Overtraining Syndrome, Part Three: The Trail Ultrarunning Specifics
November 12, 2013 by Joe Uhan · 36 Comments
Before we begin, a basic science lesson.
“In classical mechanics, impulse… is defined as… the average force multiplied by the time it is exerted… Impulse is also defined as the change in the linear momentum of a body…
A resultant force causes… a change in the… body for as long as it acts… A resultant force applied over a longer time therefore produces a bigger change in momentum than the same force applied briefly… Conversely, a small force applied for a long time can produce the same change in momentum—the same impulse—as a large force applied briefly…” (from the Wikipedia entry for ‘impulse’)
Training load is, simply put, an impulse: how much force–or intensity of activity–we apply to our lives multiplied by time. It is the energy we put into an activity and ourselves to generate momentum. It is fitness, and, in its basic essence, it is life.
Things get tricky when you consider that our brains and bodies have difficulty perceiving small forces. The frog hops out of boiling water, yet will sit there and allow itself to be cooked when heated gradually.
As discussed in Part One and Part Two of the Overtraining Series, our capacity to withstand impulse without breaking down (or deformation, in the physics world) is finite. But how do we measure impulse, that training stress, especially when it is so low-intensity but for prolonged periods? How does our brain register physiological stress when it is fun, exhilarating, and nurturing? When a six-hour run fails to leave us ‘sore’?
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”
What makes trail ultrarunning so unique, rewarding, and increasingly popular are the exact things that make us so gravely prone to over-dosage: low-intensity running, soft/variable surfaces, and incredible scenery. They are all capable of masking the true physiological strain placed on our bodies.
Moreover, failure to take into account contributions of other ‘impulse’ forces on our lives only compounds the problem, especially when the ‘strain’ of trail ultrarunning is perceived by many as reward for our hard work in other areas of life. Or when it is symbolic of our approach to life: taking on enormous personal challenges and conquering them.
In this third installment in the Overtraining Series, we discuss:
- Special challenges facing trail ultrarunners in preventing and treating overtraining;
- Two prominent trail ultrarunners who experienced overtraining symptoms, and
- Implications for overtraining on the future of the sport of trail ultramarathons.
Unique Challenges of Trail Ultrarunning
In my discussions on overtraining in Part Two with elite runners and physiologists Brett Ely and Kimber Mattox, the differences between conventional road and track running versus trail ultrarunning quickly became evident. While athletes in both sports are equally driven and prone to training too much, the challenges facing trail ultrarunners in monitoring training and detecting overload are much greater.
Road and Track: It can be argued that the body system hardest stressed is musculoskeletal. You run hard on roads and tracks, and you thrash your legs. To use a car analogy, the muscles, tendons, and joints are the tires, shocks, and struts of the car. On the roads and tracks, you drive too hard, you blow the tires and shocks, usually long before you achieve ‘speeds’ necessary to damage the engine (metabolic), transmission (endocrine), or electrical (nervous) systems.
Trail: The stress of running ultra distances on trails is insidious. Commonly, muscle soreness is light and fleeting if not often absent. This is due to myriad factors including softer and more variable surfaces which reduces acute and repetitive stresses and lower-intensity running which reduces tissue stresses at the cellular level.
Thus, even after running for many hours, one might possibly awake the next day feeling very little ‘soreness’ in the muscles or joints. But that doesn’t mean the body wasn’t stressed in significant ways:
Neurological: Regardless of intensity, the nervous system is hard at work during long, ultra-distance runs with prolonged, hours (if not days)-long firing of the sympathetic nervous system which drives all bodily systems during exercise. Moreover, specific motor nerves to working muscles are firing every millisecond, for hours. Neurological fatigue–regardless of perception–is significant and a real stressor to the nervous system.
Endocrine: This system secretes important hormones for use during and after exercise to mobilize energy stores and to aid in recovery. Prolonged exercise–however low its intensity–elevates key hormones, namely cortisol, to harmful levels. Cortisol, a hormone released under all times of stress, even psychological, when consistently lingering in the body will cause physiological breakdown across multiple systems: weakening tissues, curbing fat burning, and otherwise slowing recovery.
