Overtraining Syndrome seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. I have seen quite a few posts on what people are calling “overtraining” on social media, but what they are really talking about is “training too much” or “over-exercising”. I assure you that this is not the same thing and understanding the difference could actually change your life.
Training too much or over-exercising can certainly make a mess. You might get sick, suffer an injury, experience fatigue, have irregular or painful periods, lose your period entirely, feel mentally and emotionally distressed, and have GI issues. You might get food cravings, start to notice weight gain, get bloated from water retention, lose your appetite, and start jacking up caffeine intake.
If this is where you are, make no mistake, this is a good thing. You need to rest, take time off, decrease training load in volume and intensity, pay attention to your diet, and get more sleep. You might need to reschedule the next few weeks or even the next couple of months. I know you feel terrible now, but this is the “good” kind of terrible. It will make you smarter. Take the lesson learned, and put it into practice.
Don’t be stupid and keep going. Trust me, you don’t want to go where “stupid” will take you.
Overtraining Syndrome is a serious, end-stage condition of neurological and hormonal exhaustion. As I always say, if you feel like you might be pushing too hard, that’s probably “training too much”. If you feel like exercise is not the problem and that you might actually be dying, that’s probably OTS. It may sound dramatic, but people who seek medical attention in this stage are typically convinced that they have Addison’s disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or even cancer.
OTS is not remedied by taking a few weeks or months off. OTS does not relent once you start feeling a bit better. It is the deepest, darkest hole of exhaustion and pain...and you are holding the shovel.
When I was at my worst, I could not do much more than lie in bed with a fever, my legs hurting so badly that I couldn’t get any sleep. I retained so much water that none of my clothing fit. Going up stairs was excruciating, with sharp pains stabbing into my quadriceps. Exhaustion felt like an anvil on my head, heavy and sharp. Blood sugar fluctuations had me shaking, dizzy, waking up in the middle of the night, losing my bearings while driving, and swinging from mood to mood. My appetite, once blunted by an excess of stress hormones, woke up and became a hunter. It chased me relentlessly, day and night.
I had gastrointestinal problems, hair loss, peeling nails, amenorrhea, and night sweats. I had no libido, a short fuse, and swollen extremities. I would slur my words if my blood sugar got too low and not be able to read for more than five minutes at a time. I was emotional, bitchy, angry, depressed. I thought I was sick. I thought I was fine. I kept running...until I literally could not.
I even thought I recovered with three months of rest. I tried to come back, but dug the hole deeper. Now, almost two years into this journey, I am still not sure that I am fully recovered.
In case you’re wondering, OTS is not something that someone can help you fix with just a special diet, certain training plans, herbs, or heart rate monitors. You are not “cured” when your heart rate returns to a certain number, when you sleep for a week without sweats, or even when you first get your period back.
Recovery is about self-reflection, behavioral change, and developing a sense of balance. If you are not able to understand how you got into this hole, you’ll never get out.
So, please do not confuse the casual term “overtraining” with OTS. This is not a special club that you want to gain entry into. This is not something that you want to be sheepishly proud of. This is not a sign that you are really serious.
For me, OTS is proof that something inside me needed to be heard, but I did not listen. I am listening now.