It’s been coming up a lot lately, do you push too hard? Or are you not pushing hard enough?
Tim and I were just talking about this in the context of yoga and I was remembering that when I was new to yoga, even not that new, I was always looking for the hardest variation, to hold the poses longer, to strive for ethical perfection, to have the stillest mind. I was always trying to push harder. My teacher used to say that honesty means being honest with yourself first, and that the most advanced practice was someone who knew when they needed to push harder, but also knew when they needed to back off. It took me ages, probably 11, 12 years? To actually understand this. That doing the most isn’t always the best.
Now that I coach other runners, I think about this a lot. It almost seems like the easiest way to categorize athletes, whether my job is to push them harder, or to convince them to back off. It’s the most individualized problem in the world, but it’s also very simple. What is going to be best for your performance? How much can your body take? Your mind? What’s helping you progress toward your goals? Working harder isn’t always better. But less isn’t always more either.
“The way you do one thing is the way you do anything.” That’s an old zen saying and I couldn’t find if it’s attributed to anyone in particular. I was already thinking, I don’t think that’s true. When I googled the phrase and read someone else’s blog, where they talked about doing an 80% job on small tasks that didn’t feel important to them, and how that meant they were living in laziness and mediocrity. Really it just confirmed to me that it’s not right. Because everyone categorizes their activities and determines what’s more worthy of their limited and valuable time. If you committed 100% of yourself to EVERY SINGLE TASK you do in a day, you’d have the daily life equivalent of overtraining, aka sympathetic dominance.
So what is the answer? I’m pretty sure it’s balance. I’m no spiritual expert here guys, but I think it’s that thing that my yoga teacher used to say, that the most advanced practice is when you can tell when you need to push harder and when you need to back off, and that can apply to everything you do. If you do anything obsessively, you probably need to back off and find some kind of healthy balance or you’re going to end up overtrained. But there’s plenty of stuff you’re probably slacking on because you don’t feel it’s important. I can run 100 mile weeks (when I’m healthy, obv) but I can never seem to put everything away. If that “the way you do anything is the way you do everything” were true, I’d either be way too intense and obsessive about every single activity, obsessing over cleanliness and cooking just as much as I obsess over strength training and running, and I probably would’ve died of a heart attack, OR I’d be just as sloppy about training as I was about cleaning and I never would’ve made any worthwhile gains at all in my life. If I didn’t devote all of my time and energy to running (when I’m healthy) I would have more time to spend on the other stuff, like I am right now, cooking and drawing coloring books and practicing elaborate breathwork. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to describe myself with words like “balanced” or “well rounded.”
So I assume this persistent adrenal fatigue is trying to teach me this, right? Because after I recovered from OTS, I eased back in slowly but ultimately was doing way too much too soon and caused the relapse. The important lesson of balance being left unlearned, so here I am again to learn it. The most advanced practice is when you can tell when to push harder, and when to back off.
Nolan’s 14 2020 was a banner year for Nolan’s FKTs, probably because the races were canceled and the pros had nothing else to do. While it used to have so much mystery and appeal and was rarely attempted and even more rarely completed, its popularity doesn’t change that it’s the most aesthetic 100 mile line in the world and deserves a prominent place on this list. Since I’ve fallen in love with skyrunning, 100s seem less appealing (there’s a reason the Barkley’s not on this list), but I still secretly think about digging out my poles and meditating up some resilience and going for it again. Here’s iRunfar’s interview with new male FKT, and Sabrina Stanley’s video recap of her FKT, and I still love Joe Grant’s video.
The Grand (Teton) Traverse: From time to time, someone will tell me they or someone they know did the Grand Traverse. And every time, I’m disappointed when I find out they’re talking about the race in Crested Butte that’s taking the name in vain. I’m sure that’s a cool race and everything, but there’s only one Grand Traverse and it magnificently and terrifyingly traverses the main 14 peaks of the Teton Range, including the Grand. It’s the ultimate collision of alpinism and mountain running, if one wishes to do it in sub 24 hours, they must have the beastliest of thighs, excellent climbing prowess, and you’ve got to wear a helmet and carry an ax. Record holders have free soloed the 5.8 north face of the Grand in their running shoes. A route like this is so compelling, I’ve been working on my climbing prowess to be able to do it one day. While we’re talking Tetons, there’s also the Picnic (Unofficial Grand Teton Triathalon), circumnavigating the range, and the nearby Cirque of the Towers route to consider.
Tromso Skyrace: the brainchild of Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet, all you need really is to watch the highlights reel and you’ll be looking up plane tickets to Norway. Exposure, scrambling, altitude, snow, the headliner is the Hamperokken Skyrace, a 57k with 15,748ft of gain in “a place to run between the sky and the earth to feel freedom” that “follows the soul of skyrunning.” Held annually in early August.
Matterhorn/Matterhorn Ultraks: Did anyone watch Summits of My Life and NOT get obsessed with running the Matterhorn? If you’re not a climber and don’t find the mountain itself inspiring, maybe you’d like to run around near it in a skyrace in Zermatt? The Matterhorn Ultraks Skyrace is “a magical track” that gains almost 12,000ft in just under a 50k.