These two systems are stressed regardless of intensity, but our ability to perceive neurological or metabolic fatigue is poor. Unknowingly over-stressing these systems with trail ultrarunning is all too easy.
Road and Track: Competitions are highly standardized: specific distances (1500 meters, 5k, marathon) on (mostly) flat, paved surfaces. Progress–or struggle–is easily measured based on performance. The same goes for workouts which occur mostly on tracks, roads, and standardized courses. One’s ability to perceive training response is straightforward: if you feel good, you run fast. If you don’t feel good, either you run slow or you feel poorly while running the same speed.
Trail: Training and racing trail ultramarathons is more complicated. Each race–even if listed as a standard distance–is different, either by true distance (as many of them are several kilometers or more off their listed distance), terrain, or weather conditions. Thus, it’s nearly impossible compare a time or performance between one race and the other. To complicate things further, a single race may change from year to year, based only on trail and weather conditions, making even year-to-year comparisons difficult.
Road and Track: Coaches are common from top to bottom, from grade school to post-collegiate. The majority of conventional runners are coached. While there are some disadvantages to coaching, the benefits vastly outweigh them:
- Intimate knowledge of you as an athlete
- Established boundaries
- Disciplined planning
Trail: Few trail ultrarunners are coached. This could be because the ultramarathon is not a distance run by grade school or university students where the vast majority of coaches are employed. That said, there is relatively little experience of coaches coaching ultrarunners and ultrarunners having a coach. Therefore, they lose out on experience-driven guidance and objectivity in their training. That coupled with less rote knowledge about ultradistance training theory leaves most runners to go it alone and improvise training, with mixed results.
While ultramarathon coaches are rare, there are some notable examples of great resources. iRunFar’s own columnist, Ian Torrence, specializes in ultramarathon coaching for the McMillan Group. Torrence is one of the most respected ultrarunners in the modern history of the sport and that work ethic, commitment, and attention to detail carries over into his coaching work. And his experience provides credible guidance to many runners. When addressing training stress balance, Torrence notes:
“I like to focus more on these indicators:
- Significant and consecutive decrease in training and racing performance.
- What I can gather through one-on-one personal evaluations through email and phone conversations. You can get a great sense of where a person’s at by listening to their voice and story.
- I’ll watch and monitor for repeated injury, changes in appetite, excessive fatigue, and restless/loss of sleep.
- I have many of my athletes color-code their workouts: Green, Yellow, Red. Green = great run/workout. Yellow = just getting it done, nothing to write home about. Red = fail, shut the run/workout down early, or injury. I can follow the color trend to determine where we went wrong or to stop a hole from being dug… If I start seeing too much of that Yellow and/or Red, then it’s time to reevaluate and adjust.”
Using multiple objective and subjective metrics, Torrence and the other McMillan coaches can be on the lookout for overtraining trends and prevent harmful progressions. Ultimately the value of a coach is just that: an objective, experienced, third-party guide between your training and racing ambitions and your athletic capabilities.
Road and Track: Roadies run… on roads. Or, if they’re feeling saucy, on flat, smooth trails. Hilly, technical trails that comprise the bread and butter of trail ultrarunners’ outings are run sparingly if at all. Such road and track running is predictable, monotonous, and sometimes boring. The track workout is even more extreme. While it’s fun to run fast, I’ve never–in my 20 years of road-and-track running and coaching–heard a runner remark how much fun and enjoyment they got from running a long, hard track workout. They’re hard and often miserable, and the misery is worth the ultimate reward.
Trail: The most popular statement I hear from ultrarunners about trail ultrarunning is, “The trails are so beautiful and fun. It’s like you’re not even working,” Alternatively, “They’re so much easier than a long road run!”
These statements are likely true and they’re a major draw to the sport. Training is sightseeing, an exercise of exploration and solitude. Therefore, lost in the joy of the pursuit of nature is the normal markers of physiological stress: tissue stress and fatigue.
