Overtraining Syndrome


Can you overtrain?  Some people debate it. I’ve seen a lot of strength posts and read a lot of triathlon/endurance posts related to it. I used to be a triathlete for 7 years and overtraining syndrome was actually not that uncommon (I did live in the mecca of triathlon training in San Diego and every other triathlete was training for an ironman) or at least what those of us in tri-geekery circles called overtraining syndrome.

  • Washed-out feeling, tired, drained, lack of energy
  • Mild leg soreness, general aches and pains
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Sudden drop in performance
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Decreased immunity (increased number of colds, and sore throats)
  • Decrease in training capacity / intensity
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Depression
  • Loss of enthusiasm for the sport
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased incidence of injuries.
  • A compulsive need to exercise

Here is the thing…some of these will show up during a hard training cycle for an event. That’s normal…and it is key to BACK OFF. But if you back off for 2-3 days or a week or two…and DON’T bounce back that’s when chronic overtraining syndrome starts to set in.

But most people don’t really talk about it. Even doctors. They don’t really know what it is or why it happens. Hormone imbalance? Cortisol too high or something like that? No one really understands it well…at least that is what my doctor told me back in 2010. Why one person is more susceptible vs. another is a bit of a mystery.  For some people, their training will put them into a state of OTS because the body has just had ENOUGH. They have been pushing really hard for a really long time without eating enough or taking in enough fluids or recovering properly to support the training. The root cause of OTS and people’s susceptibilities to it is still not fully understood.
In March of 2010…back when I was a triathlete, I came down with OTS…possibly. I had a sports med doc diagnose me as such… and to this day I’m in a bit of denial about it, but even after I recovered…I never went back to triathlons. That *might* be a good way to say ‘loss of enthusiasm for the sport’.  In my case I think it was a combination of SUPER high stress (ie cortisol) for a NUMBER of years combined with poor digestion (due to a gluten intolerance not diagnosed til 2012) which resulted in some nutritional deficiencies (folic acid, ferrtin, Vit D, magnesium…). Mix in 8-12 hours of consistent training that had my HR over 140bpm and the body will say enough at some point.
I had a holistic nutritionist think I had adrenal fatigue…which is a little too ‘woo’ and out there for me. There is no technical definition for someone who might be having trouble with their adrenals unless they have full blown Addisions Disease…and that’s when the adrenals just don’t work. And some people think that people with adreanal fatigue should take supplements with adrenal pieces in them. Ewww…sorry that thought just grosses me out. If you are going to take supplements, please research every ingredient on its list for safety AND if it actually does anything. Just because it is in the ‘natural’ food section does not mean it is fully tested or safe. I give prescription medication and over the counter medication just as much of a ‘stink eye’ as I do things in the natural food section. Don’t stop taking anything that a doctor has prescribed…but please, please, please…ask them lots of questions. I’ll talk more about supplements later. I’m not against them…but everyone should understand what they are taking and why.
I don’t know if I truly had overtraining syndrome…I just know I felt terrible for about 5 months and could barely pull myself out of bed. Exercise…hurt……the only thing that didn’t hurt was yoga…I ignored my friends…I slept a lot…I was apathetic…I quit triathlon and never went back. I did find kettlebells…so it is a part of the story of how I got here.
But my reality is that I now live in a very different body than I had prior to the OTS melt down. I’m either more hypersensitive to my training or I just can feel my body’s reactions a bit more these days. The reality is I can’t push like I used to be able to push. I fall off that training ‘cliff’ a lot more easily than I used to and easily wake up utterly exhausted if I push too hard. The reality I have to live with is that because I sorta ‘broke’ myself a few years ago…I need to be more mindful and focus MORE on my recovery and be kind to myself. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t train hard…it just means I need to be more mindful of the feedback my body tells me.
The point of this post? A new athlete really shouldn’t worry about OTS in the beginnings. It takes years of bad choices both in allowing too much life stress and too much endurance exercise to wear you to that point. Putting a large cortisol load on the body through life stress and endurance exercise can cause OTS. Generally the areas that OTS seems to pop up are endurance training (half iron distances and beyond for triathlons or marathoners and ultra marathoners) and I figure competitors. I’ve read so many posts on women’s bodies totally freaking out after a figure competition that to me personally (I am NO doctor or expert on this topic) it sounds like over training syndrome and their bodies totally rebel after competition.
So…train hard, recover well…and listen to your body.

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