Diagonale des Fous/Grand Raid: The Madmen’s Diagonal, about 100 miles and 31,600 ft of gain crossing an island near Madagascar, this highly technical race has a mythical status, possibly as or more technical than how complicated it would be to get there. But, this is a list of the dopest running events and adventures, not a list of the easiest or the ones nearest to you. I loved the look of their 2019 ad:
If you’ve visited altitude, you’ve noticed that it makes you uncomfortable. If you live up here, you might remember your first month in the sky (bloody noses, constantly itchy skin, headaches, constant dehydration, worse), and you’ve probably noticed that when you leave, even for a week, you’ve already lost that magical adaptation called acclimatization, and you have to work your way back into living the hard but sweet thin air life. We all know that altitude puts a strain on our body, and those of us who live here are always telling tourists not to underestimate it, but how big of a strain is it really? And why?
Altitude affects oxygen saturation, which is the amount of oxygen the hemoglobin in your red blood cells is carrying at any given time. At sea level, the atmospheric pressure and concentration of oxygen in the air is highest, which is optimal for oxygen saturation in humans. As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially, while the fraction of oxygen remains the same, which leads to lower saturation. According to Princeton, it takes 1-3 days to begin acclimatizing, and months to adapt fully. The biggest change is the increase in hemoglobin specifically, and red blood cells in general, which is an adaptation that we lose quickly when we lose altitude. Other adaptations include: increased depth of breathing, increased pressure in pulmonary arteries (which increases blood flow in the lungs, and utilizes a higher portion of the lungs than you’d use at sea level), and increased production of enzymes that release oxygen from hemoglobin.
So the reason this is all top of my mind right now is that I’ve just returned to Ouray 7,792ft, after two weeks in southern Missouri, at approximately 1,004ft. You may remember that I’m now wearing a Whoop device 24 hours a day, and the data it’s given me around this trip is astonishing. Obviously, we know that altitude is a big physical stressor, but seeing it quantitatively, it’s bigger than I ever imagined.
For simplicity, let’s start with the Whoop’s overall recovery metric. They use an algorithm that takes into account my average resting HR, heart rate variability, and respiratory rate while I slept, and then other stuff like the previous day’s HR variations and the amount of physical strain from previous days, that results in a percentage. I don’t strictly adhere to this number, but it paints a clear picture of my journey from 8k to 1k and back. Here’s three weeks worth of my recovery scores:
The first photo is a full week spent in Ouray (all fairly low, which is average). The second includes my drive to Missouri and a full week there, the third is a full week just in Missouri, then the last photo I started driving on Saturday and arrived home in Ouray on Sunday night. The four days of red, then, were all spent in Ouray. Once I left Ouray, I had subpar recoveries on Saturday, after a stressful day of snowy mountain driving, then there’s two particularly intense cycling days that resulted in low recovery that quickly bounced back, another one of those on 12/22, then you can see the decline starts again after the drive back to CO.
140 million people live above 8,000ft. People who were born and raised in the Andes and Himalayas show particularly impressive evolution, being born with larger lung volumes and excellent oxygen saturation even as high as 16,000ft. High altitude dwellers in Ethiopia are less evolved, and show the same type of adaptations as people from low elevations that moved to high elevations during their life, and of all the high altitude populations studied, only Himalayans can move between altitudes without losing any of their altitude adaptations. Which means a Sherpa could go to Missouri for a month and they would not lose any red blood cells or have a change in stroke volume or cardiac output or anything, then on their return to the Himalayas, they would not need to re-acclimate. While someone born in the Andes would go to Missouri and have a similar reaction to me, then on their return to the mountains, they would have an increased HR and lower HRV and begin the process re-acclimatization. Himalayas also have another leg-up on us, with a sustained increase in cerebral blood flow, low concentration of hemoglobin, and an obvious resilience to chronic mountain sickness (CMS).
In studies of permanent high altitude residents, those that are born into it and those that live high by choice share a decreased instance of all types of cardiovascular disease and obesity, but an unexplained increased rate of suicide, even with controls in place for known suicide risk factors.
Let’s dive deeper into the data. Most people measure resting HR by taking their pulse the moment they wake up in the morning, while the Whoop measures your HR every second while you’re sleeping then takes an average. My resting HR at altitude before OTS was 50. Since OTS, I haven’t seen it get lower than 55, and it’s generally somewhere in the 60’s. Let’s take a look at the trends for the same four weeks:
For the week in Ouray, it was 63-68. It went up during the drive, then decreased steadily over the next two weeks, going all the way down to 50. It starts going back up after a day of driving, 57, then 65-74 over the next four days of being at home in Ouray. This is interesting, because an increase in HR is to be expected, as one of the first short-term adaptations to altitude is a decrease in overall blood volume, my body is trying to increase the ratio of red blood cells, and a decrease in blood volume corresponds to an increase in HR to pump it. My average HR, taken throughout the day, and including any exercise, actually didn’t change that significantly during the trip. It’s generally 70-80, and while I was in Missouri it was 67-78.
