (although not as much recently) have all been huge parts of my diet for several years now.

    i'm not saying i don't think either of these factors have potentially contributed to some of what i've had going on, but i'm certainly not your textbook case of someone who eats too many carbs and not enough fats.

  10. ann

    Very interesting article. Just wondering if you have seen an endocrinologist. Your symptoms sound so much like having a pituitary decrease in ACTH production…similar to having Addison's disease but slightly different since it doesn't cause electrolyte imbalance. My husband developed this condition and the endocrinologist did a cosyntropin test to help diagnose it and then started him on hydrocortisone immediately with a prompt remarkable resolution of all symptoms.

  11. Randy

    I am 99% sure I have been battling OTS for 18 months now. My story sounds similiar to yours except my biggest issue,even a year since I quit running is sore/weak quadricep muscles, sleep problems, depression, and apathy. Doctors have been no help, I have been unable to get any advice of exactly how much rest and what to do. I still have to avoid stairs and limit time on my feet as my muscles get worse. I have had EMG and bloodwork, everything normal. I would pay to talk to you more deeply because I still feel no hope. None of my friends and family understand why I feel the way I do. I don't understand why I'm not healing like I should, I have been on light duty at work since November and quit running last July.

  12. Randy

    At various times over the last 8 months, I have looked on the internet for people who have really experienced OTS so that I could really get advice and help. But most people don't believe it or think they overtrained in a week and need time off, yeah okay. I eat enough calories, take all kinds of vitamins and minerals, rest my body, do everything I have read and recovery is almost non-existent. My sleep has improved some, but I still have problems walking with my quads being heavy/sore. I will say I was about as stupid as you can get for what I now realized I put myself thru. Yes, I ran way to many races, too many miles, and too many days. I actually ran until my legs physically could not go anymore. Even with my depression, sleep, and anxiety problems being bad, I still ran until I just couldn't. That is the only reason I quit running, sadly. Anyways, I'm at the point of considering temporary testosterone supplementation to speed recovery, probably not the best or may not even work but at this point, I'm willing to try anything! Hoping I can hear something from you Geoff, this has been a bad 1.5 years.

  13. Ruth

    Good listing of symptoms. Good reminders. It all sounds so adrenal related. The frequent urination coupled with swollen eyelids, etc. Makes little sense. Something to read up on. Thanks for the article.. .very, very interesting.

  14. SparkyZ

    Hi Geoff,

    Great article! I appreciate your honesty. I am currently feeling like crap for the past few months and although I don't want to believe it I think I am overtraining. I started lifting weights while running and working around the house, stressful job etc . . . . And I think it’s caught up with me. I am nowhere near an elite runner as you or Tony K. but I put in high mileage for a 235 pound guy like myself.

    I too have read the "Big book of Endurance and Training" from cover to cover and thought I would give it a try and slowed my runs down and lowered the intensities a year ago and presto I started running my best ever and felt great. So I thought maybe there is something to what Phil Maffetone is saying in his book. But I thought I knew it all and could get faster and faster. I think I got impatient and tried to much too quick. It's amazing how hard it is to find the right balance.

    I got over stage 4 cancer within the last year. I had it for 3 1/2 years and took up running again in the midst of hardcore chemo and it helped me tremendously to the point my oncologist told me to keep it up and he thought it was helping greatly. I guess I thought I was invincible. I have come to learn for me there is such thing as too much. I guess the hard part is finding out how much is too much for each person and not to worry about how others train or what they do.

    Thanks again for your honesty it made my day of feeling crappy a little better. Whether or not you compete again at the high level you are still a very inspirational guy. Trust me you have no idea how much you and Tony K. and Killian and others have inspired me through the tough days in chemo with my running and it got me out there working hard to get healthier 

    SparkyZ

    P.S. I know exactly what you mean about the pissing all the time. I’m going through that right now about every 10 minutes or so weather the bladder is on Empty or not. Gets old after a while but once inflammation goes down it tends to go away (thank goodness!)

  15. chrissy1670

    Geoff,

    Had a really similar symptoms but primary symptom was left-sided pain. Got MRI Brain, c-spine, blood panels, EKG…everything… and nothing showed up. I had run 4 marathons in a span of 4 months and was studying for an orthopedic board exam–which is when the symptoms came on. I had lost a lot of hope until I read this post. I actually re-read it everyday for encouragement because I, like you, was certain there was something sinister going on. Now I just wait…which can be the hardest thing…but it's the only thing to do. Thank you for posting this with such honesty. It's brought me more hope than you know!

    1. Cameron

      I started resting November 2014 and am still not recovered. Some things have gotten better. My lows aren’t as low. Sleep is better. My testosterone has gone up. But I’m still pretty tired every day, still below where I should be testosterone wise, legs feel heavy still, but not as heavy, etc. Good luck to everybody else going through it. It’s a pain in the ass for sure.

  16. Elliot

    Hi, I have the same symptoms as u guys for about 1 year and 3 months now. Is there any way to speed up the recovery? This is the worst :(

    1. mevxx

      There is nothing to do, some good supplements may help and a good diet with a minimum of 8 hours of sleep. It’s been 1 year and 3 months also for me and still not recovered. The fatigue is still here and i really don’t know how much time i need to fully recover from this overtraining/burnout. Would like to hear your story or/and what is your actual symptoms? Do you still have insomnia or severe fatigue? Did you quit running totally?

