Push yourself too hard and Ironman over training syndrome could end your career.
It would probably be not far off the mark to state that a good majority of endurance athletes suffer from obsessive/compulsive behavior of varying degrees.
Instead of succumbing to drug or alcohol addiction they channel their obsessiveness into endurance sports. I like to think of it as creative compulsions.
Take Lionel Sanders of Canada for instance. At one time he battled alcohol and drug addiction and then stumbled onto this event called Ironman. He decided to give it a try and the results were astounding.
Ultimately he set an Ironman world record in Ironman Arizona 2016 when he posted a time of 7:44:29.
However we are not all blessed with the same level of ability and talent.
Basically triathletes who have compulsive tendencies have Type A personalities on steroids. They live in a world of constant motion and they chase a finish line they will never reach. They never truly reach it because they keep setting the bar higher.
Clock a sub three hour marathon, bike further and faster, set personal bests, win your Ironman age-group. Train, train, train.
Rest becomes an afterthought and inconvenience. You attain a level of fitness that’s simply amazing and you want more. It’s almost like you push yourself to the outer limits of your ability because you have convinced yourself that your body will never break. It will never say enough.
This way of thinking is the fast track to Ironman over training syndrome. Your body will break and eventually it will say enough. When it happens it can be catastrophic.
Renowned South African exercise-science professor Timothy Noakes wrote in detail about the condition in The Lore of Running. Published in 1985, it’s one of the few books athletes with OTS have as a reference. The runners Noakes examined had pushed themselves to a point at which their bodies—and, more perplexingly, their minds—had simply stopped responding. As a result, they suffered everything from “generalized fatigue” and “recurrent headaches” to “an inability to relax, listlessness,” and “the swelling of lymph glands.”
When you think about it, it’s not really all that complicated. Over training syndrome happens when your body never gets rest. Normally you train and rest.
When you train your heart races and blood is channeled to the organs that are being stressed. Your system has a counter-balance. After a hard workout your heart rate and blood flow return to normal when you rest. However if you train and then train some more and leave rest out of the equation and suffer from OTS this re-balancing doesn’t occur and things start to go haywire.
Once you get to this state it can take weeks, months, or even several years to return to normal. Some athletes never return to normal and their careers are effectively over.
HOW DO YOU TELL IF YOU SUFFER FROM IRONMAN OVER TRAINING SYNDROME?
- When you do decide to rest it doesn’t seem to help. You still feel tired. You’re tired all the time.
- Your race results get worse instead of better.
- Your muscles are weak and tired all the time.
- You have pain in your joints.
- You have headaches, sore throat, and always seem to have a cold.
That’s just the beginning. Those are just some of the early warning signs. It gets worse from there if you don’t start including rest into your training program on a regular basis.
I try and make it a point not to write about something I have never actually experienced myself. My Ironman career ended 13 years ago. For the longest time I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I know now that I have a severe case of Over training syndrome and there is no cure as far as I know.
From the first day I took up running I was obsessed. At that point I had never heard of triathlon. I ran 100 mile weeks all the time. One year I ran every day except for Christmas Day. Yes, I ran 364 days. My rest days were easy five mile runs. My distance days were anywhere from 3-5 hours. Complete rest was never in the equation.
I documented run training weeks that were 150 miles. I often ran twice a day. Obsessed may not be a strong enough word for it. Possessed would be a better description. Something deep in my psyche was driving me to push the outer boundaries of my physical capabilities.
Then the Ironman happened. Initially like most novice Ironman triathletes I just wanted to finish. After realizing that goal I wanted to finish faster. It was a never-ending quest. Soon I was an age-group triathlete training harder than Olympic athletes. They knew enough to rest. I didn’t.
The final straw was the year I was making the big push to be at or near the top of my age-group in Ironman Canada in Penticton. I had gone 10:46 and thought if I trained as hard as humanly possible I could get near the ten hour mark.
Five days a week I did interval training in the swim, bike, and run. On the sixth day I did distance. I lifted weights three times a week. I took one rest day and then did it all over again. At one point in those desperate days of training to exhaustion I went three weeks with no rest day.
One day I did 30 run repeats. Ninety seconds at 75% of effort–thirty seconds rest….repeat 30 times. Then I went to the pool and did twenty 100 meter repeats. Then I went home and got on my bike and did twenty 90 second repeats with 30 second rests on my wind-trainer. Then I went to work.
My full time job involved heavy, constant lifting. I was fifty and was outworking twenty year old co-workers. I was as driven at work as I was with my training yet I never considered work part of the equation when it came to burning energy and stressing my body. I was under physical duress for around 12 hours every day.
I went to my Ironman race that I’d trained insanely hard for and the Wednesday before the race I couldn’t sleep. The same thing happened Thursday, Friday, and Saturday–the eve of the race. I had never had insomnia in my life until that week. When the gun went off I was already on empty. I had about eight hours rem sleep in four days. I pulled myself out of the race 2km into the run. It was a miracle I made it that far.
That was 2002 and I have had insomnia ever since and without a sleeping pill can’t sleep more than an hour or two at a time.
It still never dawned on me what was wrong. I kept trying to train but I was always tired. I did two more Ironman races and they were both disasters.
CASCADING EFFECT OF IRONMAN OVER TRAINING SYNDROME
Finally I had no recourse but to leave the sport I loved. Everything started to break down.
Here is what I deal with now. It was a complete physical breakdown.
- Tinitus in one ear
- Microscopic Colitis
- Chronic Fatigue
- Blurry vision
- Tingling sensation in face and arms
- Constant headaches
- Muscle soreness
- Very poor circulation leading to blood clots
For the longest time I thought it was all these different diseases and symptoms that were taking away my energy and ability to train and race. But it was the other way around. I had it backwards and realize now that it was the training and racing with inadequate rest that caused this cascading physical meltdown.
I didn’t realize some 15 years ago that I was a victim of Ironman Over Training Syndrome. It’s extremely frustrating because for all intents and purposes I look normal and healthy. As a matter of fact my body weight is exactly the same as it was in 1984 when I did my first Ironman.
Doctors don’t have an answer. There are no drugs they can prescribe to cure Ironman over training syndrome, so they’re lost. Instead they treat the symptoms. I kept going to my doctor and specialists trying to find out what was wrong with me. All the tests came back negative. “Things are great!” my doctor said. No they weren’t. Things were a million freaking miles from great.
It’s tiresome trying to make people understand just how bad I feel pretty much all of the time. I have found it easier to just withdraw from people and stick to myself. I don’t have relationships of any kind because I don’t have the energy to do anything and I’m tired of trying to explain myself. Most likely there are people who wonder what has become of me.
There are people in the world who understand what’s happening, but they are few and far between.
David Nieman, former vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine once said, “OTS is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my 30 plus years of working with athletes. To watch someone go from that degree of proficiency to a shell of their former self is unbelievably painful and frustrating.”
I still try and run. It takes everything I have to run at a slow pace for 30 minutes and it often takes two days to recover. Hard to believe there was a time I ran over 30 marathons, two 50 mile races, finished 11 Ironman Triathlons, and clocked a 35:30 10K.
I think it was critically important to write this article. If nothing else I hope it inspires someone out there to take it to heart and begin to incorporate more rest time into their training program and avoid Ironman over training syndrome.
There has been considerable evidence published that reducing the volume of your training for up to three weeks will not decrease performance. If need be take an entire week off from training. Take a year off from the Ironman and do shorter races. Listen to those early warning signs of Ironman over training syndrome and make adjustments to your training.
That’s how you will get faster and that’s how you will have a healthy lifestyle for years to come.
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