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There are warning signs to look for, and they must not be taken lightly.
The term “overtraining” might not typically be used to describe what ultrarunner Geoff Roes went through. In 2011, he just felt sluggish and off. But then in August 2012, he had more severe symptoms: intense muscle weakness, fatigue, tingling, numbness, GI issues, lack of coordination and fluctuations in body temperature, blood sugar and blood pressure.
“I was hardly able to do anything,” said Roes, who won the Western States Endurance Run in 2010 and set a course record at the time.
Generally, overtraining syndrome simply leads to poor performance, persistent fatigue, mood changes and sleep disturbances, according to Laurel Mackinnon, a PhD at the University of Queensland. Training too much without enough recovery puts your body in a state of permanent breakdown. Generally, the problems from overtraining are easily fixed with rest and recovery.
But that’s not how it worked for Roes.
It was only after he ruled out everything else that he realized he’d been sluggish and tired for almost a year before his serious symptoms. He had thought easing up on hard workouts was enough, but he still ran about 30 hours per week and pushed through the persistent fatigue.
Since he’s come out publicly about his struggles, he said people contact him all the time about their own extreme overtraining experiences. The problem, however, is there’s no real way to know if too much training explains his body’s breakdown or if it’s the root cause of these people’s problems, either.
“There isn’t a definitive diagnosis for overtraining,” said Roes. That uncertainty can be an additional source of stress and depression.
If there’s no definitive diagnosis and no clear way to know if you’ve overtrained, then how do you prevent it in the first place?
“You need to look at it more as the balance between stress and recovery,” said Dr. Sean Richardson, author of Overtraining Athletes and a coach and trainer.
Training, Richardson said, is “only half the equation.” What that means is that you might be training a lot and not be overtrained, or you might be training very little and show all the symptoms of overtraining. The issue, he said, is really how everything all fits together.
For example, rifle shooters have been found to frequently experience overtraining symptoms, despite the fact that they don’t have a traditionally physically strenuous training regimen. That’s because all kinds of stress—training and life stress—put a load on your body, said Richardson, while all kinds of recovery—sleep, eating healthy, mental relaxation, recharging socially—help your body recuperate. If you’re busy at work and trying to cram hard workouts in and not taking the time to sleep at night or unplug during the day, then you’re going to create too much stress on your body.
That can lead to fatigue and sluggishness, trouble sleeping, changes in heart rate and mood swings. If it goes past those preliminary symptoms, you might have constant low-level illnesses and minor injuries, which can turn into major ones. You may also have hormonal changes and electrolyte shifts. Acute symptoms, like those Roes experienced, are still being debated by doctors, who are not all in agreement about whether overtraining can cause neurological and heart problems.
The issue for athletes, on a practical level, is that it’s hard to know in the moment what the difference is between being tired simply from a hard workout and being chronically tired from too much stress or load.
“There is short-term ‘overreaching’ and long-term ‘overtraining.’ This is a continuum—overreaching can turn into overtraining with time if the training load is not reduced,” said Mackinnon.
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Many people keep a log of how they feel each morning to spot changes that might be early warning signs. If you have a long-term record of what your resting heart rate is in the morning, then drastic variations in those numbers, combined with how you’re feeling and what you’ve been doing, can be the first indicators that your body needs more recovery.
“Your best measures are subjective,” said Richardson, meaning only you know if your fatigue is something more than just fatigue. “It’s all about context.”
Being tired at the end of a hard training block is no cause for concern. Being tired and unmotivated after a week of recovery suggests that your body is not ready for workouts yet. A lack of motivation, especially when you should be more motivated, can be particularly telling.
Richardson is developing a tool, called Work Hard Smarter, to keep track of all these different training and life factors. You’ll be able to better measure any physiological changes and what could be causing those changes. The goal is to be able to measure all the different things that subtract and add energy to your stores. (Even your brain uses up calories.)
The lack of a clear way to diagnose overtraining or too much stress on the body is part of what makes it so easy to push through and make the problem worse. That’s why a number of exercise protocols to determine if an athlete is in the early stages of overly-stressed are being tested in different studies.
“I still have a high level of doubt about what was the root cause of all my problems,” said Roes. “But, from a personal standpoint, it doesn’t matter.” After doing almost nothing for six or seven months, Roes has been able to do casual runs and low-key activities. Slowly he’s getting back to normal, but it’s not always a smooth road forward. “It’s really, really slow progress.”
About The Author:
Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.