Another reason HR increases at high altitude is that hypoxia activates the sympathetic nervous system. This isn’t great news for me, as my tendency towards sympathetic dominance is one of the biggest driving factors for how I got Overtraining Syndrome in the first place, but it’s possible to do things to counteract it. Basically, you can expect your HR and blood pressure both to increase while at altitude, and not just within the first couple of days, because of pulmonary vasoconstriction, particularly during exercise, is caused by sympathetic nervous system excitation (which happens because hypoxia, which is lowered oxygen saturation, which happens because of the change in pressure at altitude). This link, from altitude to nervous system imbalance, was exactly what I hoped to find in my research today, because it is obvious from the Whoop data that I’m having cardiovascular effects, but they’re likely nervous system related, as we’ll discuss in this next section about HRV.
Now, here’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV). It’s a controversial metric, mostly it seems like because since it’s been introduced to the wider world, folks put a little too much stock in it and it’s true that you can’t base all your decisions around a number that’s so squirrelly. What I really like about it though is that it reflects the health of your nervous system specifically. Mostly when you’re training, you’re thinking about your cardiovascular system (resting HR) and the health, feel, and fatigue of your body itself (neuromuscular). Both your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are exerting control over your heart rate at any given time, and if both sides are healthy, that competition results in a high HRV. Parasympathetic is what’s damaged in OTS, so while you’re in a state of overtraining, your HRV is low because the sympathetic system is dominating the decision making. There’s still plenty we don’t know about OTS, and even in healthy folks it fluctuates rapidly. But these graphs are still telling:
To sum up these graphs, before I left it was typically pretty low. I forgot to mention above that HRV is highly individualized and part of what makes it a squirrelly and controversial metric is because it’s only relevant compared to extended data in the same person. So my HRV is only comparable to my HRV at other times. Moving on, before I left it was low. During my trip, it fluctuated a lot (mostly in relation to exercise) and occasionally skyrocketed, much higher than it’s ever been since I got the Whoop device. Most interesting I think is the steady decline since I’ve gotten back to altitude. When I got up this morning, I thought, it’s so low (19) that am I going to survive the day? (Just kidding, that’s not how HRV works).
So this was all so interesting, I thought I’d look back on our UT/AZ trip in October, and the results at first were uninteresting, there was a period where everything was slightly better for a couple days, probably associated with the relaxation and fun of the trip, but mostly it all was similar to when I’m in Ouray. Then I realized, we were mostly at 7,000ft which isn’t any great improvement to 7,992. 🤷
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:
Altitude, even just existing at altitude
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
Approximately four miles into your weekly long run, that you’ve chosen to do in a new place while you’re on vacation.
You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way. – Elizabeth Taylor
Your pacer says to you at mile 70 of your first 100.
“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” – Jonas Salk
You realize right after you pat yourself on the back for having done ALL of your training for a whole week.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” — Audre Lorde
You say to yourself as you’re chugging Udo’s oil in a hot epsom salt bath while you’re trying to rearrange your budget so that you can afford Normatec boots.
You tell yourself as you enter the Hardrock lottery OR as you step outside for your first day of Nolan’s 14 training.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. –Henry Ford
5 minutes into a windy run, when you’ve committed to your new life of positivity vis a vis Joe Vigil.
If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.– Nora Roberts
This is clear, if you don’t go out for a run, you’ll never have the life you want.
“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”– Maimonides
I’m watching the live feed from Mandalen, Norway, where Kilian’s about 8:30 into his 24 hour record attempt. He is ahead of the world record pace, and they’re projecting right now that he’ll go just over 200 miles, which would beat the previous record 188.590 miles, set in ’97 by Yiannis Kouros, but Kilian’s stated that he expects to slow down after 10 hours. I wouldn’t think I’d like watching some guys run around a track so much, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s both exciting and soothing. His gait is so consistent! He recently stopped to switch his shoes, and I hear things get very exciting every four hours when they change directions.
Yiannis Kouros was 41 when he set that record. He still holds world records for 100 road miles (11:46!) and 1,000 miles (10 days, 10 hours). As well as all the timed records for miles run in 12, 24, 48 hours and six days for both roads and track. Something I thought was a fun fact was that he played Pheidippides in a documentary, The Story of the Marathon: A Hero’s Journey. He was a long jumper in elementary school, but in high school his coach dismissed him, saying he was “a mediocre athlete who just didn’t have the build to go fast.”
After being a junior champion, Yiannis worked as a guard at an athletic stadium. He trained twice a day, then at night he worked on building his own house in Tripoli and claims he only slept 2.5 hours a night. In six years, from age 21 to 27, he raced 25 marathons but only won one. In ’83, he went from marathon to 156 miles when he ran his first ultra at the Spartathalon, (kind of gives some perspective to what we consider an ultra) and won it, beating the previous course record by something like 6 hours to come in under 22 hours. He set another course record in ’84 which still stands, which is also two hours faster than Scott Jurek’s best time at the Spartathalon.
