Too Much of a Good ThingHow to know if you're overtraining
"To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short". -Chinese proverb
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.
Respect the Machine
Start every run with well-stocked glycogen stores, then replenish your muscles with high-quality, easily digestible carbohydrates and protein within an hour of returning. Maintaining proper hydration levels is equally as important.
Sleep! If possible, take a short nap (20 to 60 minutes) after a particularly long or hard run. When asleep, the body releases growth hormone (think muscle repair). Quality zzz’s also allow the nervous system a chance to reset. Going to bed early, before 11 p.m., also supports recovery.
“If you are not running on rest and recovery, you are running on stress hormones, which will greatly deplete and injure the body,” says Dr. Dave Boynton, owner of Colorado’s North Boulder Chiropractic. “Your muscles must have time to heal in order to grow stronger.”
Eliminate as much stress from daily living as possible. The body does not discriminate between the stress of a two-hour run or two hours spent stuck in traffic. So, if the strain of work, a relationship, etc., in combination with running, pushes you into the red zone, think about reducing trail time, which will free up energy for coping with your non-running life. The break will also ensure your recovery system remains healthy, so when you are able to run at your desired level, you’ll have ample energy.
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!”
Some typical physiological symptoms brought on by overtraining and the resulting hormonal confusion include: altered cardiac function, reduction of adrenal and thyroid gland function, decreased glycogen storage and amino-acid imbalance. These physiological changes may be manifested as weight loss, the inability to gain weight, lacking the energy to exercise, chronically sore muscles, depression, sexual dysfunction, digestive issues (including heartburn), hypertension, sleep disruption and concentration difficulty. Altered heart rates when resting and/or exercising can be another key signal and each individual has their own unique heart-rate symptomology. However, elevated resting heart rates and the inability to raise one’s heart rate into upper training zones are common. In advanced stages of overtraining don’t be surprised by lowered resting heart rates.
WHAT’S UP, DOC?
As the ultrarunning saying goes, “If you think you are overtrained, you probably are.” However, overtraining can be tricky to diagnose, so visit your physician and eliminate the chance you are not suffering from anemia, food allergies, heredity ailments, digestive problems or a host of other maladies that share symptoms with overtraining. The doctor may test your testosterone, cortisol, blood count and iron levels.
If these tests show abnormalities and the doctor rules out other possible maladies, you may be overtrained. A brutally honest appraisal of your situation is essential for accurate diagnosis, treatment and recovery. When was the last time you really enjoyed running and your legs did not hurt? Is sleep peaceful or do you toss and turn all night long? How is your appetite? Are you eating a healthy diet?