Indeed, there is less muscle and joint stress with trail ultrarunning, and, to a point, less metabolic stress due to the lower intensity of the effort. But it is not the intensity (or ‘force’) that matters to our physiology, it is impulse: force times duration. No one will argue that a 10-mile road run on concrete is more stressful on the legs than 10 miles on buttery singletrack. But what if that trail 10-miler is at 9,000 feet elevation with 2,000 feet of vertical gain and loss, and it takes twice as long?
Perceiving total body impulse in the course of trail running training, therefore, is inherently more difficult when the most obvious training stress markers–namely muscle soreness–are absent or more subtle. Couple that with the inherent joy, excitement, gratitude, and sense of adventure that comes from trail ultrarunning and you have a recipe for overdose.
Stories of Overtraining
Admitting that one is overtrained is difficult. It’s against everything we believe in:
- We believe that we control whether or not we run well based on how hard we try.
- We believe that by running more and trying harder, we will run faster.
- We believe that when we do well, it is for reasons we control; and when we do not run well, we tend to attribute failure to factors outside our control.
Therefore, to admit that one is overtrained is to admit that:
- We have a finite and limited capacity to handle the demands of the lives of our choosing; and
- We have voluntarily caused our own poor performance and poor health that arose from our decisions.
These are tough pills to swallow. As such, very few runners will ever admit, at least publicly, that they have overtrained. Yet overtraining happens, and it happens often. Why? Because the same factors that make a successful ultramarathon runner and a successful person–hard-working, driven, tenacious, refusing to fail, desire to push the limits–are the factors that create conditions that cause overtraining.
We are privileged to hear of two high-profile accounts of elite ultramarathon runners who have personally experienced the effects of overtraining.
Neal Gorman is a familiar name to many runners in ultrarunning. An East Coast ultra veteran of numerous hundred milers, Gorman set the standard at the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, 74:54:14, in 2010 (which was the Grand Slam record until Ian Sharman’s summer 2013 record performance). He followed that up with podium finishes in four hundred milers in 2011. Then in 2012, he notched a top-10 finish at Western States, a second place at Grindstone, and a victory at Pinhoti 100.
Gorman had big plans for 2013, including runs at Western States and Hardrock. However, onset of progressive fatigue following Pinhoti in the fall of 2012 hampered his preparations. But it would get worse before it got better. A mysterious virus struck in the spring, worsening his condition, forcing him to drop all racing plans, and resulting in months off running.
Neal’s background is common in the sport today. He began as an outsider, a non-runner, drawn to racing trail ultramarathons after first engaging in triathlon competitions with his brother. He found the extreme endurance challenge of the triathlon, and later ultra racing, “intriguing”, and was drawn to his first 50-mile race in 2007. “Within weeks”, he said, he ran his first hundred miler, and off he went. Quickly building fitness, experience, and a desire for the ultra distance, his Ultrasignup ledger shows at least a half-dozen ultra races per year from 2009 through 2012. All but a handful of these were top-10 or podium placings. After three hundred-mile races in 2009, the Grand Slam caught his eye. Having set the record in 2010, his appetite for hundreds was not quite satiated. He ran another four hundreds in 2011, and another trio in 2012 before problems arose.
After numerous tests, Gorman was diagnosed with Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a common, normally asymptomatic infection that affects a large majority of people (50 to 80% of the population by age 40). However, for those with compromised immune systems–including those who are overtrained–it can cause severe health problems. This was the case for Gorman, who was trying to balance a demanding professional life with the challenges of raising a newborn son, Trail. Gorman’s struggles with CMV and its influences on his running and life is well-documented in his blog.
