If you’ve been able to catch some of our nation’s Olympic athletes in action — either in the Tokyo games or the Olympic Trials — you’ve undoubtedly been inspired by their lifetime quest to go Faster, Higher, Stronger (the Olympic motto).
But the extra year of training — and what a year it’s been! — has put an additional strain on athletes who typically train in 4-year cycles. In addition to the extra 12 months of training, factors like a pandemic, racial tension, and political clashes have added to the emotional stress of training one. more. year. Olympic swim champion Simone Manuel made headlines when she didn’t qualify for Team USA in the event she had won in Rio in 2016. Her reason? She had to take 3 weeks off in April for “Overtraining Syndrome,” or OTS.
Wait, what? Is that a thing? Yes, it is — and always has been, but outside of training circles, it’s simply known as “burnout.” It’s a mental and physical one-two punch that commonly results in constant exhaustion, loss of motivation, and decreased appetite. And honestly, most of us will never reach that point of training — but if you suddenly decide to overdo your routine to train for something you really aren’t ready for, it can become a reality.
Manuel talked about getting exhausted just walking up stairs, and getting slower and slower in the water despite consistent training. She suffered insomnia, depression, anxiety, chronic soreness, and spikes in her heart rate in training — all classic symptoms. She said there were days she didn’t want to go to the pool.
“It’s not just your physical stress. It’s emotional stress and it physiologically overcomes your ability to recover,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, a Novant Health Family and Sports Medicine Specialist at Novant Health Cotswold Medical Clinic. “If you’re in a period of heavy training and also in an emotionally stressful time, it can tip you over the edge.”
He says these two factors — heavy training and heavy emotional stress – can also contribute to a third factor in OTS – lack of sleep. Without enough sleep, your body can’t recover and the downward spiral gets worse. There’s no blood test for it – the symptoms tell the story.
Dr. Anderson is the Medical Director for the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon and has served on medical teams for the Ironman World Championships and Olympics, in addition to other world-class events. Even at that level, he says he doesn’t see more than a few cases of Overtraining Syndrome a year.
“It’s not your average Joe. Most often, it’s collegiate or pro athletes,” he says. “It’s not often people with a 9-5 job and training for a marathon, who train 30-40 miles a week.”
If your muscles get unusually sore and you can’t shake the fatigue of workouts, Dr. Anderson says you’re more likely suffering from “overreaching” – which is literally what it sounds like. Your body needs rest that it’s not getting. Here are his suggestions:
1. Back off for a few days. Sometimes giving yourself permission to take it easy is the stress reducer you need. Back off the intensity of workouts, or even skip a few days altogether to give muscles time to heal.
2. Go to bed sooner. Turn off the TV, put away the phone (social media, late work emails), and put down the chores. Extra sleep could be just what the doctor ordered. If you’re wired to stay awake, crash on the couch or try sleeping in for a couple of days instead of rising before the sun to get that early morning workout.
“It’s the best way to push back against overtraining,” says Dr. Anderson. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water (instead of coffee or alcohol), and eat good healthy foods with a strong balance of fruits and vegetables. Cherries, avocados, sweet potatoes, and chia seeds all heal broken down muscles.
3. Check your goals. Do you want to just finish a marathon, or win it? Overtraining is far more likely in the person who pushes themselves to be elite. If you’re training for a marathon, cross-training and doing less than 50 miles per week, you may be overreaching instead of overtraining.
“For the vast majority of people, that’s enough to reset things,” says Dr. Anderson. “With a couple of extra days of rest, they’ll reset and do fine.” If, on the other hand, a few weeks away from training still doesn’t help, it’s time to see a doctor. Continuing to push injured muscles can result in an injury.
“If your body is not recovering, you could end up with a stress fracture or torn muscle,” he says. “You may end up with something that keeps you out much longer.”
So stay in tune with your body, and listen to what it’s telling you. It’s okay not to be Faster, Higher, Stronger every day if you’re getting lower, slower, and more exhausted. It’s okay to take a break.