Overtraining Syndrome: Digging Deep

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My first experience with significant overtraining from running occurred during my two years of collegiate running for CU-Boulder. I was a decent, All-State high school runner in Colorado’s second largest school class, but my talent and experience were years behind many of my teammates like Dathan Ritzenhein, Jorge and Eduardo Torres, and Steve Slattery. Totally pumped by the simple fact that I had made the team in the annual tryout for a few walk-ons, I dove enthusiastically into my training. The coaches wrote detailed workouts for us: long runs on Magnolia Road, track stuff at Potts, steady runs on the Creek Path and 4th Street, and even easy runs and rest days. Each run had a specified purpose, and the entire program was written and delivered professionally.

I loved digging deep as a Buffalo in college, but my overzealous training ended up really putting me in a hole

My 18 to 20-year-old interpretation about how to train and “prove myself,” however, generated practices that quickly drove my body–and eventually my mind as well–into the ground. Instead of learning about training methodology and adjusting pace and effort for the aforementioned workouts to suit my ability and experience, I saw each team practice as a race. Physically, I believed all I had to do to get to be as fast as the top guys was to simply keep up with them every day; “just train with Dathan,” I told myself. Mentally, I realized the team hierarchy was based on how fast you were and how many miles you did; I honored these impulses more than the real, clear symptoms my body was sending me.

Oops.

By the end of one year of this my legs were so shot that getting out of bed hurt and I was taking ibuprofen before many runs. I was mentally fatigued and in a hole. Some of my workouts were decent, but I felt totally blown just a few minutes into the races because I never rested. And then I did the same thing as a sophomore!

Odds are that you are probably wired a bit like me, and that’s why you’re reading this magazine. Those of us who enjoy doing things like running for miles and hours and days in the mountains are typically motivated and compelled to push the limit in running, work, and life in general. Heck, I wrote a book that teaches people how to stretch themselves beyond what their minds, bodies, and friends say is possible. That’s all good.

There’s also another side to it, though. When you’re wired like this, it’s hard (impossible?) to tell when you’re approaching the line between reaching the goal and burnout on the other. In my experiences in academics, training, and work, I’ve rarely been able to see that line coming until it’s already in the rearview mirror. Driving ourselves to meet – or exceed – or potential may bring us to wellness and make us better in other areas of life…but it may also compel us to go overboard.

And that brings us to overtraining syndrome. I’m glad UltraRunning is focusing on this topic in the March issue because I think it’s relevant and important. If the topic is new to you, please consider Googling “Maffetone overtraining” to read Dr. Phil Maffetone’s informative, scientific article, “The overtraining syndrome.” “Running on Empty” from Outside Magazine (online as well) is also illustrative. This can be a hard topic to talk about, and I’m glad we’re talking. I hope that by being open about this subject I might empower readers to examine their own well-being and make adjustments before it is too late.

Completing over 120 ultra distance events over about a decade after college generally went pretty well for me both physically and mentally. Recently, however, I have discovered I may have crossed that line over the past few years as I added parenting of two young children and growing my endurance coaching and education consulting businesses to my training and racing. As described by Jen Segger, a friend, elite athlete, coach, and parent who has grappled with overtraining syndrome, “Being that the body can’t differentiate between training stress, work stress, relationship stress, and everything else, it’s crazy to consider how much we really tax ourselves.”

I’ve been grappling with the following questions–some of which may be related to overtraining–on fun mountain and road bike rides and ski mountaineering sessions while taking a break from serious run training over the past couple of months.

Maffetone mentions depressive symptoms like irritability and low mood as signs of overtraining. Am I periodically having these feelings due to my physical training or general life stress from parenting and work…or maybe all of the above?

Tests have revealed significantly fluctuating testosterone levels over the past year from mid-range normal to well below normal. Is this overtraining-related? Is it impacting how I feel, train, and race?

Is my decreased desire to set a full calendar of ultras for the year ahead related to overtraining? Or maybe just a sign that I could use a break or a temporary focus on other sports?

What diet, training, and lifestyle adjustments might I make to increase wellness? And who should I pick for my “team” to make sure I have support and expertise?

Knowing that this entire topic is nebulous and unsure in nature, how can I work to be comfortable with answers that might necessarily fall into the grey zone, which can be tough for black and white thinkers like me (and maybe you)?

It’s a lot to think about. And darn important. In the next issue, I will seek to explore answers to some of these questions and share resources that might be helpful to others grappling with the same challenges.

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About Author

Travis Macy is a speaker, author, coach, and professional endurance athlete. Author of The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion's 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, he holds the record for Leadman and has finished over 120 ultra distance events in 17 countries. Travis lives with his wife and two young children in the mountains around Evergreen, Colorado, and is sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE, among others. He wants to use “get better” goals in 2016 to keep improving as a husband and father. travismacy.com

2 Comments

  1. How long [weeks, months, years?] did it take to recover from your collegiate overtraining experience? Thanks so much for your article.

    • Thanks for the note, ANA. I retired from varsity running after my sophomore year at CU. That summer I did my first 24-hour adventure race, and in the fall I joined the CU Club Triathlon Team, eventually placing in the top 10 at Nationals the following spring. I had a young body and lots of enthusiasm, and I think the shift to multiple sports and less running allowed me to come back relatively quickly.

      All the best on your journey!

      Travis