On the 7th Day of Christmas, Running Gave to Me: Overtraining Syndrome

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.

Taking a break and gaining perspective helped me focus on important things (like my wedding!), but still incorporating running in my life.
Taking a break and gaining perspective helped me focus on important things (like my wedding!), but still incorporating running in my life.

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?

Trail and 100 mile ultra runner who still loves a good road marathon every now and then. Lifetime Northeast Ohio resident that dreams of the mountains out west, but loves CLE too much. Sometimes a vegan, sometimes does yoga, always loves a good craft beer and post race donuts.

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5 comments

  1. This is such a great post, and I can appreciate when a runner (or person) can recognize a “setback” as a good thing- and see things in a different way. You are a badass ultrarunner, but you are also so much more- you may not have had the running year you expected but so many other things in life! Very happy that you are finding your groove as a person, and a runner too!

    For me, I think summer of ’14 was the closest I got to OTS. I was in a very tough place personally, and I never really lost the desire to run simply because running was quite frankly ALL that I had left at that point and didn’t want to lose it too. Even without losing the desire to run though, I had so many of the other signs… I kinda sorta caught it early enough, that bringing on a coach at the time- and seeking advice and support from friends allowed me to keep running/training through it (yet much differently, and much more smart than I was). it was one of those very close calls that really put things in perspective for me.

  2. Re-focusing and re-balancing are so important. As is learning to be in your body as it is right now. As a runner, I feel I am skilled at setting how I feel aside and pressing on – which means, on the whole I am very good at dismissing my own pain as crazy, weak, stupid. Perhaps a good single race strategy; not a good life strategy.

    You should do a post on the hormonal aspect – which hormones are potentially affected by overtraining, how to find a healthcare professional who gets it, etc.

    Good luck!

  3. I write a lot of articles about over training because it can be such a big and complicated issue! A lot of us begin wondering how we could even run a mile and then get so hooked that it’s hard to stop. Over training can be such a sneaky hazard to a running routine!
    Diana

  4. I agree with the commenter who mentioned a post on the hormones that can be affected- I would love to read more about overtraining from a medical standpoint. I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with overtraining (which is a good thing), but running issues and injuries are good to read and know about, to know the signs. Even if YOU may not be dealing with an issue, someone you train with or a friend might and you can offer some insight, forward the article, etc.

    I am currently dealing with a knee injury I got while training for a marathon, and although it’s not over training, it has forced me to take a step back… and possibly kept me from falling into over training, had I made it to the marathon. I was injury-free for 2.5 years, so I was doing something right, but since I was injury-free for so long, I was also short changing myself on taking recovery time and breaks. I figured hey, I finished that race and did great, let me build on that momentum and keep training hard since I’m not injured and I feel okay. Injuries force us to rest or change up the routine and honestly, that’s the only time I would rest or change it up. I have found that I like yoga and cross training and plan to do more!

    So sorry to hear you went through OTS, especially when the term is thrown around so much. But you never know who your story may help.