Overtraining: The first few months

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

I arrived in Jackson and I didn’t want to run. I was depressed. I assumed it was because I failed at Speedgoat, coming in 10th. It is not a natural state for me. Actually, depression is a symptom. I slept 12 hours every night, also a symptom. [bingeing Netflix and Lofthouse cookies is not a symptom though, it’s an American pastime] I half heartedly tried to train, but I felt so bad. I raced Rendezvous and slipped back to 8th, running five minutes slower than the previous year. I felt like I was losing my gears, like I couldn’t push. Like an ’89 trying to drive up Teton Pass. I had run 1,400 miles in 2019 by the end of July, and I thought I still must be undertrained.

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.”

It’s good to be back, says Pippa

Cass, Hope, & Tetons

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 teewinot

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.

g0161845_1596764168519

Middle Teton

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.

1596764473272

Exum Ridge

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.

gopr1722_1596208328205

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.

gopr1736_1596208109272

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.

 

gopr1742_1596764253014

Middle

Overtraining Syndrome: I lost everything, but I gained more

“The winner is never determined by better muscle tone or better shoes. No, the winner is determined by what’s in the heart and what’s in the soul.” BULL SHIT. I’m doing this file for work and this random guy says that about when Usain Bolt won the 100 meter in the London Olympics in 2012 and typing that out just pushed me right over the edge.

You win races by being perfectly trained, I don’t know much but I know that. Leading with your heart is how you end up overtrained and 10 months out, here I am, lying around because I rode my bike twice this week and I’m too tired to do anything else. And honestly, as far as I’ve come mentally being more positive and accepting the situation and my body and trying to take better care of my self and the hundreds of hours I’ve spent trying to better understand physiology (because I have come SUCH A LONG WAY), some days it still feels like garbage because the only thing I want to do is train.

 

It is not work ethic that’s keeping me in bed. It’s not heart. When my legs are still fatigued and my heart rate is still elevated, like it is right now, if I try to go for an easy jog I’ll start to feel dizzy and get these weird heart rate rushes that I don’t totally understand but I’m fairly sure it has something to do with my adrenal system failing to regulate cortisol. And the only thing I can do is fully rest until the fatigue passes and my heart rate goes back down. I don’t recommend using this time to find out exactly how bad the Atlas Shrugged movies are. They are so bad.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0830.

Mostly pictures from July & August ’19, when I had OTS and didn’t know it yet. Tetons! I didn’t climb a lot of mountains on this Tetons trip because I was so tired

Don’t fucking tell me that what a great athlete has is heart. What they actually have is a coach that organized and scheduled their training and recovery carefully to maximize gains without pushing their muscles and cardiovascular system and eventually their nervous system too hard and thus causing it to unravel. And there’s my rant. Don’t worry, I am angry sometimes still but I’ve done so much to learn about why this happened and find good things that have come out of this, too.

trt

Did a lot of biking to get Pips out

One of my big complaints during this process is that nobody talks about it. It’s so hard to find useful information. (It is so validating when you do though, like when I found this old article https://www.outsideonline.com/1986361/running-empty), or when I was listening to that recovery book Good to Go on audiobook and they talked very briefly about Ryan Hall and his coach and the stages of recovery. I had previously found the most info about the complete rest stage, and that you’ll know when you’re ready to come back. But six months into recovery, I was still really struggling as I tried to ramp up my mileage because I didn’t yet know that for the next six months or so I could train but I’d have to restrict volume by a lot. That was also the first time I heard that the one year mark is the typical time frame for a full parasympathetic OTS recovery.

 

DCIM100GOPROG0031035.