Our next runner needs little introduction. Geoff Roes, UltraRunning’s Ultra Runner of the Year in 2009 and 2010, has an even more impressive trail racing resume, perhaps one of the strongest in the history of the sport. Roes’ background is more conventional. A runner since junior high, he competed in cross country and track through high school, and a year at Syracuse University before setting it aside for other interests. For the next decade, Roes ran sparingly until a move to Alaska in 2005 stoked his desire to explore the forests, peaks, and glaciers of Juneau and restarted his running career. Then, Roes said, he “just started running a lot”, notching his first ultra finish in February of 2006, a win at the Little Su 50k in Big Lake, Alaska. Roes kept it local, running–and winning–his first hundred-miler at Susitna in 2007. In 2008, he went national and his streak began: running hundreds, winning, and setting course records. Starting at Susitna, he ran that hundred streak to six by 2009, heading into Western States in 2010. His run there against Anton Krupicka and Kilian Jornet was legendary and it was his seventh hundred win and a then-course record at the 37th running of the iconic event.
Western States has a reputation of propelling its victors to new heights and professional status. Roes was no different; the rewards of his epic performance allowed him to transition to running full time. With a move from sea-level Juneau to high-country Colorado in the fall of 2010, Roes seemed poised to crest new heights. But in 2011, Roes began to note a drop off in performance. Pushing the envelope in workouts and races became more difficult and recovery took longer. He performed well at times, including wins (his eighth hundred win-plus-course record) at DTRE 100 in April and at the inaugural UROC 100k in September, it also featured notable sub-par performances and his DNF at Western States in June. Perhaps attributing it to increased workload, Roes was undeterred and chose to enter the 2012 Iditarod Trail Invitational, an unfathomable 350-mile race across southwest Alaska in the depths of winter. For eight days he trudged through deep snow, in frigid conditions, and with a 35-pound sled. He won.
But the price for that win and his eight other hundreds had yet to be perceived. A DNF at Transvulcania in May of 2012 signaled to Roes that he needed time off, which he took. But his health only worsened. A full description of his struggles that summer and beyond was self-reported by Roes in his iRunFar column this past April.
I was struck by the collective experiences of two of the strongest, most experienced runners in the sport. Compelled to learn more about what factors may have played a role, I interviewed the two of them, digging deep into life before and after the development of their overtraining illness.
Q & A with Roes and Gorman
iRunFar: At what point did you begin to notice signs and symptoms of overtraining/overreaching, and what was going on?
Gorman: I noticed definite signs in February (2013) where I knew something was wrong. I felt unmotivated and tired in the mornings, which was when I usually ran. My runs got pushed back to the afternoon or evening when I thought I might feel better. Yet I never felt better when actually running. During slow, short recovery runs I had to work hard effort-wise, which is a bad sign for running in February when the body should be recharged for a new year of training.
Roes: The first signs I noticed were of gradual, decreased performance capability. Everything else felt fine, but beginning sometime around the beginning of 2011, I started to notice that I couldn’t race as effectively as previously and recovery from races or hard training periods seem to take longer than usual. I also got sick a lot around this time. Not serious illness, but nagging sore throat/head cold-type stuff.
iRunFar: What training and racing factors played a role in its development?
Gorman: In 2012, I raced a fair bit but also ran hard a lot on runs in general. I took a month off from running at the end of 2012 but even during that period, I didn’t rest like I should have. Work and family (a new baby and a new house) and several new-home projects kept my interests more piqued than getting extra hours of sleep that my body needed at the time. This time period set me up very poorly for when I began running again after the new year, when the pace with work, family, etc. picked up even more and I had yet to make accommodations for rest.
Roes: Not sure. I didn’t race any more than usual leading up to this. The major change in my training was a move to high altitude (8,500 feet) in August of 2010.
iRunFar: What other triggers existed that might’ve played a role? For example: sleep disturbances, altitude exposure, life stresses (work, family, relationships), repetitive competitions, significant illness, heat injury episodes, or severe ‘bonks’.
Gorman: Definitely [sleep]. My sleep was very poor in the immediate period before CMV symptoms officially took hold. My wife and I were ‘sleep training’ our newborn son which meant we were up at random hours for random periods of time in the middle of each night. Plus I was going to bed late, getting up early, and we had just fired up an altitude tent. I was registered for a few races at altitude in the summer and wanted to test out sleeping in the tent in preparation. [My life stresses included a] newborn son, work, taking on too many passions/hobby projects that I enjoy outside of work, running, etc. I enjoy furniture making and woodworking, and I was actively working on various projects during this period.
