There is no PR, no amount of running success, no breaking of the tape worth the constant physical and emotional pain of overtraining. Running is a joy, a gift and a symbol of health, vitality and humanity. Running is like the brightest sharpest Instagram filter for life. Or it’s supposed to be.
When overtraining starts creeping, every run hurts. Wincing in physical pain through many many miles is one thing, but, perhaps worse, is the nagging feeling that no step she takes is good enough. The gnawing of failure is the thing that keeps an overtrained runner from seeing the truth of what is happening to her. She continues to claw and scrape and scratch trying to get away from failure’s grip, which only tightens it.
What the overtrained runner views as failure is her body’s plea for mercy. “Stop!” it screams as it sends pain coursing through her body and blankets her with exhaustion that no amount of caffeinated gel or pump-up music can correct. “STOP!” it screams as it sucks the joy out of every step and triggers negative thought loops through even the easiest of runs. But she plugs on believing in the power of her will. “It’s just soft tissue,” she tells herself. “Maybe my iron is low,” she thinks. “I’m just not tough enough,” she reasons. She hurts to walk. She hurts to sit. She hurts to lay in bed. She feels like she doesn’t belong with her team. She feels like she’s a fraud, that anything she ever achieved was a fluke or didn’t really happen.
The lucky ones get injured and are forced to stop before the mental stuff gets really bad. But the unlucky ones go on unless a coach, a friend, a loved one sees the signs and can get through to her, which can take weeks, months, even a year or more. There is no blood test or x-ray or MRI to show her what the real problem is. It’s very hard to see and even when she finally sees it herself, others might question her conclusion or continue to tell her all those lies that got her to this point to begin with. The most damaging lie of all might be that she’s not tough enough.
In that lies a deep irony, because the overtrained runner is often very tough. She’s the one who trains through constant pain for months at a time. She’s the one who wages war and wins against the little voice telling her to quit. She’s the one who is persistent, tenacious, and patient, so much so, she persists to a fault.
I had to accept myself on a whole new level and learn to reincorporate running into my life in a healthier way.
Having that experience and now, finally, being on the other side, I see it all so clearly. No one can know exactly when they crossed the line from training to overtraining, but looking back I flirted with overtraining several times before, some time after my third pregnancy in 2012, I really did myself in. I was eager to get back in shape, continue with my progress, and rejoin the team I helped found that meant a great deal to me. I might not have been an elite runner, but, coming from a non-athletic background and starting in the sport relatively late in life, I took immense pride in my running successes. Running competitively, even at the local level, was such a part of my identity that I never questioned whether I’d go right back to where I left off.
I thought I was easing back in after having my third baby. I experienced set-back after set-back, but every time I found an excuse and sooner than I was able, I clawed my way back. I couldn’t understand why I struggled maintaining a lower training volume than I had before my pregnancy. It never occurred to me that my non-running stress could so significantly impact the amount of training my body could handle.
But it did. For whatever reason — because ‘why’ doesn’t matter once you’re overtrained — my coach’s plan was too much for me to handle. He seemed to have the same thoughts I did: She handled this much before, surely there must be something medically wrong, or maybe she’s self-sabotaging her running.
I mercifully got injured in December 2014. I say mercifully, because getting physically hurt helped me take the first step to healing, which was to break up with my old coach (a wonderful person, but his training was hurting me and he was unwilling to modify it). But as soon as I could run again, there I was on a different training plan with a different coach, still limping through joyless workouts. Finally, after DNF’ing a 10k and then admitting in an email that I was dreading the half marathon I was training for, my new coach told me to STOP. And, 11 months ago, I did.
These 11 months have been some of the most growthful of my life. It’s been a process. I had to mourn the runner I was and hoped to be. I had to accept myself on a whole new level and learn to reincorporate running into my life in a healthier way. The transition has been achingly slow, but now I see myself as a more complete person, a runner certainly, but now running is a part of my life rather than the center of it.
I don’t think overtraining means runners have to give up their big running dreams, but over the course of my recovery I’ve had to do that. Or rather, I had to reimagine them. Between advancing age, my children, and other demands on my time and energy I cannot healthfully dedicate myself to the pursuit of running BIG PRs. I’ve had to reformulate my idea of running success from time goals into things like consistent training, staying healthy, and enjoying the process. Fast race times might result, but that would be gravy, beside the point.
Maybe I sound like someone on an infomercial shilling a “miracle” cure, but since I let go of my big running goals and allowed my body and mind to heal, I have been able to focus more time and energy into things that are more important to me like my family, my community, and Salty Running.
To say running should never hurt or running should never cause you to struggle isn’t right. Running is so great because it teaches us to tolerate pain and to embrace struggle. How else can we grow if we cannot endure and push through? To get the most out of running, it should hurt sometimes and it should break you down. But there’s a point at which more struggle is a bad thing.
This is why overtraining is so tricky and hard to identify; that point at which the hurt is damaging you doesn’t draw a line in the sand. There’s no popping noise, no sharp pain, no tweak or twist to define a moment when a threshold has been crossed. Instead it happens slowly like a cancer, masquerading as a host of other problems. Even now I can’t say for sure where the threshold is. Perhaps it’s when running becomes more struggle than it’s worth, or maybe it’s when there’s more pain and struggle than not. Wherever it is, I crossed it into a dark territory that I never want to see again.
I think that’s the worst part of overtraining: it threatens to take not just competitive running, but running out of a runner’s life. I faced that very real possibility and it was incredibly sad. But with the support of my husband, my sister and great friends I’m in a healthy place, running along and considering a fall marathon. After where I was a little less than a year ago this feels like a victory.
The one thing overtraining taught me about running, is that there is no PR, no amount of running success, no breaking of the tape worth losing the joy that running has brought to my life.