Overtraining Recovery Stories

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  • #15622
    Rowan Kamman
    Participant

    Hello all!
    If you’ve dealt with Overtraining Syndrome in the past, recovered, and are back at it training, adventuring, “eventing”, etc, I would love to hear your recovery stories. What led to your OTS? What steps did you take to recover, and how long did it take to get out of the hole again? What are you doing to prevent ever having OTS again? I ask because I am in the midst of a long bout of overtraining myself, brought about by a rather ambitious 2018 which I’ll outline below.

    In late 2017 I bought and devoured TFTNA, which (like for many others, it seems) drastically changed my approach to training. Having never properly structured my training before, I figured I’d start doing so using the principles in TFTNA at the start of 2018 (New Year’s, how convenient!). For context, I’ve been mountain/ultra/trail running for 3 years as of this post, and have done many of the classic mountain routes here in the Northeast up to 50 miles and of various durations. Before all that, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. These were all pre-2018, and I felt that my amateur resume was sufficiently padded for the coming year.

    I was psyched to see the results of 6 months of proper training and how they would suit me for my big goal of 2018: a self-supported/powered tour of the Colorado 14ers via bike and foot. If you’re unfamiliar, check out Justin Simoni and Joe Grant’s recent successful attempts for details. Pretty F’in rad. It had been some time since my last big trip (hiking the AT in 2015) and I wanted to step it up again. My goal was to finish 57 14ers in about 6 weeks before returning to the White Mountains for a backcountry shelter caretaking job. We’ll treat with my naivety shortly.

    Briefly, training went very well. In mid-June, I used my shiny new fitness to do a shakedown trip in similar fashion to what I planned for CO (51 hours in 5 days via bike and foot in the White Mountains). I was pretty tired afterward, but after nearly 3 weeks of rest and taper I felt good, and ready to start on the 14ers. After 3.5 weeks I was finally derailed by giardia, but I got my ass handed to me by the accumulated fatigue of biking and hiking at altitude. The physical intensity of the trip was far more than anything I’d experienced. Hiking the AT is certainly hard and beats you up (the mental aspect is much harder), but the miles in CO were just plain hard. The terrain wasn’t particularly technical (except when riding a rigid, fully-loaded bike over some of those access roads…my teeth are still loose); it just took a lot of effort to make forward progress. As you can imagine, the giardia did not help how worked I was. A brief statistical summary of my attempt: 3.5 weeks, 161 hours, 139mi/56,000’ gain on foot, and 485 bike miles (most of that in the first 2 weeks). “Overreaching” comes to mind…

    Fast forward to early September. Following a couple rest weeks completely devoid of physical activity, I started my caretaking job in the mountains, and was excited to be there. I was living in a very dense trail network near treeline on Mt. Adams; however, this entailed a commute of 3mi/3k’ once or twice per week to resupply in the valley. Saddled with a pack of food, these were essentially mandatory and flagellatory muscular endurance workouts. I also checked the other shelters daily per job duty, which entailed a short but very rugged tour of the environs. On top of this I was doing a few relatively short running/hiking outings; NH’s Presidential Range is beautiful and I wanted to take advantage of living at treeline. For all of the running, I felt slow and flat, which I attributed to just hiking since mid June. Ah, fool that I was. 4 weeks (each of 10-13k’ gain per week) into my 2 month season I made a fast attempt of a demanding mountain route and placed the final straw, as they say, on the camel’s back.

    Just prior to this I had been entertaining some thoughts that I was possibly overtrained (vis a vis aforementioned slow and flat legs). Laugh it up, but at the time I didn’t realize how positively riddled with OTS I was. Seriously, like a fine Swiss. I happened to harbor the naive notion that I could get back into running shape and then finish out the year with an enticing 70mi mountain route before the snow came. You can’t fault my zeal, at least.

