I was listening to an audiobook about training yesterday and while the guy was discussing this study about the effects of different workout intensities, he said, “No one’s ever gotten overtrained from doing too much low intensity, because low intensity doesn’t suppress your parasympathetic nervous system.” And I was like WHAT!? Why is this the first time I’ve heard anyone reference that!? And I thought, over the past year+, I’ve failed so many times, partially because I couldn’t find specifics about how to get back into training after you’ve gone through the initial recovery phase.
- In case you’re starting at square one (Do I have OTS?) the only thing you can do is take time off, complete rest. They say you’ll just know when you’re ready to start back up again, and they’re right. There will be a phase where you start feeling better, you start noticing your symptoms going away, and then one day you’ll just feel normal again. The most important rule for this time is, do not train at all until you WANT to.
- Your first forays back in should be extremely brief with tons of recovery between. As in, 20-30 minute walks, then a rest day, then another 20-30 minute walk, until you can tell for sure that your nervous system is recovering in between. I know there’s a lot of controversy about using HRV as a training metric, it seems mostly uninformed. Heart rate variability is an excellent metric for determining the health of your nervous system, and now that I have a Whoop and I’ve been doing this, I wish I had it at the beginning of my OTS recovery. It helps you tell the difference between fatigue and normal fitness-related tiredness, and the difference between the impact exercise is having on your cardiovascular system and your nervous system, which is critical.
- LOW VOLUME: Because I couldn’t find any information on what training should be like after OTS, I eased back in slowly over the winter then starting working my mileage back up in the spring, like I normally would. I was initially feeling good, then three weeks later I relapsed. About a month later, I heard a quote in a general athlete recovery-themed book about an athlete that had OTS and his coach prescribed him low volume with lots of recovery for the first six months. This corroborated with my recent experience, so I got on the low volume train.
- SHORT: No long workouts, even if weekly mileage is lower. This ties into low volume, and maybe it was already obvious to you but it was not obvious to me. Once I decreased my volume, twice I went out for runs that were far too long. It was mostly by accident, the local trail group asked my boyfriend to scout remote parts of trails to determine where they should focus trail work efforts, and I went along, and both times they ended up being very long days (19 and 26). Both times, it took over a week of feeling cortisol surges and full-body fatigue all day every day until I could even think about going for an easy walk.
- LOW INTENSITY: And ONLY low intensity, zone one. After I accepted low volume, I thought the smart thing to do would be to up the intensity, temporarily, until I could do more volume. This was poorly thought out, but at the time I thought it made a lot of sense. If I could only do a couple runs a week and they had to be shorter, I could do them harder. Like, if I couldn’t do 10 or 12 milers, I could do a six miler with a hard effort on a 2,000 or 3,000ft climb (I live in Ouray, where climbing is always the only option). Perhaps you can see the writing on the wall, it didn’t take long before I relapsed again.
Now that I’ve figured out those last three principles (low volume, short workouts, and low intensity) I’m able to workout regularly and I’m feeling great. I’ve also noticed on the Whoop that my vitals are all better when I’m doing this. Aerobic-level exercise metabolizes cortisol that’s in your system, and during your OTS recovery you’ll almost certainly have too much cortisol in your system, which will continue to adversely affect your recovery. You can learn lots and lots about cortisol if you feel like it, but to sum it up quickly:
CORTISOL: prevent cortisol dumps by not letting your heart rate get too high (by too high intensity of exercise, stress, or otherwise). Metabolize cortisol in your system by getting regular low-intensity aerobic exercise. Look into adrenal fatigue supplements to support your body’s ability to regulate cortisol production (you can find much better info about this elsewhere, too, but I can tell you the difference to me was really noticeable when I started taking them).
Things that are really big stressors on your system:
- Elevation Gain
- Altitude, even just existing at altitude
- Mental stress
I’m bringing this up because it was probably some combination of these things that caused your OTS in the first place, and some combination of these things might sabotage your recovery. It’s been a big struggle for me to keep my intensity low because all the trails here are steep climbs and I’m always at high altitude. It was very eye opening to me since I got the Whoop how much a mentally stressful day, for whatever the reason, put a strain on my body, equivalent to a hard workout. BTW, I have no affiliation with Whoop, and I think it’s very useful and perhaps I’ll write a review post on the pro’s and con’s, but in general I think having more awareness of tracking things like your heart rate (and I’m talking thorough tracking of heart rate, daily average, during workouts, and overnight resting HR average) and heart rate variability give you really good information on how much strain you’re putting on your body (in life and in training), and how well you’re adapting and recovering to that strain, particularly, like I mentioned earlier, the difference between your cardiovascular system’s load and your nervous system’s strain (perhaps I’ll write a whole post sometime just on that). Because ideally, training will put a strain on your cardiovascular system that you then adapt to and recover from, but straining your nervous system is the basis of overtraining, and it’s much harder to bounce back from.
I’ve actually got some really interesting data about altitude and my health after my recent two week trip to low altitude that I’ll do a whole post on soon. We all already know what a stressor altitude is, but it blew my mind how much healthier my body and nervous system was when I left it and I am stoked to share that. Like of course it affects you, but now that I can say how much quantitatively, it’s bananas.
General tips for promoting the health of your nervous system and high HRV:
- your nervous system likes a routine. It’s great for your physical and mental health anyway.
- get plenty of sleep, and keep your hours regular. As in, go to bed and get up at the same time. Ideally work it out so you never have an alarm, when you’re recovering from OTS at any stage, it’s best to let your body sleep as long as it wants.
- Normatec. They’re so expensive, I almost don’t want to bring it up because they’re out of reach for most (I certainly could NEVER have afforded them and am very lucky to have access to them out of someone else’s generosity). Using them for at least an hour a day both increases my sleep quality and quantity, and increases my HRV by an average of 12%.
- Meditation/breathwork/yoga. I put all these in the same category because each one has a significant effect on my HRV but I think it’s all for the same reason, and when I do yoga I generally do breathwork and it’s at least somewhat meditative. Any combination of these also combats mental stresses that are straining your system, and all of them stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the thing we damaged in OTS, the health of which we’re working to restore.
- Drinking enough water. Duh? But then, I’m terrible at it.
- Legs up the wall. Also very stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system, also great for sleep.
- Massage: when Tim and I trade massages, the effect on my HRV is noticeable. I suspect but I haven’t input it into my Whoop journal so I don’t have the data to back it up, that if I spent any significant amount of time self massaging like I normally would during training, that would also have a positive impact on HRV.
That’s all for now! Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a post just on the quantitative effects of altitude coming up. In the meantime, Pippa Climbs Mt. Rainier is in paperback now, check it out on Amazon. And if you’re interested in personal run coaching or training plans for various adventures (in addition to the Grand Canyon plans, I’ve got more mtn specific plans coming in time for New Year’s) check those out on Training Peaks or alpineruncoach.com