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This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Trail Runner magazine.
Right now, on the digital-training-tracker Strava, you can see what happens when focus and hard work meet talent. Training for the 2017 Western States 100 Miler, Kaci Lickteig averaged 116 miles per week with a long run over 30 miles most weeks. Jim Walmsley, seeking to avenge his wrong turn in 2016, averaged over 130 miles per week, generating GPS files that defy imagination. To keep up with the Lickteigs and the Walmsleys of the running world, others are deciding to go all-in, too.
In January 2017, 31-year old Chris Mocko left his tech job to pursue running full time. Through 130-to 150-mile weeks, in 2017, Mocko has already finished 2nd at the Way Too Cool 50K, 3rd at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and 1st at the Ultra Race of Champions.
But extreme high-mileage weeks can wreak havoc on the body, usually in the form of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). Anton Krupicka, who burst onto the scene a decade ago by winning the Leadville 100, still suffers chronic injuries after years of 200-mile weeks. Trail star Geoff Roes was beset by overtraining shortly after winning the 2010 Western States 100. Anna Frost, who won skyrunning championships all over the world, took more than a year to come back from a bought of Overtraining Syndrome in 2014.
What Is OTS?
As described in a 2012 article in the Journal of Sport Health, “OTS appears to be a maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest, resulting in perturbations of multiple body systems (neurologic, endocrinologic, immunologic) coupled with mood changes.” So how can a trail runner optimize his or her potential without getting cut by the double-edged sword of hard training?
A joint 2013 statement by the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine outlines three main avenues used to treat overtraining: controlling intensity, quantifying stress and proper fueling.
Too much intensity is the culprit of most overtraining-like symptoms. Trail runners are especially vulnerable, because it’s easy to let your heart rate tick up with the elevation. It’s easy to get caught up on beautiful, rolling singletrack, until the body often decides it has had enough.
Intensity generally corresponds to a moderate to hard effort that exceeds aerobic threshold. Keep at least 80-per-cent of training volume easy, at a conversational pace.
“I would recommend that if you fall into that trap [of too much intensity], get off the social-GPS world, hire a coach, or find someone you can hold yourself accountable to,” says Lickteig, who has managed consistent progression with few setbacks, by controlling her overall effort.
As described in the 2013 joint consensus statement, overtraining can be caused by “training and/or non-training stress.” If your total stress—training, work, personal life—exceeds your body’s ability to adapt, overtraining results.
Are you a new parent waking up at 2 a.m. each night? Are you leading a big project at work? Decrease your training stress accordingly.
Mocko credits his recent success to improved rest and recovery. “Are there still stresses in my life [as a full time runner]? Shockingly, yes! But now I have all day, everyday to focus on reducing the effects these stresses have on my life.”
In general, diets high in fat are best for preventing overtraining, but don’t skimp on the protein or carbs. When in doubt, all food is good food. Mocko is famous for courting Costco as a sponsor because his grocery bills are so high.
Training hard is a risk. But it’s a risk that many runners have mastered in the past. You can too, whether you are running 100 miles a week or building mileage in scale with your personal goals.
Sometimes, you need to touch the stove to realize that it’s hot. In breaking down conversations with athletes training at their limit, a few “hot-stove” warning signs jump out that could be precursors to OTS. Take heed if any of these signals lasts more than a few days.
Five OTS Warning Signals
1. Abnormal difficulty walking up stairs or running up hills.
OTS combines deteriorating physical and neurological systems in a way that can cause feelings of weakness and pain. If you find yourself struggling unusually on hills and stairs, consider backing off training.
2. Disrupted sleep cycles, or legs that involuntarily clench at night.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is usually high when an athlete’s stress exceeds his or her ability to adapt. Because cortisol plays a role in sleep cycles, too much of it can lead to difficulty falling asleep or waking up. Anecdotal evidence ties OTS with involuntary leg spasm at night.
3. “Puffy” cheeks.
Elevated cortisol can cause changes in body composition. Athletes should be on the lookout for abnormal changes in appearance, like more rounded cheeks, that could be due to a surplus of stress hormones.
4. Elevated resting heart rate or noticeable awareness of heart beating.
When an athlete trains hard, his/her resting heart rate can increase—that is normal. But if the elevated heart rate persists for more than a few days, it is likely due to long-term rebuilding processes that need to be given time.
Athletes who are at risk for OTS may also see their max heart rates decrease, so their heart-rate ranges narrow on both ends. Anecdotally, athletes often describe a “tell-tale heart,” where they are overly conscious of their heart beating in their temples at rest, especially in bed.
5. Reduced libido or changing sex characteristics.
During OTS, the body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, prioritizing some functions (coping with stress) over others (reproduction). Any abnormal change in libido or menstrual cycle concurring with hard training could be an early warning sign for OTS.
Editor’s Note: As this issue went to press, Western States had passed. The conditions were among the most difficult in the history of the race. Walmsley, Lickteig and Mocko did not perform as anticipated.