It’s both dark and cold in Norway today. The commentator said he asked Kilian what he thinks about the dark, and Kilian said something like, well I’m used to running in the mountains in the dark, so at the track with the lights, it just doesn’t matter. They’re expecting a low of 32 degrees f, and highs between 44 and 55 f. The runners look pretty chilly to me. As I’m writing this now, it’s almost 8pm in Norway, so they’re about eight hours of where I am in Mtn time.
Unrelated, I’ve just finished my set of R2R2R training plans, you can see them here:
My favorite books to inspire, run smarter, blow your mind, and find more fulfillment in running and your life.
Let Your Mind Run:A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory by Deena Kastor I’m not going to say this was my *favorite running book of all time* because it would be insane to make that claim about any book, but I am putting it first on this list for a reason. What’s so great about this book is, it’s somewhat educational, it gives you a glimpse into the glittery and exciting world of the elite, it’s wildly inspirational, and the takeaway is bringing more positivity into your life and running. No book has had this big of an impact on my life since the first time I read Once a Runner! Big time.
The Science of Running:How to find your limit and train to maximum performanceby Steve Magness. Okay, Steve Magness is a genius, and this book is the ultimate nerd out for us science minded runners (which obviously isn’t for everyone, even I had a hard time following a couple of the chapters and I studied biochemistry, although I listened to it and I don’t know that was the right format). It’s intensely informative, and it makes the other running instruction manuals look like those learn to read books with Nan and Sand. I just saw when looking up a link for this post that Magness has a new book. the Passion Paradox, about the joy and unbalance of intensity and I am so stoked to read it I might put this post on hold until I have.
Born to Runby ChristopherMcDougall I resisted reading this for a long time, it was so popular and I had this conception that it was all about the whole silly barefoot running fad. It’s actually awesome, it’s a great story, there’s tons of research and conspiracy and science and history. Classic. Must read.
Strongby Kara Goucher The Amazon reviews are absolutely right, this is not a memoir or an instruction manual, there’s some but not a lot of meat to it. It’s the jumping off point for you to learn to write your own confidence journal and it does that perfectly. The contributions by other prominent women are the icing on the cake, this is an inspirational workbook!
Run or Die by Kilian Jornet Is it too obvious to include? I couldn’t exactly make a list of favorite running books without it though. I handwrote out the Skyrunner’s Manifesto and had it taped to my door for years. Kilian doesn’t give a lot of interviews [but when he does it’s a must listen, here’s Kilian’s episode of Rich Roll], so this is a rare and delightful look inside his wonderful head. His new book, Above the Clouds just came out, and I’m not all the way through it yet, it’s beautiful and mature, but it doesn’t have the same rawness as Run or Die. I relish in when they all lived in one studio apartment, called their skis and bikes their “girlfriends”, and dropped their rent on race fees. Speaking of girlfriends, I’m going to include Skyrunner here, Emelie’s book is delightful and inspiring, just like she is.
Run the Worldby Becky Wade Becky Wade was an elite college track runner that eventually moved on to marathons and in between she got a prestigious fellowship that paid for a year long odyssey visiting great running cultures of the world for a year and then she wrote a book about it. What a fun exploration of culture and community and why people run, beautiful and brilliant.
Meb For Mortalsby Meb Keflezighi I loved this deep dive into Meb’s world but not everyone wants to “Run, think, and eat like a champion marathoner.” There’s chapters on inventive strength moves, he gives you the nitty gritty of his training schedule and eating (although it infuriates me when he says many runners think they can eat whatever they want but it’s just not true, paraphrased), recovery, mindset, just everything. He wasn’t one of the great runners of our time by accident or talent alone, he devoted everything in his life to it and he lays it all out in this book. I think his somewhat arrogant tone is delightful here (but not in his autobiography) but I’m sure not everyone will agree. 🤷♂️
Once a Runnerby John L. Parker I know there’s folks that haven’t read it yet. We used to consider this the Bible. I’ve read it probably, 80 times? I read single chapters over and over sometimes. The flip side of getting too intense about it is it might lead you too far into the rabbit hole. It’s a fictional story about the pursuit of perfection and world records and Olympics with a cast of some technically fictional characters [universal avatars that you’ll recognize in folks today] and some real life historical heroes.
The graphics I designed for this post are all in my Threadless shop if you’re interested! Want to read more? I’ve just started writing about yoga again here.The Amazon book links are affiliate links. If you use any of the links to buy anything, it doesn’t cost you extra but it helps support this blog! xo
I was thinking about the phases I’ve gone through of OTS, it’s a lot like having a long injury. If we can talk about what we go through, it won’t be so scary, and I have tons of tips to help you get through it, because none of us are alone. Here are the five stages of grief:
the furor: I was reading a book during this time about developing a healthy psychology around your sport, and they said it’s natural to feel angry when you’re injured, and one idea for coping is to assign yourself an amount of time that you can be as angry as you want, then after the time is over you must let go. They suggested 2-14 DAYS, depending on severity. I had been angry at that point for about THREE MONTHS. Needless to say, I never picked up that dumb book again.
