Here’s a great article in Outside called Running On Empty about something called Overtraining Syndrome. You’ve heard a lot of talk about overtraining here. As with most athletes, the balance between training hard and training too hard is a fine line. With endurance athletes, it’s almost a mania as a common thread we all share, even people like me whose job is warning people on its dangers, is pushing ourselves until our bodies break down. I even have a theory that my cancer is linked to overtraining. It’s a subject I have yet to go into publicly, but this article does nothing to dampen my hypothesis. More on that idea later, for now this is not only interesting, but important reading. Not only for athletes, but for anyone who loves pushing their body to its limit.
I’ve made knocking on overtraining’s door my life’s study, all under the guise of “research,” without ever fully understanding its dangers. This is because no one does, although we’re getting better. However, I may have been slightly more cautious had I seen more quotes like this.
“OTS is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my 30 plus years of working with athletes,” says David Nieman, former vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “To watch someone go from that degree of proficiency to a shell of their former self is unbelievably painful and frustrating.”
Or not. I’ve been watching this happen to people my entire life, which made my own forays at least a bit more measured. I’m not surprised in the slightest that it’s taking off with ultra runners. We used to call chronic fatigue syndrome, which may turn out to be the same thing, “triathletes disease” because so many were dropping like flies in the early 90s. This is because, like triathlons once were, it’s a new sport where standards are progressing at a ridiculously fast pace. When that happens, the tendency is to attempt to out train everybody else, which always leads to injuries or, in cases like OTS, worse.
Ultra runners are the new kids on the block, but they don’t have the market cornered. This always remind me of a quote from triathlete Scott Molina in the 80s, when he was asked what he did for training and replied, “I’m not going to tell you because you’ll think I’m an idiot.” Those of us in the endurance world are well versed in the dangers of over cooking ourselves, yet we often still can’t help it. Reading things like this should temper us further, since we’re starting to understand this issue better.
Through some combination of excessive exercise and inadequate recovery, athletes experience a severe shock to the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s inflammatory pathways. Under normal circumstances, when your body is stressed, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to help you respond. Your heart races. Your pupils dilate. The blood rushes from your digestive system to organs needed for immediate survival. The parasympathetic system is the counterbalance, bringing the body back to a state of equilibrium. After a hard outing, your heart rate calms and blood returns to your extremities, restoring your body’s normal functions. For athletes with OTS, those balancing responses no longer occur. The parasympathetic system effectively goes haywire.
An interesting side note is that I found this article, which is brand new, as I was writing my own post on the balance of training and recovery in regards to my current situation. I’ll post it later. For now, this is plenty of reading to keep your training/recovery ratio in check. I’ll leave you with one more cautionary quote but if this subject interests you, the article is essential reading.
“It’s not fatigue,” Kreher clarifies. “If you’re pushing the limits of your body, you’re going to feel fatigued.” Instead, it’s what Nieman first encountered in those letters he received: the sudden, almost overnight disappearance of a runner’s elite endurance talents. For athletes experiencing OTS, this can be terrifying. Even worse, doctors can’t tell them if they’ll ever recover.