The Gambler - Overtraining
"If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta to learn to play it right."
I've watched a few athletes toss away years of their lives because they were too proud to ask for help and lacked the confidence to rest. Something that Mark Allen taught me very early in our relationship was, "just because you start doing something stupid, doesn't mean you have to continue doing it." Mark was talking about intensity-induced insanity (HR caps) but we can apply his lesson to many areas.
Soon the most dangerous time of the year will be upon us. Why is spring so dangerous? Because winter and a lack of daylight prevent us from doing anything really stupid! I think a big reason why Canadians and Northern Europeans have long careers is they are forced to back off at least once a year.
First up, who's at risk from over-doing it? You could take an alcohol addiction quiz and substitute "training" each time you see "drink." Having interacted with hundreds of athletes, I know many of us are "at risk" in terms of temperament. The quiz talks about topics such as missing work, remorse, medical treatment, home life stress, decrease in motivation, reduced personal productivity... sounds a bit like high level athletic training to me!
For what it's worth, I'm not saying that you need to change or that sport is inherently unhealthy. My point is people (like me) with a certain personality type need to be careful. Part of what enables us to get-stuff-done is a passion for work -- the greater the work, the greater the achievement. There is a direct correlation between work and performance. To a point... beyond that point, more work leads to less performance.
What are some other characteristics that you'll want to watch:
Time: To make yourself sick from training, you need quite a bit of time. Elites and full-time age-groupers are most at risk -- they have the time and, often, they have nothing to fall back on when athletics becomes non-viable.
Fit: To fry your adrenals, and break down your immune system, you need to do challenging training. The men that I have watched smoke themselves all have very good anaerobic endurance as well as the psychological capacity to completely deplete themselves (we've all thrown up from training). Also remember that "challenging" is relative to yourself, not what you read in the magazines!
Depletion: Maybe you don't think you are "fast" compared to your role models. You are at risk if you have the capacity to deeply deplete your glycogen stores. A large part of the stress you place on yourself when training is the magnitude of depletion you induce.
Disordered Eating: Are any of us completely free from the risk factors the lead to eating disorders? I was in a presentation on the topic and the entire room was "at risk" when we took the quiz. Take Home Point: The fastest way to bring on overtraining syndrome is high workload when trying to cut weight using a chronic depletion strategy. Safe weight loss only occurs when training stress is low and chronic depletion is absent.
Top athletes tend to have all four risk factors when they smoke themselves -- working athletes (with the additional stress of job, relationships, finances) can run into trouble without the full package -- for example: divorce, depletion and high workload -- that's enough to end your year.
So what happens?
You start to feel old and act grumpy!
You might get shingles, Epstein-Barr virus or chronic fatigue syndrome. By the time you progress to illness, you've been ignoring warning signals for months and must stop training immediately.
What makes the next phase tricky is that the only time you are going to "feel good" is after your training, particularly your intense training. As well, there is little in the medical literature about what I'm writing about. Endurance Corner is going to be tackling the issue, via our doctor-athletes.
You get caught in cycle where the training that is making you sick is also stimulating the hormones that make you feel good... until you crash. The circular nature of the condition is similar to any form of addiction (sex, alcohol, drugs, risk). It's a powerful cycle and many sick athletes disappear from our collective consciousness -- I think that's why the literature is absent -- not many return to tell their tale.
The good news, if you catch yourself early then you might bounce back with 4-12 weeks off training -- which seems like a lifetime if you are exercise addicted (or highly motivated -- you can call it whatever you like). However, if you ignore the warning signals then you will need 1-3 years before coming back to proper training. And those years are going to be "lost years" in the sense that your quality of life and personal productivity will be low.
More good news, even if you completely ruin your health -- you can make a full recovery. My very good buddy, Clas Bjorling, was able to win an ironman after he spent three years rebuilding from a serious bout of overtraining syndrome. Our bodies have remarkable healing powers.
You might lose a season, but don't lose the lesson.
PS - suppose I could have used the better-known quote "know when to fold 'em." You'll find the full lyrics to the Kenny Rogers song here