watching sports movies/reading about others rad pursuits etc and weeping [in related news, Kilian Jornet has a new book, and Nolan’s 14 has seen at least eight finishes already this year, including new men’s and women’s FKTs][less than 24hrs after I published this, Megan Hicks set yet another women’s FKT, amazing]
the epic search for a new identity: experts and most regular folks agree, if your identity is intertwined with one endeavor, and it’s taken away from you, you will probably have a breakdown. Which is why you should suddenly start applying yourself to OTHER endeavors. Perhaps you’ll spend days making a new resume and applying for a job, sign up for college courses online in grant writing or physiology, write a novel, blog endlessly, or start your own nonprofit.
the final stage is obviously just when you’re better again. This isn’t the Great Riddle Gate in the Neverending Story, where I expect that we’ll all have supreme confidence in ourselves and can walk through unscathed. Maybe you will have a healthy relationship with the thing that’s holding you back by now and you can call it acceptance, but maybe not, and that’s okay. btw, I recommend a lot of stuff in this post and NONE of it is sponsored in any way.
So how to survive? The most helpful thing to me was understanding specialization, and how that was never going to make me happy. When Steve House says, “Avoid this at all costs, because you will lose everything,” I at first was like “F***! THAT IS THE TRUEST THING EVER.” But upon months of reflection I’ve realized, what’s so f***ed about it is that if you can lose everything so easily, you didn’t have enough to lose. And THAT is the key to it all, my friends. Here’s a couple thoughts on specialization that I’ve gleaned from all this reading and thinking:
If you spend all your time trying to be the best at something, you will probably fail, and that won’t make you happy. If you succeed, which if your sights are set that high, you probably won’t, the fulfillment you feel will be fleeting. And one more really important thing, by nature it is almost impossible to specialize in something and not let it become your identity. If you sacrificed everything else for running, and then you’ve lost it, WTF do you have? Nothing. I’ve been working on building an identity outside of running basically every day and it is not easy but it is WORTH it. So here are my thoughts on making it through this shitty time.
It is completely okay to veg for a while. You probably need to, and you definitely deserve to, and right now I’m absolving you of any guilt. Bingeing Netflix seems to be America’s pasttime of choice, but you could also spend this time playing Candy Crush, sleeping, reading, daydreaming, or staring at the wall. Actually that reminds me that sleeping is the best way to spend your time now, as it is the absolute best way to heal whatever is wrong with your body and if you have OTS, you’ll be sleeping excessively for a while anyway.
Once you’ve distracted yourself for a suitably long time, you might start feeling more energetic and be ready to focus on other things. You might start devoting yourself to other pursuits, or your might need to spend some time in a gray area of slightly more stimulation than rewatching Avatar but less than starting a college course. Here’s an list of ideas to cover the spectrum of not completely mindnumbing to pretty interesting and involved:
Google Science: I’m not going to recommend staying up on the actual news because you’re probably already too depressed/stressed/fragile but the latest in science and technology is generally pretty exciting and mostly positive.
Take a deep dive into the Semi-Rad archives. Friday inspiration will give you all sorts of things to do, plus it’s somewhat outdoorsy without drowning you in FOMO. usually.
Learn a new language. This might not have fit in the fun/not overwhelming category before they made all this game-based app languages stuff. Now with sites like Duolingo, it’s free and easy and fun. I’ve been working on Spanish because as soon as I’m better (and the world isn’t on lockdown) I’m buying those plane tickets to Mendoza for Aconcagua! In a similar category, I also was hooked on Lumosity, which is like brain games that are also fun, so you can at least imagine you’re bettering yourself while playing free, addictive games.
I also want to tell you that during the other phases, I reverted back to the veg phase a few times, and I think that’s okay because it was apparently what I needed at the time. Once I got hard into this app game Animal Restaurant? It was weirdly fulfilling (until it wasn’t) and I have no shame about it, and you shouldn’t either.
Nourishment: It’s not exactly a distraction, but I think it’s the right time to mention that you should also take really good care of yourself, that can only help you. Remember when Kilian posted that his broken leg healed miraculously fast and he was back to racing in like two months or something and it was all because of spirulina? For folks with OTS, adrenal supplements to help your body regulate especially cortisol production is super helpful. Mushrooms like cordyceps are great for healing. I went to an acupuncturist in the winter and she was like, “You BADLY need nourishment!” And prescribed me this Chinese medicine just to help my body get back to homeostasis. While it’s on my mind, acupuncture helped a lot. There’s no one size fits all recommendation here, just a jumping off point for you to look into how best to take care of yourself when your body is maybe undernourished and could use some extra support. And it’s not just what you consume, it’s a good time to do things that make you feel nourished, like spend time with friends and family, have rituals that make you feel taken care of, maybe think of some affirmations that make you feel good, sleep tons and tons.
