Updated: Oct 28, 2022
My most recent blog post went into great detail on the physiology of Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and what we know about it from the current research. I thought I would do a follow-up blog on my personal experience with OTS since I feel like a list of symptoms and describing the physiology of this complex issue might not be helpful for some to really put everything together and understand what it “looks like.”
The first thing to mention is that OTS does NOT develop because of one event or one training session. It is due to accumulated stress on the nervous system and endocrine system over time, meaning it takes a long time to develop. It also isn’t due to just TRAINING, but rather everything else that is going on in your life – work stress, interpersonal difficulties, major life changes like a move or new job, loss of a loved one, etc. The CONDITIONS of your races also matters since it adds more stress to your nervous system – heat, humidity, altitude, cold, rain, etc. So, it is important to truly look at OTS holistically so you can see the big-picture of what is going on.
What symptoms we see first:
The first symptoms that tend to appear with OTS is lower mood and feeling like any given pace while running FEELS harder. Experiencing low mood might just be about your running, such as lack of desire or enjoyment in running, but it can also be present in other areas of your life. This specific symptom really hit me the morning of Indiana 100 last October. Leading up to the race, I felt like I had to work really hard to feel stoked about racing hard and running hard. Then, by the morning of the race, I had ZERO desire to run….literally none. I lined up to the start line and right when the race started my first thought was, “I just don’t feel like running today.” So, I walked…a lot.
It's not just about training stress
Between Indiana and my next race (Black Canyon 100k), I experienced a ton of life changes. I moved from Minneapolis to a very small town in Northern Minnesota that was over 3 hours away, which meant a lot of new things for me:
- Adjusting to living in a small town
- Adjusting to being far away from everything
- Adjusting to living in a place that is not vegan friendly
- Changing the format and structure of the PT-side of my business since I would no longer be living near a large population of runners
- Adjusting to living in a city with very "north shore" people vs people I feel similar too
It was all very fun, but was a lot. As I mentioned earlier, this point is important because OTS develops from ALL life stress, not just from training stress.
How stress builds over time:
The two weeks follow Indiana 100, my weekly mileage was already in the 30s and then I went right back into hard training sessions to get ready for Black Canyon 100k. Black Canyon is a very difficult and competitive ultra and I wanted to do well. I had many days during that training cycle where it was hard to stay motivated to train, but I blamed it on the very long, cold, snowy winter we had vs something else going on. During that race, my hydration system didn’t provide me with the ability to carry as much water as I needed on the course since it was over 80 degrees. I was chronically out of water, insanely dehydrated, and it was the first time I had been really concerned for my health. I also broke my finger during this race, but I am not sure how much that had an impact on me developing OTS. Needless to say, my body took a beating.
After that, I took 2 weeks and basically just did streak miles (I am currently on a 2+ year running streak), but we also did a lot of hiking that involved a lot of climbing at higher altitudes. Three weeks after the race, I was back at it with running 50+ miles a week and doing harder workouts to start my training for Bighorn 100. It was going to be by far the hardest race I had ever attempted as it had over 17,000ft of elevation gain and loss (although the website says over 20,000ft), and we stay between 4,100 and 9,300ft above sea level. The race was 80+ degrees, but had snow at the peak where my feet got soaked and totally destroyed. I didn’t take in enough calories, leading to me finishing the race in a massive deficit. I also had a hard time eating during the week after the race, further digging myself into a calorie hole before going into Black Hills 100 five days later. Then at Black Hills 100, the race was going great until the temps dropped hard at night and I got poured on. The wind was insane and I felt like I was getting pelted with rain bullets. I didn’t have an appropriate jacket for the rain and didn’t have clothes to change into, so my body suffered the rest of the race. On top of all that, Black Hills 100 had over 16,000ft of elevation gain and loss and stayed between 3,400 and 5,400ft above sea level.
It took 3 weeks for my body to feel back to “normal” after my back-to-back 100s, but then I hit it hard again the minute I felt good to train again. My brain very much so was in a place of, “I didn’t do well at my races because I didn’t train hard enough. I need to train harder to do well at Superior 100.” That led to me digging myself into a bigger hole.
The strongest symptoms of OTS:
The following 2.5 weeks is when the symptoms of OTS really became strong, but I didn’t know it at the time since I was not familiar with what OTS was or what it looked like. I went from feeling really fatigued after my runs/workouts to feeling incredibly fatigued DURING my workouts. Running and hiking felt SO HARD. But, I just told myself, “This is normal because you are working so hard.”
At this time, I also started experiencing the psychological symptoms of OTS. The psychological symptoms that I felt were truly wild. I bounced between feeling emotionally flat, to hopeless, to agitated and irritable. My concentration was horrible, leading me to take frequent breaks from work throughout the day. Then, every little thing in my life led to me feeling incredibly overwhelmed. It could be the smallest thing and you would think I had a disaster to work through. Breathing while running and throughout the day felt incredibly shallow and labored, and my chest felt really constricted. Falling asleep at night was impossible because my mind was constantly racing, even though I felt really tired. Then in the morning and throughout the day, I would feel “wired but tired.” It was like being on “fight or flight” mode all day long where internally I felt like I was being chased down by a bear even though there were no real stressors going on in my life.
Along with that, nausea and sensitivity to smells hit me hard. I had no appetitive and constantly felt like I do at the end of 100-mile races where food does not sound appealing at all. My sense of smell was so sensitive that even normal things like vinegar would make me dry heave.