    For my cheekiness with that final fast workout, I was rewarded with a WACKED OUT hormone balance (cortisol perhaps?) that took the trouble to wake me up each night around 1-2am and keep me fully awake for a couple/few hours, then let me fall into a doze before I had to wake up at 7 for my job. This happened every night, without fail, for 5 weeks straight. Once this started, I finally got it into my head that it was time to chill the F out, and that I probably wouldn’t be doing any big long run anytime soon. As you can imagine, only getting 5ish hours of sleep for 5 weeks straight does wonders for the body (especially my body). I eased back on physical activity as much as my job allowed, but still had about 4 weeks left of shuttling food to the camp. Once the season ended on Halloween and I was released from my ME workout responsibilities, I completely shut down all physical activity.

    It’s been 2 months since then, and I’ve faithfully been not training. One attempt for a very low volume (for me) week in December suggested I was still not ready. I’ve recently been trying out 30-40 minute runs, which I can pull off every 3 days without feeling like I’m being counterproductive. I’m anxious to start training again (I really enjoy the training process) but not at the expense of not recovering: that’s my priority. My legs are still feeling heavy and sore if I overdo it (which at this point is like 4-5 miles); clearly I’m not fully recovered, and I’m just being patient until I start to feel good again. If this reads at all like I’m still not quite getting the picture and should cut back on what I’m doing now, consider that I’m trying to balance mental health with recovery. Consistent exercise, for me, is bar none the best and surest way to stay mentally healthy. This is one of the reasons I’m excited to start training again. With regards to sleep, I went back to “normal” sleep patterns after those 5 weeks, but I kinda feel like I still have a sleep debt to pay off which is inhibiting full recovery.

    If you’ve made it this far, 1) thank you, and 2) you probably have something interesting to share. I’m especially interested in people’s experiences with the interplay between long term sleep deprivation and recovery. Really though, I’d love to hear anyone’s story who has dealt with some long term OTS like this. From reading around online, it sounds like I could have it worse. That said, I’m the only person I know who has done a trip this demanding and out-of-their-league (then capped it off with more training!), so I don’t have anyone with whom to talk shop, as it were. People on this forum have done some pretty rad stuff, so I imagine there might be some of you out there who have been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.

    For context, I keep a fanatically detailed training log, and (as is typically the case) all of my troubles are apparent looking back at it. Recent bloodwork showed that hemoglobin/hematocrit levels were normal, as were thyroid levels, and that I didn’t have Mono or Lyme (natural suspects for me). Vitamin D was low (I’m now taking a supplement) and creatinine was high. I may ask for a ferratin level test when I do more bloodwork in a couple weeks to see how things are going, but my diet doesn’t really suggest an iron deficiency. Being ambitious, self-coached, fairly new to running, and even newer to structured training, I suppose it’s inevitable that I deal with these hurdles. While unpleasant, it’s been a great educational opportunity for me to basically do everything wrong and then learn from my own mistakes. I feel that this will suit me well as in the future since I’m only 22…hopefully I got a few good years left. Thanks for reading; I look forward to hearing from you all.

  • Inactive
    Anonymous on #15697

    Hey Rowan,

    Thanks for sharing that story. I’ve dealt with over training before, first in my 20s, when I was bicycle road racing very seriously, and then periodically throughout my athletic life, climbing, train running, and so forth. Below are some basic things that jump out at me, and then some words about a possible change in perspective.

    -Definitely get your iron and ferratin levels checked–I recently felt much as you do, and it turned out I had low vitamin D, and very low iron levels, despite my diet. My doctor explained that, no matter what they eat, some people just have trouble absorbing iron from food, and may need supplements.

    Besides Giradia (!) you didn’t mention any viruses, colds, flus, and so on. That’s good–I think that’s the next step if you keep going deeper in the hole–your immune system begins to get much weaker. I would say it’s a good sign you have not been consistently sick, but at the same time infections like Giardia can set you back for many months, especially for athletes. Don’t discount the effects of that infection.

    -You also did not mention any physical injuries, like stress fractures, tendonitis, and and so on. Again, I think that’s a next step, if you keep trying to do more, especially now, as your training may not be as consistent as it once was, and you might alternate between periods of relative inactivity, and periods of more intense activity. Try your best to base your efforts on what you have been doing lately, not what you have done in the past. If you try to do too much too soon–relative to your current state of training and physical fitness–you risk an injury. This is so important. Go slowly!