The furor phase. Two things: I don’t think everyone will go through this. My friend was recently hit by a car while biking and broke both of his femurs, and I don’t think he ever felt any anger about it, because that’s just not his way. He also recovered in record time, blowing everyone’s minds, because science tells us that hope and optimism, after sleep, are the best things for healing. The other thing is, I do think if you enter the furor phase, it’s only fair to let yourself be furious, at least for a certain amount of time. I let mine go on for WAY too long. I actually think I agree in retrospect with that book I mentioned earlier, but I wasn’t ready to hear that yet. Assign yourself a certain amount of time and just let yourself be pissed. Yell and scream about it, be super obnoxious, get it all out, burn it all up. Then move. the fuck. on. I saw another friend go through a long term injury who got stuck in self pity for too long, and that’s not going to help you either. Pity and Anger will prolong your recovery, that is proven, it’s science. No shame about going through these phases, but you MUST move on at some point. That’s coming from someone who really knows, you can sabotage your recovery this way. I tried a variety of types of meditation to help me with stress and attachment, but ultimately I think you just need to soldier on to the next phase.
Feeling the tragedy. You can definitely skip over this one, but I included it because I feel like it’s inevitable that you will do it, even if you’re not trying to. [And it can happen at any time. Currently, the morning after I posted this, I’m mid-tragedy spiral after deep diving Ryan Hall’s IG. There’s more hope now than sadness, but I’m still crying my eyes out]. Like one day you’ll be three hours into a loop of those mini docus that Salomon and North Face and everybody make, and you’ll be soaked and all hoarse from the sobbing and you’ll be like, “Dammit! Why am I doing this to myself?!?” The real worst part of this is isn’t even wallowing, it’s that you’ll get to the end of the Barkley: The Race that Eats its Young or Running for Good or Made to Be Broken or whatever and you’ll get all stoked and inspired and be all, “I’m going to start training for the Barkley!” Then you’ll remember that you can’t, and that will be the worst. THE WORST. [if you can’t help yourself, watch Emelie be the happiest most adorable mtn runner in the world here]
Now this is finally the fun part, when you start looking for other things to work on and use your energy for self betterment and good in ways that hasn’t occurred to you yet. Another thing I did wrong that resulted in tons of suffering and probably prolonged my recovery is, I vehemently believed for at least six months that I was like, almost better and on the verge of being able to start training again and would be back to my normal self any second now. Then I would feel slightly better and be like OMG I CAN HAZ TRAINING! And then I’d feel terrible and realize that was a dumb mistake. Then I’d do it again. This is a difference between injury and OTS, if you have OTS your training will never be the same again, and the sooner you realize that the better. And it doesn’t have to be bad, I’ve come to terms with that I might be healthy enough to train and run hard again some day, but when I get there, it’s going to have to look a lot different. And that’s okay!
So maybe not everyone had their entire identity wrapped up in their running and can use their newfound time to devote it to all their other existing endeavors, work or hobbies or whatever. But I’m guessing that a big part of how you got here is that you were specializing, like I was, and with all my research into specialization psychology and just plain seeing it in my friends, I definitely think finding a healthier connection to your identity and sense of self, and building a life for yourself that’s rich in lots of different things, is going to be how you not only feel better NOW, but prevent this in the future.
I used to be heavy into yoga, and my old teacher would always say, “You are not your body, you are so much more than that.” And it helped me build a healthy identity. Then all sorts of other things happened in my life and I lost that. Say this with me, I am not my running, I am so much more than that. I am not my running, I AM SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. [here’s a fun and related read if you want to get scientific about it that I found by accident] That said, this is the perfect time to find other things you care about and devote some of your energy to getting good at other things. Remember, being the best at something was never going to make you happy anyway, it’s the endeavor that gives you a sense of fulfillment. So what else can you get up to that’s meaningful to you and will help you feel fulfilled?
Play and practice an instrument. This IS the right time to finally learn how to play ukelele or violin or harmonica, and music is a very satisfying hobby that you can see progress in quickly.
Take courses online in basically anything. There’s websites that are totally free, like Khan Academy, and ones that charge you to hop in on actual college courses in exchange for certification like Coursera (you can still audit on Coursera for free), there’s job sector sites like Nonprofit Ready with tons of free courses in fundraising and management and grant writing. I had a multi-month injury a few years back and I wrote a book about Pet Sitting that still sells decently on Kindle, and took a bunch of graphic design courses, and both of those things still serve me regularly.
Start writing your novel, or children’s books, or YA fiction, or blog, or journal, or memoirs, or nonfiction about some obscure snake in the Amazon, or lists of streaming movie or TV recommendations (the world NEEDS more of those) or whatever.
Explore new ways to get involved in your community by volunteering or starting a book club or just spending more time with your friends (safely, OBV). This is a great idea for so many reasons I couldn’t possibly list them all. I’ve been thinking about putting together ski lessons for kids this winter, and maybe some kind of girl-focused outdoorsy nonprofit since we don’t have any of the big name ones here in Ouray, and I’m only just starting to investigate those things but it feels great to be investing my time in something more meaningful than *myself*.