Roes: Altitude and the life change of moving from Alaska to Colorado. All other factors seemed to be steady.
iRunFar: Describe a typical week–training volume and non-running life demands–preceding your overtraining symptoms.
Gorman: I work a full-time job and generally over 40 hours per week. I own a commercial insurance brokerage while trying to train like a professional athlete. Meaning, I run a boat load on top of a full-time work and family schedule. Big weeks during a peak training phase means I run anywhere from 80 to 100-plus miles. My wife works full time as well and we have a nanny who is excellent and watches our son at home during the day, during the week. Fortunately, my wife has a very good job in marketing and works from home. She runs a lot as well, plus has other interests as do I, and the nanny is very accommodating for us juggling our daily routines.
Running is all consuming in my mind. I think about it all of the time. If I add up all the hours in a week that I devote actual time to running, or doing something running related, or talking about running, or thinking about running, it is easily 40 hours.
Roes: At that time, I was working a job as a cook at a health-food store, and I averaged about 30 hours per week, on my feet the entire time. Training was entirely running. I did a lot of cross training up until late 2008 or early 2009, but sometime around the beginning of 2009 was when I began to pretty much get all of my training in the form of running. Through most of this time, I was probably averaging 20 hours of running per week. Lots of vertical, probably 25,000 to 30,000 feet per week on average; probably 85 miles per week average, but never more than about 110. [My non-running, social, family demands included] some short walks, bike rides, and things like that with family, but probably less than five hours per week on average. [Socially,] certainly some time at home with my then-girlfriend’s (now wife’s) daughter, but she was not working or in school then so this was very little. Maybe five hours per week on average.
When I began running full time (August of 2010), the main change was that we moved from Alaska to Colorado for my wife to go to school. I took the move as a natural time to quit having any kind of day job and just run full time. The main changes as a result of this were that I ran much less vertical (probably 10,000 to 15,000 feet per week) and thus higher mileage (probably averaged 100 with some weeks up near 130). Total hours of running stayed about the same. The other change was a lot more family responsibility. With my wife in school full time, I spent a lot more time at home with her daughter (probably about 15 hours per week). But without working a ‘day’ job, I definitely noticed a lot more free time after our move to Colorado.
iRunFar: What concurrent health issues were tested for and either ruled in or out?
Gorman: When I received treatment for my issues from a sports-medicine physician, he asked numerous questions, performed a physical, and checked my blood looking for all sorts of issues from low iron, to mono, to viruses, etc. It was a science experiment of determining what was wrong with me by a process of eliminating what wasn’t wrong with me.
Roes: It was all so subtle at first that I didn’t test for anything until January of 2012. At this time I discovered low blood iron and low vitamin D. I supplemented both of these and retested in April of that year. The levels were up and I figured with a more mellow season that year I would feel great by the end of summer.
iRunFar: At what point did you finally surrender and accept that you could no longer train and race as desired?
Gorman: When my doctor diagnosed me with CMV in the spring, he told me that I should surrender any intention of training for and racing Western States and Hardrock over the summer [of 2013]. That complete rest was the only remedy and pathway back to health for an otherwise healthy adult.
Roes: After Transvulcania in May of 2012, I accepted that I needed a long break from racing. I decided not to race Hardrock that summer and decided that I would not race at all until September at the earliest. I felt okay all summer but then in early August I began to get much more acute symptoms: dizziness, extreme fatigue, excessive urination, numbness, headaches, severe light sensitivities, neck pain, and a month or so later, GI symptoms. Within two weeks of the onset of these symptoms, running was pretty much not an option.
iRunFar: What has been your treatment strategy to reverse your symptoms and return to normal both in life and in training?
Gorman: I stopped running completely and doing much of anything physical for roughly seven weeks. For a few months after that, I got back into running very slowly. During this period, I also slept more than I might have usually and focused on slowing down a bit in life in general and not taking on so much. Since getting back to running over the summer, I’ve maintained a more healthy life balance by sleeping more and not piling too much on an already full plate of family, work, and running.