    OK, those three points were pretty conventional. Here’s some more “out there” advice.

    Rowan, you’re only 22. I’m more than twice your age. I’m not saying that to be patronizing, or try to sound superior and wise, but just to give you some perspective.

    You have so many years ahead! I am sure you have big dreams and huge plans, but, as frustrating as it might be right now, I would say this is the time to take the long view, and try to be patient (which is hard for athletes of any age, myself included).

    You will run again. You will hike and bike and climb again. You will in all likelihood complete adventures much bigger and grander than those you have already accomplished (which sound great, by the way).

    So how do you get there?

    Instead of going for a run every few days, and waiting for your legs not to feel heavy and flat, which might be counterproductive, why don’t you try something completely different?

    For example, you could start regular yoga practice, or Tai Chi, or something else that would heal your body in a new way. You could practice cross country or downhill skiing or snowboarding. It sounds like you have some means and time to travel–how about learning how to surf (if you can’t already)? What about paddle boarding or kayaking? What about conventional ball sports? What about dance? What have you always wanted to try? What would be fun to learn? Maybe this would be a good time to try something that you have always been curious about, but never felt like you could pursue, because it would detract from your main goals. In a strange way, taking an alternative track, and trying something new, might be the best way back to the sports that are closest to your heart. Think of this period as an opportunity to do something fun.

    I say this because, for you right now, it doesn’t matter what you do, right? As important as specificity is when you are training, you are not training–you are recovering. The important thing is to stay active, in some way, in any way, for your physical and mental health. If you tried something different as I suggest, you could maintain a light level of aerobic fitness, and perhaps build some new strength, flexibility, coordination, or skill, as well as become part of a wider community?

    This summer, when I was recovering from a knee injury, which did not allow me to run, bike, or climb, I took up a new sport–wind surfing! It was great, and because I didn’t need to repetitively bend my knee, it sort of worked! Now wind surfing is a sport I will surely practice in the future. And I have a life goal to learning how to surf on ocean waves when I turn 50…why not? I am trying to lay the groundwork by practicing with a long board when I go to buy coffee in the morning, and soon I hope to take my first snowboard lesson with my wife and daughter, just to develop some balance on a board.

    So the dreaming and doing never stop…just try to take a deep breath, accept where you are now, look around for new opportunities, and remain confident that eventually you will be back running on those trails….

    Anyway, that’s my “old man” advice. As they say, advice is a form of nostalgia, so please forgive me–perhaps I see in you the potential of youth, and am trying to suggest things that I might once have liked to do.

    All the best, and good luck.

    Bruno

    Participant
    Rowan Kamman on #15698

    Hey Bruno,
    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful response. Fear not, I appreciate the advice! Luckily for me I’ve found that patience has been a bit easier during this recovery period. I had a concussion that lasted 6 months (in 2017) that severely limited the activities I could do, and I’m in a much better place now than then. Of course, it helps to be able to read and look at screens and hear loud noise, but anyway…

    Thanks for the tip about ferratin; I’ll make a point of getting that checked this time around. As far as injuries go, I was very surprised that I didn’t get any during my trip in Colorado. I don’t even remember getting blisters (it helps that it’s so dry out there). Overuse injuries were almost non-existent last year and I made a point to deal with them before they got worse. I guess I’m lucky in that regard. In terms of illness, I did have one brief whanger of a cold in the fall (I felt like I’d been run over by a train), but no mystery viral infections like Steve describes in TFTNA. Regarding the giardia, I happily recovered quickly; the antibiotics were very effective and symptoms didn’t linger.

    I’ve used the increased downtime to get back into playing music, which I’d let slide for several years. I even picked up a mandolin (new to me) and have been having tons of fun with that. I’m also signed up for my first yoga class; as a runner, I’m about as flexible as an ent. So, I’d say your advice is pretty spot on! Thanks again and cheers,
    Rowan

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