Hacking the OT (recovery from overtraining)

The accidental lesson learnt may be amongst the most fun lessons of life. Secret treasures of information that seemingly fall right out of the sky. It is the difficult lesson, on the other hand, the one we’ve suffered through, or have defiantly learned that has the potential of being the most transformative.

Just weeks after my last, horrific marathon I read an article, Running on Empty by Meaghen Brown for Outside (outsideonline.com). The article tells the tale of overtraining syndrome (OTS) among endurance runners, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever read.

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Joe Friel’s Blog: The Overtraining Threshold

If you’ve run for several years, you’ve no doubt experienced the symptoms of overtraining at one point or another: extreme fatigue, sleeplessness, restlessness, elevated heart rate, maybe headaches. I get irritable. It’s easily remedied by taking an extra rest day, maybe two. Temporarily eliminate speed work, or cross training.

The type of runner that falls prey to overtraining, however, is also the type of runner that may find it difficult to take these necessary corrective steps, favoring instead to just push through. This ultimately leads to all the same symptoms. . . on steroids. Without the rest it desperately needs, the body completely shuts down, and worse yet, your mind no longer cares.

This spring I celebrated 9 years of competitive running. Even still, I wouldn’t say I’ve reached my peak. Success in training for a marathon lies in teaching the body to adapt to greater and greater training loads – train hard, take a step back, train harder, peak, run a race, rest, and repeat. We call it periodization. And for the longest number of years, you truly believe your body knows no boundaries. It’s just not true.

It has been 3 months since I realized how severely overtrained I had let myself become, and it has taken every day of these 3 months to recover. I threw the training calendar out the window, and only ran when I had the energy – sometimes just once or twice a week. I didn’t want to think about running, and I surely didn’t want to write about running.

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‘What is overtraining syndrome?’ runnersworld.co.uk (Illustration: Oliver Burston)

Early on, we reinvent ourselves as runners; literally change our identities. We are no longer known by our given titles. We are runners, and life suddenly revolves around this thing we have become. Days revolve around the run, recovering from the run, and preparing for the next run. Focus is extraordinary.

I’ve read Tim Noake’s book, The Lore of Running, where he so famously says of OTS, ‘We believe that the harder we train, the faster we will run, and ignore the evidence that this is blatantly untrue. We train harder and run worse, and then, in the ultimate act of stupidity, we interpret our poor races as an indication that we have undertrained.’

It happened to Alberto Salazar, who set three American track records and won three New York City Marathons in a row from 1980-1984, and then spent the next ten years plagued by respiratory infections and depression. And it happened to 23-year-old Kyle Skaggs, who shattered the course record at the Hardrock 100, but never raced again after that season.

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Overtraining is possible in any sport. . .

I’ve learned to ignore my watch for very long stretches of time, and measure runs by effort instead of miles. If things aren’t going well from lack of energy, or because it was too hot, or I just couldn’t get my legs to move, I’ve taught myself to call it quits for the day, and be ok with that. It has been a process.

This was the first week that I ran every mile I had planned to run. There have been hot, intense days at the track, quiet runs up the mountain, and a 10-mile run on Saturday – my longest run since the marathon. It’s been important for me to rediscover my love for running with less focus on the competitive results of running.

Some lessons are learned quite by accident, and that’s a beautiful thing. For some of us more hard-headed, defiant runners, the lessons are a bit more difficult. It’s still a beautiful thing.

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