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.