I still can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened. I don’t remember a specific day or run where it hit me. There was no voice in my head, no doctor or coach or friend telling me what was happening. It just happened. I was burnt out, overtrained and sick of running.
It all happened gradually, a slippery slope. I had come off an amazing 2014, when I had several podium finishes at ultras and even a win at my first 100K. It was Christmastime and life seemed pretty good. I was starting to bump up the mileage again in anticipation for the Sean O’Brien 50 mile in early February. It was going to be my first time in California and first time out west. I was pretty excited to crush it. Then at our annual waterfalls run, a local trail run in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park along which runners take photos with waterfalls and enjoy the day after Christmas running with friends, I was finishing up the run and started feeling a sharp pain in my right hip. By New Year’s Eve, I could barely walk, sit, stand, put on pants or do anything without pain. It should have been a sign; I needed a break. Worse still, I was on the brink of overtraining.
We’ve discussed overtraining on Salty Running quite a bit before. And you’ve also probably read about it elsewhere too. One of the most popular articles about ultrarunners and overtraining was Outside’s piece last year detailing professional ultrarunners Anton Krupicka and Mike Wolfe’s stories. It’s been detailed a lot on iRunFar as well.
And I wish I could say I found the secret that no other overtrained runner has discovered thus far and was able to run through it. But looking back on my running the past two years is painful and I wish that initial hip injury forced me to stop completely.
But I was not those other runners. I was different. I was sure that I was going to overcome the injury and come back and continue to run to win. But that didn’t happen. I dropped to the 2015 50K at Sean O’Brien and ran my personal worst 50K that day. And then I kept pushing. The signs were there and I kept ignoring them. I DNF’ed a 100 miler that April simply because I didn’t feel like running anymore. I had another 50K a month later and the day before, I was on the phone with my husband in tears because I didn’t want to go. And then with only three miles left to go in a another 100 miler in June of 2015, I gave up and let the third place woman pass me and go on to beat me by six short minutes. I had held onto second for 25 miles, but I just stopped caring.
In the aftermath, during the summer 2015 and I didn’t want to run anymore. My usual recovery period came and went and I had no desire to run. Getting out of bed and out the door felt like a monumental task. My legs felt heavy, I couldn’t run much faster than a 9:00 mile and I was exhausted all of the time. I had zero motivation to train or do much else other than go to work, eat and sleep. No matter how much I slept, I couldn’t shake the fatigue and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t find my motivation again.
I haven’t raced much since then and I wish I could say that now I’m back to running 100 percent and feeling great about training and racing. I’m getting there slowly and in the last two years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and running.
Don’t ignore the signs.
If this wasn’t clear by now, it is one of the most important, but hardest things to do. It should have been obvious right away, with the pain in my hip and my uncharacteristic loss of interest, that I needed to stop and take a break. I’m sure I was an awful person to be around and no fun to run long with. By prolonging a break, I only made the burnout worse. It’s hard to do when you’re in the midst of it, but looking back on the last two years, it’s so obvious to me.
Go easy on yourself.
Like many runners, I’m my own harshest critic. I expected way more out of myself than my body was able to give and I paid a price for it. I had to learn to forgive myself and accept my body for what I could do on a particular day and be thankful for that.
Go see a doctor.
My stubborn nature also kept me from seeing a sports medicine doctor sooner, but working with him helped to diagnose some of my symptoms as overtraining syndrome and others related to some other hormone imbalances that he was able to help correct through medication.
Don’t hold yourself to others’ expectations.
I have a tendency to also put too much pressure on myself based on other people’s opinions. The only expectations I need to hold myself to are my own and I needed to stop caring about what other people thought. As Salty said on Wednesday, “Nobody cares!” At the end of the day, it’s no one’s business but my own if I skipped Mohican this year or decided to run short road races instead of trail ultras for a while.
Running is supposed to be fun.
I’m pretty sure nobody starts running as an adult as punishment or to have a bad time. It’s supposed to be fun! It’s something I need to remind myself often. When I’m feeling down about it, I ditch my watch or explore a new route or call up friends for an easy run.
There’s more to life than running.
Overtraining couldn’t have hit at a better time. For the few years leading up to it, my life only revolved around running. I was pretty one-dimensional; my free time was spent running or recovering. I skipped going out with friends in favor of going to bed early. All I could talk about with people was running.
It took stepping away to realize that I couldn’t define myself as only an ultrarunner because there’s so much more to who I am as a person. Right now, I need to focus on my career and grad school. Things change, life changes. I had to stop comparing myself to the ultrarunner I was in 2014 and focus on what my mind and body can do today.
So yes, it might sound strange, but I am grateful that running gave me overtraining syndrome. Because of it, I’ve learned to stop and slow down and really appreciate everything else that running has given me. I’ve been able to refocus my goals and spend more time doing other things that make me happy. I may have several more ultras in my future, but I may not. For now, I’m content with just taking it one run at a time and appreciating the process.
Have you gone into past burnout and into OTS? What did you learn from it?