Too Much of a Good Thing
How to know if you're overtraining
It was a crisp autumn day, the kind made for finding peace, and even though I was standing at the trailhead, I had zero desire to run. ...
Illustration by Jeremy Collins
"To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short."
It was a crisp autumn day, the kind made for finding peace, and even though I was standing at the trailhead, I had zero desire to run. This complete lack of motivation was matched with chronically sore legs and a dizzy feeling every time I stood up quickly. Plus, food held no appeal, and I hadn't slept well in weeks. What was wrong?
The next day, I visited an experienced healthcare practitioner, who concluded that a summer of strenuous runs, long work weeks and a stressful relationship had cooked me. I was overtrained.
What Is It?
Overtraining is a deceivingly innocent word that describes a complex physiological condition brought on by a lack of proper recovery during periods of prolonged exercise. Overtraining is not the mild fatigue associated with logging more miles than usual over the course of a few days. Developing the overtraining symptoms takes much longer, and in its more severe form, the affliction can require over a year of recovery time.
To reach an overtrained state, you must put such a heavy demand on the body's repair-and-recovery mechanisms that they cease to function properly. The endocrine system and its family of glands like the pituitary, thyroid and adrenals are particularly vulnerable to such abuse. Then, dump an exhausted autonomic nervous system (flight-or-fight response, cardiac function and digestion) into the equation, and losing the ability to recover from athletic activity is the least of an overtrained athlete's worries.
"During cardiovascular exercise, cortisol and adrenaline from the stress glands are released. These hormones allow for an increase in mental focus, cardiac output and arterial pressure. This helps us run," says functional-medicine doctor and Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Rae Lynn Riedel, DC, CCN, of Denver, Colorado. "However, the overtrained athlete loses the regulatory nature of this hormonal release mechanism and the body starts to go haywire, releasing too much or too little cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, you might feel tired but wired, suffer from frequent colds or autoimmune disorders and even increase your cardiovascular risk. There is a metabolic reason why some famous long distance runners have died at middle age from heart attacks!"