All of these symptoms make sense since OTS theoretically impacts the HPA axis (hypothalamus – pituitary -adrenal axis). These areas of the brain and endocrine systems are in charge of very basic functioning, such as breathing, hunger, thirst, sleep, blood pressure, mood, growth, metabolism, immune functioning, and response to stress.
But, I kept pushing through and pushing harder, completely ignoring what was going on.
Then one day, I woke up, went out for a run…and nothing happened. It was like someone came up to me and pressed a “shut down” button. I was able to walk but when I told myself, “Ok, body! Time to run!” nothing happened. I physically could not create the voluntary motion of running. So why does this happen? There are a few things going on here both with our nervous system and endocrine system. With OTS, the nervous system shuts down the part of our brain that is in charge of movement. That means, no matter how much you WANT to run, your brain won’t let you. Some people will experience slower running paces while others won’t be able to run at all. And that is what I experienced. There are other changes with neurotransmitters in the brain not functioning correctly, leading to the inability to voluntarily create higher exertional movements. Again, no matter how much you WANT to do something that involves working at a higher effort, like running, your nervous system won’t let you. There also might be changes in hormone levels, leading to the body not being able to exercise because it doesn’t have what it needs to get your heart rate up and you won’t have the hormones needed to recover effectively from exercise.
Over the next 8 days, I ran 1 mile a day…when I say I “ran” 1 mile a day, I mean that I was alternating shorter intervals of running and long intervals of walking because my body literally would stop running and force me into a walk after just a minute or two of running. I have almost hit a 3-year running steak and I just have to hit a sub 15-minute paced mile each day. So right now, I am just focused on keeping the streak alive. During those 8 days, I noticed a significant shift in the psychological symptoms of OTS. My mood lifted, my concentration was better, and I felt calmer. My sleeping improved significantly although was still not back to “normal.” But, the physical symptoms still persisted. I felt immense fatigue during the day without the “wired” feeling. My legs felt INCREDIBLY sore and fatigued even though I was only run/walking a mile a day! I felt like I was running a half marathon daily with how my body felt. This is another aspect of OTS where growth hormone is not produced effectively. This hormone is crucial for recovery. So essentially, I was creating more breakdown of my tissues by running 1 mile, but my body didn’t have what it needed to rebuild.
On day 9, I was signed up to race Marquette 50k. I went into it knowing that there was a very good chance it would not go well but I tried to stay hopeful that my body would snap back to its normal self. I tried to run for a few miles of the race, but I could tell my heart rate and breathing were skyrocketing too quickly considering how slow of a pace I was moving at. Then by mile 5, I hit a flat and runnable section, but I just couldn’t run. So, I walked…and kept walking for almost the whole race. When I did try to run, I felt incredibly uncoordinated like my body couldn’t figure out how to sequentially fire my muscles correctly. This experience is another big part of OTS where again, the nervous system is shutting down the voluntary motion of running but there also are issues with the signaling between the nerves and individual muscle fibers. They just don’t work as well which is why I felt so uncoordinated. Typically, after an ultra, I feel pretty good. I will get some DOMS 2 days later and I might feel a little tired, but that’s it. Marquette 50k was a different story. I felt DESTROYED the next day. It felt like I can been run over by a bus. The amount of fatigue I felt was so incredible and I had a hard time staying awake. I napped often during our drive back home but still felt so incredibly tired.
After that, I hit up the run/walk streak miles again. With each progressive day, things generally got better with my daily functioning but not with my running. The biggest issues that continued were general fatigue, nausea, and lack of appetite. With running, I continued to experience labored breathing and spikes in HR even with slow running. But, all of these symptoms have been pretty unpredictable. Some days, I have been able to run almost a full mile without walking. Other days, I can only run 1-2 minutes at a time. I have to be cautious with other types of activity like lifting weights and hiking because, again, sometimes I will feel super knocked out the next day because of “doing too much.” This is part of what makes overcoming OTS a bit frustrating…the unpredictability of it all. For example, I hiked 8 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail when my partner, Brian, was doing his thru-hike of the whole trail. I felt slightly tired by the end, but overall pretty good. I then felt pretty unchanged for the rest of the day and really good the next day. Five days later, I did four miles on the SHT with him. I felt completely wrecked during the whole hike and had to ask Brian and our friends to slow down because I couldn’t keep up. I proceeded to feel incredibly fatigued for a couple more days. With that said, the 4-day hike was at the end of Brian’s SHT thru-hike and where I was trying to manage work, helping Brian with his hike, and socializing with friends and family all weekend. Again, OTS requires people to take a step back and look at the big picture. Everything that was going on that weekend created an accumulation of “stress” on my nervous system, rather than my fatigue only being due to physical activity. I wonder if being a very introverted person makes me more susceptible to being knocked out from a lot of in-person socializing. This has been my experience so far, so I think there is something to that.
From my story, you can see that I completely ignored a LOT of signs that I was developing OTS. Again, I was super unfamiliar with what OTS was and what it “looked like.”
OTS is slow to come back from, taking months or even years to recover from. I have done streak miles for exactly five weeks now (other than Marquette and one 1.8 mile day) and I still can’t imagine trying to run more than a mile right now.
I hope this blog will help you recognize when it is time to back off. Listen to your body AND mind. Your training is a portion of the total stress your body and mind are experiencing vs it somehow being separate from the other stressors in your life. Your body and mind only know “stress” and they do not treat each type of stressor differently.
Remember, the goal is to become fitter, not to destroy our body.