A month ago I would have told you that things were going well. I was self-coached and training harder than ever, spurred on by a successful 2012 triathlon season and ambitions for next year. I hadn’t let up after race season, but that wasn’t a concern since I never really take downtime. I was carrying a lot of fatigue and felt off, but that was to be expected given the training I was doing.
Just to be safe, I decided to get a comprehensive blood test. A week later I got a call from the doctor’s office. My hormonal profile was a giant red flag, my iron stores were depleted and some other blood markers were scraping the limits of acceptable ranges. Hardly what you’d expect from a highly fit 22-year-old. But, as my case and many others illustrate, fitness and health (both physical and mental) are not synonymous. Some even argue that the former comes at the expense of the latter for competitive endurance athletes.
The results were disturbing, but not altogether unexpected. At some level, I had known that things were amiss. But it’s easy to suppress concerns and ignore even the most obvious warning signs, especially coming off a string of successes. Seeing the cold, hard numbers—irrefutable evidence of a problem—really cut through the denial and drove the message home. Like a runner collapsing across the finish line, I finally succumbed to the cumulative fatigue.
Overzealous training (“overreaching”) is usually checked by injury, illness or psychological burnout which impose recovery and prevent more serious damage (“overtraining”). They’re like the body’s last-ditch defense mechanisms. I am fortunate to have a very durable body, a strong immune system and consistent motivation to train hard (or compulsion—the distinction is subtle). This combination is both an asset and a liability. It has helped me achieve positive results, but it also enabled me to push myself to the point of overtraining.
My condition wasn’t simply the result of a week or two of overreaching in training, nor could the damage be undone that quickly; it was the result of long-term stresses and behavioural patterns that gradually exhausted my reserves. I am finally listening to my body and taking some long overdue downtime. After over a month of rest and light training, I’m getting back on track, but I still have some pretty rough days.
It’s unfortunate that it took a minor health crisis to jolt me into reality, but I am fortunate to have had a relatively early wake up call. Many athletes have gone much further down this self-destructive path.
I have also taken a very critical look at my training, attitude, behaviour and lifestyle. I have identified several factors that brought me to this point:
- Training stress: unstructured/random training with high monotony and poor scheduling of high intensity sessions
- Recovery: inadequate rest/downtime, little periodization, chronic insomnia
- Nutrition and fueling: possible dietary insufficiencies, under-fueling workouts, chronic low body weight/fat
- Psychological factors: compulsive exercise, perfectionist tendencies, poor management of stress and depression (especially during my undergrad)
It’s difficult to separate causes from effects. Many of these factors are interrelated and have compounding effects. I would like to share more about my experience in upcoming posts, in part as self-therapy, and in part that others may learn from my mistakes.
While this is a setback, it is also a necessary learning experience. It is now painfully obvious that I have been performing below my potential for a long time, not just athletically, but in other aspects of life. With this realization comes disappointment, but also excitement for the future. I can do better, be better.
Respect your limits and be kind to yourself,
Update (9 months later): How have I been doing? Check out this series of posts that describes how I’ve been systematically addressing my performance limiters:
- Training: Lessons from Overtraining: Microcycles, Macro Mistakes
- Stress: Monitoring and Managing Stress: A Simple System for Athletes
- Weight: Fatter & Faster? Finding My Racing Weight
- Sleep: How I Kicked Chronic Insomnia: Part I & Part II
- Mental health: The Perfectionist & the Elephant in the Room