Training by definition causes a decrease in short-term performance, followed by a super-compensation if there is proper recovery and therefore improved performance. If there’s not adequate recovery you may feel stale in the next workout or race. This is characterized as over-reaching where you are not fully recovered. Long-term over-reaching develops into Over-Training Syndrome (OTS). At this point you’ll notice various symptoms, such as the following; fatigue heavy muscles, depression, sleep disturbances, loss of weight, weight gain, loss of competitive drive, loss of libido, increased emotional anxiety, irritability, raised resting pulse and excessive sweating. That’s a lot of potential symptoms and everyone will experience different symptoms. All of these symptoms are very common for iron deficiency, also a common problem for runners.
I, like most runners, have been looking for a diagnostic test to determine what is wrong. I had several blood tests done and they showed low thyroid levels, sometimes low testosterone, and once a lower iron. Due to the combination of low thyroid for an extended period of time and a family history (including males) on my mom’s side of the family, I was put on levothyroxine. 50mcg did very little and 100mcg I *thought* I felt better. In reality, at that point I was likely training well and had appropriate recovery, and that’s why I felt better.
A major problem with OTS is the role of hormones is poorly understood (Richard Budgett: Fatigue and underperformance…). Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol have been shown to be increased in athletes with OTS (Richard Budgett). I can attest that I’ve felt the affects of adrenaline issues. I have not been able to find very much scientific literature into the role of caffeine intake and over-training syndrome. Clearly there is a strong correlation with adrenaline. I believe I was having “too much” caffeine that amplified the effects of OTS. How much caffeine is too much? This is a great question I wish someone would look into. According to guidelines of caffeine affecting performance (from the NY Times article), a recommendation of 5-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight is ideal. On average I was having way less than that, however I was probably close to that on race day/workout days. That amount is equal to approximately 16-20 oz of coffee. For me, that much was too much and the day-to-day variation was another stress on the body.
Also according to Richard Budgett, my doctor at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine Jason Glowney, and Run for Your Life, the hypothalmic pituatary axis (HPA) starts functioning incorrectly. For me, I believe this represented itself in low thyroid and testosterone levels. Dr. Glowney explained that the issue is almost similar to post-tramatic stress disorder where the issue actually resides in the brain. This explains several of my races where I felt like I was physically ‘bonking’ even though I was far from in danger of actually carbohydrate depletion. The race at the US 10 mile was a perfect example of this. I hit mile 5 at a conservative pace and then all of a sudden was struggling to run 5:30 miles…then struggling to hold 6:00 miles. Ten days before the race I did a 10 mile moderate progression run on a muddy day at the Boulder Reservoir – I ran 55:30. I think I ran about 54 minutes at the US 10 mile championships! The best way I can describe it is that moderate feels moderate, but I couldn’t run hard or my body shuts down. Even if I’m very fit, my body will not let me run hard.
At that point two weeks ago I knew I needed time off. During this time I did a lot of research to figure out what I had to do to come back healthier and stronger than before. At the end of May/early June I took two weeks completely off. Yet I was barely able to manage preparing for the Kauai Marathon. Looking back at my log from how I build-up after those two weeks off I was doing moderate workouts two weeks later and hard workouts four weeks later. According to this article by physiotherapy.curtin.edu, heart rate should be kept in the range of 120-140 beats per minute for at least 6 weeks. Also one complete rest day per week is recommended initially.
For the past two weeks I focused on being a high school coach and a PhD student. My only ‘exercise’ has come in the form of yard work. Per the doctor’s recommendation I stopped taking medication for the thyroid. I’ve added in BCAAs for recovery (Gastmann A and Lehmann M 1998). For this week I plan to run up to 30 minutes per day with several days of cross-training instead of running. The week after this I plan to run up to 45 minutes per day with one day of rest and one day of cross-training. The following two weeks I plan to run about an hour easy 6 days of the week with one rest day. I’m planning on wearing the heart-rate monitor so I never get too fast and keep the heart rate under 140 bpm. In addition, weight lifting will be kept very light and core also light.
I’m going to be a contender again soon. I’m looking forward to tying up my racing flats and competing to the best of my abilities. First, I’m recovering to get better. Hope you’re able to learn from my mistakes this blog post. Please post questions you have.
Fatigue and Underperformance in athletes: the overtraining syndrome, Richard Budgett, Br. J. Sports Med 1998;32:107-110