How do you know when the lingering fatigue you feel after training is more than just the after-effect of a sensibly tough workout schedule? Here, in a post that could also be titled ‘One Girl and Her Idiotic Training Decisions’, I talk about my personal experience with overtraining/underperformance syndrome. It’s long, but read to the end for expert advice from applied sport scientist, Dr Barney Wainwright, on how to spot and treat the symptoms of overtraining.
Firstly, a bit of background.
Throughout my life, my attitude to exercise has been all or nothing. I’d be smashing out my workout or runs, doing Insanity six times a week for 6 months, or I’d be the total opposite: not interested. Zero exercise.
Historically, there was no happy medium.
For the past few years, my training had been consistent, but not obsessive. But in the winter of 2015 I started training for my first ‘event’, the notoriously tough Pain and Suffering from the Suffering Race. This is a long, winter obstacle course race (around 13 miles), with lots of hills. It takes elite women around 4 hours to complete. This would be difficult and I had never done anything like it.
My motivation to complete it was driven entirely by the hope of qualifying for the OCR World Championship, for which I’d need to come top 20 in my gender. This was very optimistic given I’d never even done an obstacle course race before. And I was only running 2.5 miles each way to circuit training, four times a week.
So I quit the circuits and headed to the hills of Sheffield and the Peak District, of which there are many. I went from short, fast 2.5 mile runs to running 10 hilly miles, comfortably, in the space of 7 runs. Within a few months, I was just ‘nipping out’ for 14 mile runs, where the first 7 miles were all uphill. Running 3 times a week, my weekly Strava climbing topped around 3,000ft of ascent, sometimes 4,500ft.
It’s Hilly in Sheffield
I was tired, heading out for long runs on little sleep (sometimes having had as little as four hours’, thanks to my 3- and 5-year-olds) but I could see the improvements in my times on the climbs. I could run for longer. However, my weekly run schedule was messed up and, because of work, often I’d often cover 30 miles in three consecutive days at the end of the week, leaving me wiped out until I was recovered enough to do it all over again the following week. My husband would look at me as I came in from a long run and utter two words with a raise of an eyebrow: ‘Overcooked it.’ But I kept thinking about the Suffering Race and those hills.
And it was only 3 runs a week, right?
January and Winter Ram Run
By now it was January and those Peak District runs were cooold, which suited me perfectly. When I run, unless it’s 3 degrees and snowing (which it often was), my internal thermostat is basically ON FIRE. Which leads to lots of concerned looks running in the Peak District in just a vest, in the hail, when everyone else is dressed for winter.
About to run up Higger Tor. It was 3-degrees and had just been snowing
To try and get a feel for obstacles, I’d added some training with the then UK OCR champion, Conor Hancock, who conveniently worked at Fitness Garage, a gym 30 minutes away from me. However, it occurred to me that doing one of the UK’s toughest obstacle course races as your first proper OCR is somewhat foolish, so on a last-minute whim I entered the Winter Ram Run, a 12km OCR which involved a brief swim in the freezing January river, amongst other things.
Compared to my standard trail runs, it was flat and easy, but I wasn’t used to the cold rivers or obstacles. Or fuelling my body (my wave started around midday and the last thing I ate was a banana at 8am.) However, to everyone’s surprise I came 3rd lady and qualified to run in the elite women’s category of the OCR European championship in June that year! As well as the OCR UK Championship – bonus!
Tackling the Bridge of Double Despair at Winer Ram Run
Come February, I was running between 10,000 and 19,000ft of ascent each month over 3 runs a week. The prefix ‘So tired’ became a standard title for my Strava sessions. But I was still on a mission. Then one day in February I made the daft decision to do a hilly 10-mile run with a bit of a chesty cough and nothing but a cup of tea to fuel me.
This pushed my body into the red and within a day I was at the doctors with a chest infection. Ironic given that I’m NEVER ILL and my Suffering Race was just two weeks away. I told my doctor that I had ‘a hardcore race to do in two weeks’. Unconvinced, he looked at me and said: “Let’s just see how you are in a week.’
My course of antibiotics finished and I was still chesty. Cue another course of antibiotics. I had five days to go. Stubbornly I was pretty determined to go ahead with the race – until I learned that a chest infection can quickly turn to pneumonia, or worse, if pushed.
I cancelled the Suffering and rested completely, massively anxious about having two weeks off running. Little did I know!