Was this stuff useful? What helped you get through? Calling for comments, let’s get through this together. XO
I was climbing Hope Pass from Clear Creek. I had wanted to put up a hard effort in Missouri Gulch, but while riding my bike from camp to the TH, a Subaru stopped me to ask if I had happened to see their bikes anywhere, or anything related to them getting stolen off their rack in the parking lot while they were hiking. I hadn’t seen anything, and it put a sour taste in my mouth for MO Gulch so I kept riding on to the Sheep TH and hid my bike in the woods there instead.
I could see the top of the pass, I was on that last long switchback, and I was feeling like I really might’ve pushed it so hard that I might actually explode this time when I looked at my watch for my heart rate. I had put on a heart rate monitor today finally, in an effort to find more data that might explain why I felt so bad. I had felt bad for over a month. It read 201. I finished the final steps and collapsed. I had put up a solid time, but at a price. Later that night, I was relaxing and watching TV. My heart rate monitor read 110. Something was really wrong, and I had the evidence now but no actual understanding. This was one year ago.
I actually had a photo from that very night on Hope Pass
Once again, I’ve done a poor job of lightening up this experience and this post is not very funny, but I think it’s important to get more information about OTS out there for anyone who needs it. Check your heart rate, people! It’s preventable.
My first clue was when I arrived in Provo, Utah the day before the Speedgoat. I walked Pippa around the campground and went for a short swim. I was exhausted. After a three week progressive taper. I knew something was wrong then, but it was easy to explain it away. It’s just that heavy feeling after taper, I told myself. I didn’t keep it sharp enough this week. It’s from the drive. I’ll be fine. Once I get started, I’ll be fine. The first steps off the start line, I was exhausted. The first mile ticked by, I was exhausted. I descended and was exhausted. By the time I got to the second big climb, I wanted to give up. I wrote about it after. I said I wasn’t strong enough, that I didn’t train hard enough, that I didn’t want it badly enough and I mentally gave up. I told myself every disparaging thing I could rather than getting curious enough to look into that something was really wrong with my body.
Pip modeling how I felt
This is a common problem with OTS and it’s how it goes so far so fast, that you start underperforming, you start feeling bad, and instead of backing off and looking into what might be wrong, you push harder. You blame yourself. You train harder, you try to dig deeper. Is that cultural? Dig deeper, dig deeper. Show your soul. What are you really made of? I am made of blood and bone and skin and muscles controlled by a failing nervous system, but I don’t bother to look into it, because the only reason I could fail is that I didn’t try hard enough.
Random picture from this year actually
Shadow Mountain, I did some running in the Tetons in ’19 but a lot of biking to get Pips out
I went back to Leadville and tried to run twice a week. I was aware that I wasn’t recovering between runs, and I guess I thought that would be enough time to make it up. It wasn’t. I felt worse every day, whether I ran or not. One day, I slept all day and woke up in the afternoon at like 3pm, I saw my sister had texted and I started tapping out a response, but I couldn’t hold my phone up with my arm long enough. I collapsed back onto the couch and slept through till the next morning. I hadn’t learned the difference yet between like, tired from running versus full body fatigue. Fatigue makes your fingernails and your ears feel tingley and brutally exhausted, along with every other piece of your body. I put a heart rate monitor on.
When I got back that night from my Hope Pass run, I pulled out Training for the New Alpinism. There was something in there, I knew it, I had read it, about heart rates and if your heart rate won’t go down between runs. What was it? “Avoid this at all costs, you will lose everything.” It said. I would eventually get confirmation, but I knew it the moment I read it and reread it and reread it. The parasympathetic nervous system symptoms, the heart rate, the sleeping, the depression, the underperforming. He said overtrained runners would try to compensate for their underperformance by training harder and pushing more. He ain’t kidding.
Nez Perce and the South Teton group from the lower saddle
Later I would learn about the hormone production imbalances, particularly that I would have no cortisol in my body, then suddenly my adrenal system would just dump it and my heart would rush like it was really going to explode and I would suddenly feel this whole body tightness. And what a relief to find out what was happening because it happened for about the first three months and it was TERRIFYING! I would be watching a rom com and suddenly my heart rate is 185, and it comes on like a wave in your whole body. Like something is definitively happening, but wtf is it?
Hope Pass was my last run until November, I think it was. Steve House said the only cure is complete rest until your nervous system sort of resets itself and everyone and everything else I could find agreed. It was hard to believe I might ever feel better. I would wake up every morning and my resting heart rate was in the 90s, then the 80s for a while, then eventually got stuck in the 70s. After a few months, it got back down to the low 60s, and that was around the same time the other symptoms started going away. I could feel the depression leave like an evil spirit peeling out of my body.
Looking for pictures for this, I realized before I was fully better I tried to go ice climbing bc Lincoln Falls was in on Oct 15th. The 500ft hike up just about killed me, but the morale boost was probably worth it (photo by Chris Jewell)
I progressively slept and ate less, [inflated appetite was also a symptom, and since I was filling in at the coffee shop during that time, I had no shortage of quiche and scones available]. After a couple months, I was basically eating and sleeping like a regular person, even dipping below eight hours naturally sometimes. The full body fatigue went from being constant and pervasive to in and out, and that would continue for another six months or so, fatigue being a definite signal that I had overdone it either physically or stress-wise.