Roes: Mostly just rest. I have tested for nearly every condition, illness, and imbalance possible and nothing has come back all that unusual. I have tried dozens of different supplements and treatment approaches recommended by various doctors that I’ve seen. Acupuncture, massage, cranial sacral therapy, and antibiotic treatment to name a few. Nothing has really seemed to help all that much other than time.
iRunFar: At this point, where do you think you’re at in your progression, with 0% being no improvement and 100% being back to normal, full activity level?
Gorman: 100% back to normal.
Roes: It’s hard to say. I have stretches where I feel like I’m 75 or 80%, but then I seem to relapse into stretches where I’m maybe only halfway there. Overall the trend has been two steps forward and one step back. At this point, I can run, and sometimes it even seems like I feel better when I run more, but I still have day-to-day symptoms (headache, fatigue, light sensitivity) even if I don’t run for days. The symptoms are much more subtle than they were a year ago but I still don’t ever have a day in which I feel totally normal.
iRunFar: Overtraining typically develops only with continued training despite the early warning signs (fatigue, decreased recovery, a decline in health). What motivational factors might’ve played a role in your desire to push through those initial symptoms, including:
- Social: desire to spend time running with others, participating in events, beauty of outdoors/environment?
- Physical: need to consistently exercise, maintain and improve fitness, or simply feel exercise-associated stress relief?
- Competitive: drive to prove yourself against others or an event?
- Financial: need/desire to earn income or satisfy sponsorship obligation (real or perceived)?
- Personal: deep-seeted drive to do more, go farther, or otherwise prove to yourself (or someone else)?
Gorman: Outside of financial, all of the above factors in a way contributed in a way to my overreaching. Plus, I’m a compulsive, workaholic type of person. I enjoy working towards an end project or goal with visible results. To work, to support oneself or family, or to pursue personal interests is a privilege and it gives me satisfaction.
Roes: Probably a little bit of all of these. The number-one factor was that I just really like being out in the mountains, and running is my favorite way to be in the mountains. I also really like racing, and was so much in the habit of racing every four to six weeks that I just wanted to keep doing this even though I wasn’t feeling very well. August of 2010 was also the point that I quit my day job and began to make a living as a runner. This certainly contributed to the financial aspect of the equation. I really enjoy making a living as a runner so when I started to feel not so good, I had a bit more desire to push through and try to continue to race, even if I wasn’t feeling very good.
iRunFar: How has life been post-overtraining? And how have you adjusted those demands to recover and prevent overtraining going forward?
Gorman: Life now–post CMV–is back to happy-go-lucky normal. I have my health and endurance, I still love to run and I run care and anxiety-free, which is the best way to run. I do focus on getting proper sleep when my workload plate is full, which is pretty much all of the time. If I skimp a few hours on sleep a few nights in a row, I purposefully try to make it up at some point over the following few days. I’m not interested in digging myself into another hole with my immune system due to lack of rest.
Roes: Now things are a lot different for me. I ran a fair amount this past summer in Alaska, but right now most of my activity is in the form of hiking, biking, and other much lighter activity. In the past six months, I’ve probably averaged, at the most, 20 miles of running per week and this has been pretty sporadic. A lot of weeks with no running and a few over the summer where I did about 80 miles. Family responsibilities are about that same as they have been for three years now. Lots of time at home with step-daughter, but with her in school for full days now this has become less this year. I have also begun to work on a couple non-running related jobs/projects which are probably taking up on average 15 to 20 hours per week of my time right now.
iRunFar: Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?
Gorman: Seeking treatment from an experienced, qualified sports-medicine physician and being diagnosed was a blessing for me. It hurt being told not to race this past summer and forced to rest but in exchange I was given a new lease on health and a guarantee that running will continue to be a big part of my life going forward. Had I continued to suffer through in my training and racing, not only would I have posted poor results and suffered through that emotionally, but also I could have done irreparable damage to my body and mind, in the process possibly stripping running as an outlet and lifestyle from my future.
