The funny thing about overtraining, or “burnout” as it is often called, is that it’s not always blatantly obvious. You don’t always wake up one day with a stress fracture that garishly shouts “uh oh, you’ve overdone it!”. No, more often than not the signs are subtle whispers from your body that something isn’t quite right. If you don’t listen closely, you might miss them. And if you really ignore them, one day you WILL wake up with some sort of injury and realize that yes, indeed, you’ve overdone it. Which unfortunately is what most (stubborn by nature) runners do.
The other thing about burnout is that it’s not always just the training to blame. A successful peak during a training cycle often requires a lot of things to come together in order for it to truly work. Yes, your training has to be carefully calculated and executed. But so does your recovery, your sleep, your nutrition, your stress levels…you get the idea. I’ve yet to meet a runner who can continuously achieve this level of perfection in all areas of life, at once. For the rest of us mere mortals, it’s about trying our damndest to maintain a proportionate balance of all of the above – training, rest, recovery, and diet.
Though it often seems, something’s got to give.
The burnout whispers started for me about two weeks ago. To be quite honest, I expected them to. I had just finished the first of two big final pushes for the Georgia Death Race. I wasn’t sleeping quite as well as normal. I’d been a little more absent minded than normal. I may or may not have been accused of being “not so fun when you’re training” by my normally very supportive husband. I’d been relying on stimulants (I work in a gym: preworkout options are endless) to make it through the day. My workouts weren’t feeling as good. My heart rate would spike faster and remains elevated longer than it should. Sure, they could also all be signs of something else creeping in – like the gnarly flu that’s been going around. But more than likely, it’s the fact that I ran a decent 100 miler, and immediately followed it up with racing a hard 50K two weeks later, followed immediately by jumping into peak training for GDR.
I knew better.
Of course I knew better. I am an educated fitness professional and full time running coach. I would NEVER let me athletes get away with that shit. But I did it anyway.
One thing I’ve learned over the years as a coach and athlete, is that we are all truly an experiment of one. I have some incredible clients who are capable of amazingly fast recovery periods, and as such, have run dozens (and dozens) of 100 milers in a short period of time. They defy the odds. I have other clients who need a few months of recovery after a marathon. They are the more inline with the norm.
And so, being an experiment of one, we have to find what works for us. Trial…and unfortunately, error. We all wish and hope that we can be more like the former athletes who can seemingly sleep off a hard effort and jump right back into training, but more often than not, we more closely resemble the latter (read: not superhumans.)
And we usually find this out during the “error” phase of our experiment.
Frozen Hell Hole Hundred went exactly as planned, and I was thrilled with that. To say I was riding a post-race-high would be an understatement. A few days later, when I was running around the gym without a single sign of soreness, I started to feel invincible. If my race could go this well, and I could recover so quickly, what could I do next time if I trained EVEN HARDER?
So I dove into hardcore training for the Georgia Death Race. Two a day workouts. Sometimes three. It’s what one needs to do in order to finish one of the hardest ultras in the country, right?
Alas, I ignored two very important lessons that I need to learn time and time again until they finally stick:
1. Train smarter, not harder.
More is not necessarily better. BEST is carefully calculated build cycles and physical adaptations. Despite what social media wants to convince you of, you can’t just “beast mode” your way into peak condition. Science says so.
2. The damage done to your body from a 100 miler goes much deeper than simply sore legs.
I sit here today and honestly can’t tell you why I so casually and blatantly ignored this truth. Missing an entire nights sleep, while running through the forest for 28 hours, can not only cause cellular damage, but can wreck havoc on your adrenal system, hormone regulation, etc.
I always joke with my clients that I make the mistakes, so they don’t have to.
We are not invincible. Ultra running is not harmless. It’s not necessarily harmful, either, when done properly. But it is absolutely taxing, and eventually, that physical stress will catch up to you if you aren’t careful. So the point of my rambling today? Please, please, please: listen to your bodies. Respect your bodies. You’ve only got one to work with. And all of the motivation in the world means absolutely NOTHING if your body won’t cooperate.
So, I’m resting. I’m scaling everything back, focusing on my sleep, my diet, and trying to eliminate stress. One of two things is going to happen: I’m going to show up to Georgia Death Race undertrained, but feeling better, or I’m going to show up to Georgia Death Race still feeling like shit.
Either way, I did this to myself. Touché, universe. Lesson learned. Hopefully this time, that lesson finally sticks.