Me and Pips on Missouri in August last year

Anyway, but then, as numerous people have pointed out to me, I haven’t written about it either. And I’ve really tried. I’ve written about it in multiple stages then not shared them with anyone. I actually think it was a big step when I started alluding to the fact I had OTS on Strava. I guess I kept thinking that one day, I would have this big turnaround. One of the posts I wrote and never published, I re-read it and realized that it’s so overwhelmingly negative still, and I thought, I have to wait until it’s all positive. But it’s not all positive and it probably never will be! It’s good and bad, like everything else. But I just had this thought today, if I write about it, even when it’s not pretty or funny or inspiring yet, I’m doing my part to change the lack of information and stigma about OTS. I think about what a relief it was when I was able to dig up each small piece of information I’ve even been able to find. More information is better.

img_20200604_132207

Elbert

July 4th was the one year anniversary of when I’m sure I had OTS (although I wouldn’t figure it out until September). I can remember feeling good after Broken Arrow in late June, I ran a good time (6:28) but wished I could’ve placed better (14), and thinking all I had to do was work my ass off for a couple weeks until I tapered for Speedgoat. I drove straight through to Leadville and jumped back into big days of mountain runs immediately, pushing hard. I was doing 4,300-8,000 feet in 9 to 20 miles every day that first week and feeling worse and worse by the moment, until I could barely stagger into the coffee shop and complain “I am so exhausted. The altitude is killing me.”

Because just like every other runner who’s had OTS, I was already in the spiral and every day I didn’t perform the way I wanted, I had to push harder the next day. And I had no concept of OTS. My friend responded to my plight, “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it?” Gosh I think my dad said it, too, and he didn’t even see me. But I couldn’t have understood what overdoing it meant at that point. Because people who have a lot of heart believe that whoever works the hardest is the best.

So I kept pushing and pushing. I do think the high altitude was a factor, it’s a big physical stressor on your body and on your nervous system, I understand how all that works much better now. Steve House says in Training for the New Alpinism to rate your workouts A-D to prevent OTS (he also says to prevent it at all costs, because OTS will make you lose everything, which was how I felt for a long time). A if you felt great, B if you felt good but not great, C for you felt bad, and D if you had to stop the workout early because you couldn’t physically complete it. Every workout was a D. With the combination of all the things, I was literally running myself into the ground.

g0131571_1594326307794

Got tired of cycling photos back a year, this is recently on our way to Hayden

To top it off, on July 4th, despite feeling constantly exhausted and just having done an 85 mile week with 30,000’ of climbing, I got up in the morning and left for the Hope Epic Zombie Loop (the one thing that wasn’t highly physically and mentally stressful about that was the Cranberries song). I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t too late before the Zombie loop, that maybe I could’ve recovered if I had caught it then, but looking back, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back (or the heinous 50 mile high altitude loop that broke my nervous system). From then on, I would feel exhausted every day until at least mid November and often after that, no matter how much I rested, and I did start complete rest in September.

screenshot_20190706-100341

The map before my watch died of the Zombie loop

 

I raced two more times and kept running despite feeing bad and having 0 motivation (depression and loss of motivation are also symptoms), but even taking more and more recovery, I was feeling worse and worse and worse and I knew something was wrong. In September I finally thought to start monitoring my heart rate. I put a hard effort on Hope Pass and my HR went over 200. I left the chest strap on and monitored my heart rate 24 hours a day for the next few days and realized that my HR rarely went below 90, even first thing in the morning. This is the key to catching OTS that I figured out too late, if you monitor your heart rate even fairly regularly, you will see that it’s not going down and know that you need to rest. I can’t emphasize that enough, check your heart rate!!! You can take 30 seconds to check your heart rate.

One of the best things I’ve learned from all this is how integral your nervous system is to literally everything you do. On our bike ride yesterday, Ang was telling me about how your brain uses sensory cues to start the digestion process. And I added some stuff I’ve learned about the Central Governor theory, about how your brain decides how much anaerobic capacity you can use and how many muscle fibers you can recruit based on all sorts of factors, like how much longer you have to go and how important it is to you. Totally fascinating stuff. Actually, just in typing this I’m realizing that I was not ever going to write one perfect post that sums up my whole OTS experience, because it’s so much bigger than that. I needed to jump, and now I can begin the process of sorting through all the amazing things that have happened and that I’ve learned since then.

img_20200611_152411_01

Me on Engineer taken by my sister 

Here’s a few more things I did find to read that helped me a lot:

Geoff Roes’ perspective: https://www.irunfar.com/2013/04/one-story-of-overtraining.html

Scientific Info from studies done by NIH:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3435910/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5019445/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23667795/

An easier to follow scientific breakdown of OTS:

The overtraining syndrome