Roes: I think it’s important to note that I’m still very much uncertain that this has all in fact been caused by overtraining. It is the most likely cause, but only because I have eliminated so many other possibilities. At least two or three of the doctors I have seen have said they do not think this was caused by overtraining, but by some infection (parasite, bacteria, virus, etc.) that threw my body out of whack and is taking a really long time to recover from. Personally I do think that the physical stress my body was under for so many years has played a major part in all of this and it doesn’t really matter whether it was the root cause or not. I just wanted to mention this, though, because I think it’s another thing to keep in mind when talking about overtraining: there really is no definitive diagnosis for it which makes it even harder to understand and to treat.
Commentary and Inferences on Overtraining
I’ve been a runner for nearly 20 years, a professionally-trained coach for 11, and a medical professional for five. I have meticulously studied concepts in distance training; I have both professional and personal experience with overreaching and overtraining; and recently I have become passionate about speaking with veterans of the ultrarunning sport to investigate what makes for successful, healthy, and sustainable ultrarunning. And what makes for unsustainable, harmful long-term results.
Based on those experiences and what Roes and Gorman have outlined above, my opinions and recommendations are as follows:
- If injury and illness are the burglars, overtraining unlocks and opens the front door. Both Roes and Gorman express doubts about what truly caused their illnesses; indeed, the lack of a true diagnosis and insidiousness of their symptoms makes a clear-cut determination difficult. But ultimately, they both admit that prolonged overtraining and failure to balance stress and rest left their bodies extremely vulnerable and open to exploitation by myriad attackers. Recognize how excessive stress compromises your body and take ownership over what you can control in that stress load.
- Our physical capacity is finite. We have a finite capacity to train and race hard in our lives; our bodies have only so many intense, fatigued miles in our legs. Whether we spread those out over a lifetime or blow through them in a course of a few short years is a decision each individual must make. One need only look at the countless examples of ‘flashes in the pan’, runners who burst onto the scene, perform incredibly, and then disappear as proof of this reality*.
- Life stress is body stress. Failure to recognize non-running stresses in our lives–including work, home, and familial/relationships–will result in decreased capacity to train, diminished recovery, and–when unremitting–overreaching and overtraining results.
- High-volume, year-round training, however low its intensity, is unsustainable. Training for one to three (or more) hours a day is possible and, arguably, ideal for fitness gains, but can only be tolerated for brief periods. Engaging in such high-volume aerobic activity day after day, unremitting for months and years (as Roes and Gorman did, in varying forms), is unsustainable and invariably leads to breakdown.
- Regular, prolonged rest is required. Training hard–daily bouts of aerobic exercise–year-round without significant bouts (at least one month, or longer) of time off is unsustainable, physiologically stressful, and will lead to a hastened end to optimal, competitive running. Scheduled periods of prolonged rest–upwards of a month consecutive, yearly–may be necessary to allow full body recovery after a long period of intense training and racing.
- Racing must be limited. The human body is only capable of running one to three hard-effort ultramarathons per year. Every bit of observational data on peak performance substantiates this point. Racing hard more than once or twice per year–as Roes and Gorman did routinely for consecutive years before their illnesses–will invariably result in performance decline, diminished training and racing capacity, and–if unremitting–health consequences.
- The lag time for unsustainability is three to four years. Many runners, including the fastest in the sport, will staunchly defend their training and racing decisions, citing personal experience and success as proof. My response, “Talk to me in two or three years”. The lag time between the onset of hard training and racing and symptom onset for Roes and Gorman was three to four years. They each ran hard, unremittingly, with at least three hundred-milers per year, successfully for three years before symptoms began. Stress imbalance is not a short-term problem measured in weeks and months. It has roots that extend for years. That said, ignoring the conventional wisdom and knowledge of exercise science and simply ‘going by feel’ is not insurance against overtraining and is potentially dangerous.
