Overtraining Syndrome Can Shut Down Your Body

Nieman said he’s watched the same thing happen again and again and again to athletes, including one of his best friends, an ultrarunner who “became like an old arthritic man” after getting sick and racing anyway. “He was a tremendous athlete,” Nieman said. “That’s a scary thing, to see a high-functioning human reduced to this level, and then they can’t recover despite everything, is terrible to see.”

But why do we get ourselves to this point? Both Farris and Nieman said that athletes (specifically ultrarunners) have an inexplicable desire to push themselves. We ignore pain and discomfort, persevering in order to achieve the end goal, no matter what else is going on in our lives.

“How do you start to tell people that you have to be aware that the body is [giving] you signals?” Farris asked. “Most people with OTS are so mentally tough they will fight through anything, and they get so far down the road that they’re in real trouble and can’t get back.”

​​Another factor, Nieman said, is “zeal,” especially in the US, where we push ourselves relentlessly to become the best. “I know a lot about the body. I pushed mine as hard as I could,” he told me. “There has to be a level of acceptance here in who we are. People push too much and have unrealistic expectations of what they can do.”

Their answers hit me hard. Still, I knew better. I’d ignored information and warnings from trainers, therapists, fellow runners, and my own body, for years. When I was told I needed to slow down, rest, sleep, I refused to listen.

It’s really hard to change the speed of your intrinsic engine. My father told me that I have always been this way. When I was 2, he said, I was already “everywhere.” When other toddlers were chilling during mommy-and-me time, I was scaling the furniture and “blowing past all the boys” to get to the jungle gym. I’d get on the monkey bars and “go back and forth over and over,” my dad recalled. “You never wanted let go or stop.”

And when you’ve poured so much of your time and heart into a passion, it’s hard to see that you’re going too deep and pull back. And as an ultrarunner, although I am in tune with my body, I’m also used to ignoring its complaints at mile 45 or 80 of a race when it’s tired or hurting.

But now my body has commanded my attention, and I am trying my best to listen. This experience has forced me to finally examine myself. I have never been the best at self-care. I am learning that it takes strength to be still, to admit you cannot do everything all at once, and love yourself enough to heal from what your body has been through.

And when my wheels came off, I had to sit in the shit for a while before I could move forward. To get better, I had to learn how to unhustle. I burrowed. I canceled races and most of my plans, shelved this year’s goals, and retreated. I felt like my zest for life had completely evaporated. I stayed in most nights and spent a lot of time by myself.

It sounds obvious and easy, but it was like coming off a drug. My body is used to running 12 to 18 hours every week, and it’s how I see and catch up with most of my close friends. Running fuels me physically, socially, and spiritually. Losing that during a time when I was so depressed made the mental heaviness even more difficult.

But it made me be more honest with myself about why I felt the need to perform and achieve. A lot of that has to do with reframing what it means to be successful, reexamining this narrow way in which we measure self-worth. I also had to accept that I was living in a swollen, exhausted body that felt foreign and uncomfortable. I had to resist my urges to try to restrict it back into order, to not fall back into old self-destructive eating habits. Most of the time I succeeded; some days I did not. I cried a lot. I spiraled because I didn’t know how I could get back to who I was before it. But I kept — and am still — trying. I wrote “temporary” on Post-It notes in capital letters and stuck them on my mirrors. That word has become my rock.

I have started working more closely with a therapist and nutritionist. I am lucky I can take on the cost, and I knew I had to prioritize it. I found myself reaching out to people I normally would not look to for help, like my mom, whom I spent my whole life trying not to be like and who’s now supporting me as I try to reprogram myself.

It’s been a hard, scary, and lonely process, but a necessary one. And it’s working. The heaviness that had become a mainstay in my brain is ebbing. I am feeling lighter, like I can be silly and laugh like I used to. I’m sleeping much better. I don’t wake up as often feeling empty, numb, and unmotivated. I realized how much I missed my friends, and being out in the world and part of it. And though I’m not quite ready to jump back into it yet, it feels good to have that desire.

I’m also rebuilding myself as a runner, one week at a time. So far, so good. My cortisol levels are back to normal, and my iron levels are the highest they’ve ever been. My hormones are closer to being balanced than they have in years. My skin is starting to feel like mine again and when I look in the mirror, I can recognize the eyes staring back. But I still have more work to do. I have to unwind a lot of deeply ingrained beliefs and habits. And I have to be patient (another thing I’m working on).

My greatest fear, when I felt so lost and desperate, hyperventilating in my mom’s arms, was about never being the same, not being able to return to the body and person I used to be. That thought was terrifying, but it came true. I’m not the same. My burnout has left some marks, and that’s good. They’re reminders that this body is a living thing. It hurts and needs just like everyone else’s, but it is mine. And it will carry me through, but I have to carry it, too. ●

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