      1. Elliot

        Hi, sorry to hear that your going through this also.
        I was training Crossfit/weighlifting/running + full time mailman and my schedule was pretty packed with training. Almost 3 times a day except weekends only once a day. I had the mentality of more is better and almost every time 90% of max effort. This felt good and I did recover from it I felt like. I got stronger, faster so fast and the “gains” came quickly. I could go on like this for a long time it felt like. I was hitting my peak and then everything suddenly got worst with time. I was not training for beach 2015 rather performance. My first symptoms was very dry lips and unlimited tiredness and atleast sick/flu once a week every week. I didnt think about it so much so just decided to sleep more, eat more, take vitamins. I didnt know what was happening to me so i just kept on training but with lower volume. Everything still got worst but didnt do anything about it really. This had gone on for a long time but I never stopped training. After a while the more physical/mental symptoms came with extreme fatigue in my entire body, no sex appeal, couldn’t focus, everything was hard, aches in my body all the time, Was never happy, could never laugh, irritated, brainfog, insomnia. back, leg pain, joint pain etc etc. Could never wake up rested. Every morning felt like I had just ran 50km srsly. Could lye in bed for 3-4 hours before I went sleeping. It was so hard to even bend down and pick something up from the ground. My muscles would then be so exhausted I had to sit and wait it out. I felt so weak all the time like I had the flu. Also my body started gradually be in some kind of power saving mode where I would walk slowly and if i would walk faster I would feel wors. I then stopped training and was sick leaved from work and then everything exploded. First 6 months from not training I was a zombie. Now 1 year and couple of months later every symptom is better but still there.
        Game changer for me was when I started with very light training 6 months ago almost because I realized I felt almost as shitty first day as 8 months resting. With the light training I think my body is slowly healing itself.
        I cant complain much about my sleep. I thinks its good enough now.

        From being a very active guy I have now been forced to be very inactive for a long time. The weird thing is that how the hell can you not see this symptoms in blood tests or any other tests. Ive had/have every symptom u can have except like depression.

        I tell myself every day time heals all wounds.
        Hope this can help.
        What symptoms do you have and what has helped you the most recovery wise?

        1. mevxx

          Hi, thanks for sharing your story.

          For me the first 6 months after stopping training, i was just resting at home, i had severe fatigue and severe depression, couldn’t walk 5 minutes or even less without getting fatigue. Then i’ve searched on internet something that could help for recovery, I’ve bought so many supplements vitamins etc.. But nothing has helped me except L-Tyrosine. The first days i took it, it gave me energy and my mood got better but was still pretty tired everyday. Now i stopped taking everything because when i take even a low dose of l tyrosine it gives me insomnia for few days but it boosts my energy so much. Melatonin did help me for sleep but i dont think it’s really restorative sleep because once i stopped it my sleep’s was a lOt better. Now after 16 month’s I’m feeling much better but i still don’t think that i ll recover in few months, my body needs more time. My actual symptoms are : fatigue, Upset abdominal pain, insomnia (sometimes), and a bit of anxiety. Also i have blood test checked and even after 1 year my vitamin D is still really low even with supplementing.

  17. Filoup

    Really interesting forum. I am a cyclist and runner, and decided last year I would learn swimming over the winter and do triathlons this summer. So I trained hard over the winter, 5 to 7 times a week, worked 60h a week professionnaly with 2 kids at home, the little one being only 2. End of april, got a sinus infection, was treated with antibiotics, but after, I was weak, stressed, insomnia, no energy. Tried training in may, too early, had no legs…I decided to stop for 3 weeks, and resumed. June was not really better, weak, no juice, problems sleeping. Mid august, I now train 2-3 times a week, mildly, 2 X 50k bike rides a week, and one running session of 5-6k, and that’s all I can do. When I do train, I can push hard, but the day after….I am just dead, and sometimes can’t sleep….After discussions with 2 doctors, conclusion is overstress on body with training, work and family…and I was told it takes longer to go back up to previous level, than it took to wear down….Conclusion: you do not need to train 20-30h a week to overtrain, if you’re really loaded professionnally, have family obligations, and train to compete, it can happen to you….
    Mario, 55 Yrs old

  18. TyAnn clark

    Hey Geoff- I was scrolling the internet tonight trying to figure out why my dang quads still hurt and came across this. I’m so sorry that you are going through this, and am glad to see that you are able to have get that much activity in your life.
    I feel like you wrote my story here. I used to be on the Spartan Pro team (spartan race) – I only finished off the podium a handful of times- and here I am still stuck barely able to moderately exercise a couple of days a week. I ran my body into the ground. It’s been 3 years – lots of improvements, but man I’m still stuck with muscle fatigue and achiness in the quads and eye burning. Lots of tests, lots of doctors , lots of supplements , lots of advice. I’m afraid to go get tested for MS- online that’s the only thing that sounds similar. But my symptoms really sound so similar to yours and I assume you were tested for that? Do you still experience the muscle weakness (especially in the quads?)

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