- Elite runners training and racing unsustainably are bad for the sport. Fans of ultrarunning pore daily over elite-runner blogs, absorbing their training and racing practices. From that, they infer, “This is what you have to do to be successful”. That only by training for several hours per day, year-round, and racing hard six or more times per year can one be successful. And often, it results in burnout and injury. While there are numerous examples of smart, sustainable elite racers out there, their visibility is smaller simply because they’re only racing hard once or twice per year. Unsustainable training and racing sends a bad message about the core values of the sport: that only through extreme practices and regularly jeopardizing health can one be successful. This is untrue, and proliferation of these practices compromises the legitimacy of ultrarunning as a healthy, balanced sport.
- No matter who you are, the rules still apply. It is human nature to feel special. And elite competitors, accustomed to doing more and doing it faster than anyone else, frequently develop the implicit belief that the rules–those governing the physiological limitations of the human body–don’t apply to them. You might be the best–as Roes and Gorman were, at their heights–but you are not special. The rules still apply. Failure to respect and comply with those rules will invariably lead to system failure.
(*Those interested in a more detailed analysis of the finite nature of running capacity, with case studies of nearly every top distance runner of the 20th century, should review chapters six and seven of Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running, fourth edition, 2001).
Overtraining and the Impact on the Future of the Ultramarathon Racing
In order for ultrarunning to continue its progression as a healthy, sustainable activity for all participants and an accepted competitive sport with an ever-widening public reach, sponsor investment, and professional viability, trail ultramarathon training and racing must be sustainable. That is, its participants must be able to demonstrate that what they do–in preparation and competition–is sustainable without causing physical harm. Research activities conducted each year by Western States are part of that effort to gauge its physical effect.
On the other end, the training and racing efforts by the sport’s elite must also be sustainable. The sport is filled with examples of guys who run hard and fast for a year or two, maybe three… then they disappear. For every Scott Jurek, there are 10 to 20 Brian Morrisons. Developing visibility and notoriety of the sport and its stars beyond the small sphere of ultra participants and die-hard aficionados depends on familiarity and consistency of the star performers and championship-caliber events they run. It demands consistent, high-level performance not just for a year or two, but five or 10. This level of elite performance cannot happen without sustainable training and racing practices.
In a recent Ultrarunnerpodcast on the future of ultramarathon racing, Western States Race Director Craig Thornley cited “the dilution of talent” as a primary issue facing the sport, that there are simply too many “championship” races, and the top-level talent is racing too often and, as a result, racing either slowly or failing to finish, and are not producing top-level performances worthy of public (or corporate) attention. Indeed, even the best road-marathon racers will not race more than one or two races per year, implicit to the wisdom that they cannot race to their potential more frequently than that.
I like to believe fans of trail ultras would prefer to see their favorite runners race hard only one to three times per year, racing their very best. This sort of focused energy and attention will result in performance and competition of epic proportion, galvanizing fan (and corporate) interest and support. The alternative is the frequent but diluted (or malfunctioned) performances we frequently see when the sport’s best race several times a year. Race fans might enjoy an occasional multi-car pile-up, but not when all the stars limp into pit row week after week. Ultrarunning needs smart, disciplined, sustainable training and racing practices to legitimize the sport as a viable, healthy pursuit for the general public, and to promote the excitement and competitiveness of the sport to a wider audience. Without it, ultrarunning risks being relegated as an extreme, ill-fated, brow-raising, fringe activity–with a revolving door of transient talent–without the community and financial support it deserves.
Train smart, race smart. Even in a sport that is inherently extreme, less is more. Most importantly, live to run–and embrace that which you love–another day, and another year.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- For those of you who have experienced diagnosed or suspected overreaching or overtraining, have you identified the stressors of training, racing, and life that pushed you over the proverbial edge?
- Do conversations like this three-part overtraining series change your approach to training and racing? If so, how?
- What do you think about the effects overreaching has on our sport’s sustainability? Do you think ‘flash in the pan’ athletes compromise our sport’s long-term viability? Or, does a sport need those transcendent performances that might only originate out of periods of hyper-focused training in order to grow? (Let’s not name specific names here, please. I think we can have this conversation just as well by talking about hypothetical athletes.)