Mountain running: From zero running to 8,000ft in 6 days
By now it was the end of March and time for our family ski holiday to Sainte Foy Tarentaise. In an attempt to claw back some fitness (only two months left to go before the OCR European Championship, gulp), I decided to skip skiing in favour of running up and down the mountain switchbacks.
Second run of the day
Although the runs were short (around 6 miles) the ascent was punishing with a climb of 1000+ft in under two miles and an average gradient of 7% which reached 30% in places. The morning after we arrived, I hit the hills.
I ran to the top of the resort first. I was out of breath. In fact, I couldn’t catch my breath. Huffing and puffing, breathing felt like a struggle. Was this altitude? I didn’t remember feeling like this running the same route the year before. I told myself it was a lack of fitness from too much time away from running. Like a textbook ‘overtrainer’, I assumed my poor performance meant I should push harder.
Monday came and I ran, Tuesday I ran (twice!), Wednesday I ran, and so on. To avoid having to get up at 5am to have breakfast, all my runs were fasted, which in hindsight probably propelled by body into the red at a more rapid rate. Meanwhile, my nights were broken by my 3 and five-year-old who were sleeping badly.
Nevertheless, after joining the Strava run climbing challenge for March, I was on a mission to rack up more ascent than I’d ever managed in a week before. I was pretty shattered, but put this down to family life, travelling through the night, and the fairly routine pattern of non-existent sleep.
Chasing elevation on the switchbacks
By the time Friday came, I’d run nearly 8000 feet of ascent within 5 runs. I toyed with the idea of another run – that would take me to 9000+ft! – but surprised myself by being ‘sensible’ and skipping it, as we were driving through the night from France to England that evening (I still recall regretting this decision in the car home!)
I’d clocked up 3,427 metres/ 11,000ft of climbing in March which, considering I was resting for at least two weeks of it, was not insignificant.
April and… overtraining?
By now it was April and I’d signed up to my second OCR, Reaper. I felt dreadful and thought about cancelling, but decided to just plod around as I needed the obstacle experience. It was only a short 10km, pretty much flat, and nothing compared to my hilly runs, but I felt like I had nothing to give. I felt shattered. I felt like I’d never ever run before in my life.
This was not good.
At Reaper. Not feeling great
Meanwhile my sleeping, which is dire at the best of times, deteriorated further. Even when the kids weren’t waking me up several times in the night, my nights were awful. Surely, after long-distance runs you’re meant to fall into bed and sleep like a log?
At this point, even when I wasn’t training, I had that empty, shattered feeling you get after doing a really hard event. On rest days, my body would swear that I’d left it ‘all out on the course’, despite the fact I hadn’t left the house. I felt depleted. I was running on empty.
Another event, Toughest London, came and went. I plodded around with my badass OCR friend, Sarah Greene, who kindly went at my snail pace. Another runner asked me if I was alright as I didn’t look well. I didn’t feel well.
Enjoying the obstacles at Toughest London
My next run was like a nail in the coffin. My heart rate was off the scale and I was barely moving. Was I really ‘overcooking it’ like my husband suggested?
I googled ‘overtraining’. Decreased performance? Tick. Elevated heart rate? Tick. Increased susceptibility to infections? Tick. Insomnia? Tick. Irritability? Tick. No muscle soreness, though. My legs were never sore.
I then posted on the Obstacle Course Training Facebook page, a forum for racers following training plans put together by elite obstacle course racers Jon Albon, Ryan Atkins and Matt Murphy, which I’d paid for but ironically not been well enough to start.
Their Community Manager, Peter, said my symptoms sounded like underperformance syndrome, the more recent take on overtraining. The difference is it isn’t about volume of training that can push you into the red, but a perfect storm of lifestyle elements personal to you – you could be sleeping badly, being stressed at work, ill etc, and adding your usual training to this can push you over the edge.
Peter pointed me in the direction of an article on underperformance syndrome which made sober reading. ‘CANCEL ALL YOUR EVENTS,’ it read. ‘YOU COULD BE OUT FOR A YEAR, MAYBE MORE.’ Although I’d deferred my Suffering run, the only real event on the horizon for me was the OCR European Championship – my fourth ever OCR.
The article’s symptoms rang true. I consulted athlete friends who told me to rest completely for three weeks. After that time, most people’s symptoms disappear if it’s a case of over-reaching, rather than overtraining. I did what they said, all the time worrying about not running. I’d had nearly six weeks off and was now going to the OCR European champs ‘for fun’, which at least took the pressure off.