I say I was on complete rest, but I was walking and biking w/ Pip still to get her out, just taking it EXTREMELY easy and only a couple miles here and there.
I had read things that had hinted that you would wake up one day and feel better. I had been tracking my symptoms and noting such significant improvement, then one day in November I did wake up and feel better. They say to stay on complete rest until you suddenly have the strong desire to go out and do something, and I did suddenly have the desire. I went for a short, easy skate ski. It was amazing to move again. A song came on by Tokyo Police Club that I’d never heard before, “And I’m still amazed you made it out alive, after what you did / It’s good to be back, it’s good to be back, it’s good to be back.”
There was a fox running alongside the road. Trotting, really. The perfect combination of spry and delighted, wiry and self satisfied. He was incredibly glossy, his fur rippling against the sunlight like a shampoo commercial. He carried a dead vole. His eyes twinkled. I swear he smirked when he caught us checking him out. At that moment, he caught wind of another prey. He discarded the vole and dove into the forest in pursuit, limitless.
I am not strong anymore. I think about it all the time: what it felt like, to feel powerful. To know you could go anywhere, and fast. To believe I was limitless. I wrote down affirmations after I read Deena Kastor’s book, and Kara Goucher’s. I am powerful. I am fast. I still don’t believe them. I keep telling myself that every time OTS pushes me back down and I fight to stand up again, to run again, that it’s making me in stronger in a different way. That when I am recovered, I’ll be stronger than ever. I do believe that.
me on Teewinot
The other day I really overdid it. We went for a run up to Alaska Basin, hoping to see the west side of the Tetons and Ice Lake. It was inspiring to be on new terrain, a new trail. It was beautiful. Mostly, I’m grateful that I can do things again. That I can dig in, blow past people, climb. I splash water on my face and arms to cool off, I watch Pippa cavort. Pip is full of delight, even when she’s tired. I started feeling really bad at the end of the climb. I’ve noticed that it’s right around 2,500 feet of climbing that the fatigue begins to be overwhelming. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started heading down. Usually, I can go down okay, but that day the fatigue was pervasive. I shuffled back and laid down, barely able to lift my arms.
Two days earlier, we climbed the Middle Teton. I was uncharacteristically spry after a week of Grand Teton recovery. Some days when I’m fully recovered, I get a hint of what it used to feel like to blaze up a trail. To push, to even have another gear. It never lasts past 2,500 feet. But after that, I can feel the fatigue in my whole body but I can keep going, slowly. When it takes us three and a half hours to reach the saddle between Middle and South, I’m still disappointed in myself. Even though I understood that of course I’m not strong like I used to be, I haven’t been able to train properly. And I’m so grateful that I’ve come this far, to even be able to climb 6,000 feet, to do a 16 mile day. That I can stand on top of something. I downclimbed quickly and gracefully. When I reached the trail, I nearly sprinted the last four miles. I felt fast. I cavorted. I was full of delight. Then I paid for it.
The last time I climbed the Grand Teton was two years ago. I remember it being just hard enough sometimes to keep it interesting. I remember the exposure being extreme, the climbing beautiful, the downclimb long and exhausting. In 24 hours I climbed the Middle Teton and the Grand, then two days later I raced Rendezvous and got fourth, then attempted the Grand the next morning. It feels amazing to think I could do that. This year, it took a week for me to recover from the Grand. I also really struggled on the Exum Ridge. I was scared of everything. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not something people tell you about OTS, that you can’t process fear very well. It’s because it’s all tied into your nervous and adrenal systems. With the slightest bit of stress on my system, it floods with cortisol. It was surreal, to do something I’ve done before, something I found easy the first time, but this time to feel scared. It’s illogical.
Top of the World
I suppose the silver lining is that I still was able to do it. I do believe that the positive that comes out of this is mental strength, resiliency. Forgiveness. Nourishment. Priorities. So much more knowledge about my body. This year in the Tetons, I haven’t been able to do as much as I wanted but I still got to do a lot. I made great strides in downclimbing, in skill and comfort level. That was obvious even on our first summit of this trip, Teewinot. I got a lot better at mountain biking, and particularly at taking risks. I’ve learned that single minded devotion isn’t always a good thing, and that if you can lose everything so easily, you should’ve had a lot more to lose. And I think I do now.
Tim coming down Middle
I was really worried feeling so bad on Saturday after Alaska Basin, but my heart rate variability returned the next morning, and my heart rate’s been going down steadily each day since. It was under 60 this morning. Taking a deep dive into understanding the science of recovery and owning all these tools to evaluate it in myself will be infinitely valuable when I can actually train again. For now, I check my heart rate, I drink more water, I take supplements prescribed by my acupuncturist, and I binge on OTS success stories, people who recovered and came back stronger than ever. We named that fox in Teton Canyon Cass, after Quentin Cassidy. As disappointing as it can be sometimes, in equal measure I am full of hope.