My watch telling me how it is
When I did start running again, even at a pace I considered very slow – 9 and a half minute miles – my breathing was laboured and my heart rate way above what it should have been. I felt like I was running through treacle. To add insult to injury, my watch, which monitored my HR, told me I had made a ‘Poor recovery’ each time. (What I now know be to an indicator that all was still not right with my body.)
By the time the OCR European Championship came round, I was resigned to being very slow. I switched from representing my age group for Team UK to running in the elite women’s race – because, I reasoned, I’d qualified elite, so why the hell not? I would be the slowest ‘elite’ athlete there, but I was unlikely to ever qualify as an elite OCR athlete again.
The OCREC weekend in Holland was fantastic. I had fun, enjoyed obstacles I’d never experienced before and met some amazing people.
Queuing for the UFO obstacle at the European Champs
Ironically, I picked up a random knee injury while competing that took 7 months to diagnose and demanded I take nearly 9 months off running. As it happens, this probably helped me on the road to recovery from underperformance syndrome.
Fate intervened, and had it not, I’m not sure what would have happened. Perhaps my body would have continued to teeter on the edge, treading the fine line between over-reaching and overtraining until I lost all energy and enthusiasm for running. Or perhaps I would have damaged my body to the point of having to have an entire year off all exercise, never mind running.
The moral of the story? Overtraining isn’t always a case of training ‘too much’, but a cocktail of elements that take sleep, hormones and lifestyle into account. And when you’re a parent who survives on very little sleep and is used to ‘pushing through’ tiredness for work, life and beyond, it’s actually about recognising that sometimes what you consider to be your ‘normal’ training load is still too much for your body to handle.
How to spot UPS/OTS syndrome
So how do you know whether you’re on the slippery slope to overtraining or simply feeling the effects of a demanding training schedule? I put some questions to Dr Barney Wainwright, applied sport scientist and research fellow at Leeds Beckett University. Here’s what you need to know…
Not recovering = a key indicator something isn’t right
Knowing when to take your foot off the gas with your training is pretty vital, yet there’s a fine line between training hard and overtraining. “The creation of fatigue is an important part of the training process that drives adaption,” explains Dr Wainwright. “However, when full recoveries are not being accomplished after training, in spite of putting in place longer periods for recovery, there should be some concern. Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) may be present if recovery fails to occur after at least 3 weeks of a highly reduced training load.”
Nose-dives in performance are a warning sign
“OTS will nearly always create a reduction in performance,” explains Dr Wainwright, who notes this may be evident in competitions as well as in training. “Warning signs are if training sessions can be started at the correct intensity, but soon the intensity needs to be reduced or the session cut short.” Ironically, this is where many sufferers ‘push on’ or decide they need to up their training in an effort to improve their performance.
Factoring life’s demands into training is key
Most of us amateur enthusiasts only take illness and available training time into account when it comes to scheduling our training. But as my experience showed, it’s often a cocktail of other elements such as lack of sleep and the stresses of life that can cause overtraining. As Dr Wainwright warns: “Athletes should be especially careful to make sure that their training load is adjusted if they’re trying to lose body weight, or restrict their calorific intake in some way, and if physical or mental stresses from other aspects other life are high.”
Know when to reduce training and seek expert advice
Suspect you might have OTS? “Immediately take a break from training or highly reduce your training load by as much as 90%,” advises Wainwright. “For some athletes it’s best to keep a routine of on-going training, but keep the sessions very light and focus upon other aspects of training that have a lower energy cost but may contribute to performance – e.g light stretching and conditioning work, technique drills or some light sprint efforts with long recoveries between efforts.”
If your symptoms haven’t improved after 7 days of an alteration in training, Dr Wainwright suggests seeking the advice of a medical professional with expertise in underperformance/OT syndrome. (My OTS was never formally diagnosed because I didn’t know where to seek advice). “Search for local recommendations or Doctors that might be associated with local sports clubs or regional teams. Alternatively, search for Doctors with a specialism in Sports and Exercise Medicine who are registered with the Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine (http://www.fsem.ac.uk),” he says.
REST… and learn from your mistakes
If underlying illness has been ruled out and OTS pinpointed as the cause, it’s time to rest. That said, “Often active recovery is better than complete inactivity, especially if exercise plays an important role in improving mood state,” notes Wainwright. “Once the feelings of fatigue and general malaise have disappeared, training should be re-introduced and increased slowly, by as little as 5 minutes per day.” Then? Take it slow, reset realistic goals, and reflect on what caused your OTS in the first place. As nobody wants to make the same mistake twice.