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Running on Empty: My Struggle with Overtraining Syndrome

Updated: May 6

If you're reading this, you might already suspect that something's off with your training. Maybe you've noticed that you've been stuck on a performance plateau for several seasons, or that your performance has actually worsened despite training as hard, or harder, than ever before. I've been there, and I know the frustration. It can take years to figure out what's wrong—as it did in my case. Overtraining syndrome is tough to diagnose and even tougher to treat. To make matters worse, the doctors you see might not specialize in sports medicine, and they often run out of tests to send you for after everything comes back normal. Overtraining syndrome is typically a diagnosis of exclusion, given once other potential causes for your symptoms have been ruled out.


How Did I End Up Overtraining?


Before I continue, let me be clear: I'm writing this from the perspective of a runner who received this diagnosis. I'm certainly not an expert. I compulsively read every single article I could find on overtraining, but that doesn’t make me an expert. What I learned is that diagnosis, treatment, and recovery times vary widely; a big part of recovery is listening to your body and figuring out what it’s telling you—yes, it’s a frustrating process. Overtraining syndrome is a cluster of symptoms including decreased performance and endurance, which can sneak up on you over time. It’s not easy to diagnose because not everyone shows abnormal values in their blood work. In my case, I think I made some drastic changes in an attempt to improve my performance, but I just ended up digging myself into a hole instead of seeing my performance soar to new heights.


I was running with my university club from 2009 to 2012, improving steadily. But then in 2013, I only improved a few seconds in my 5k and 10k despite training harder than ever. At first, I thought I just wasn't training hard enough, so I increased my efforts, but as months passed, every pace that wasn’t an easy run felt hard. They were supposed to be challenging, of course, but they all felt equally hard. No matter if it was a 5k pace workout or a marathon pace workout, I was working at 99% effort; there was no nuance in the effort like there should be.


The Journey to Diagnosis


It took a while, but I finally decided to see a doctor at the school clinic. The usual blood work came back normal, so the doctor sent me for more tests, including cortisol levels. When those results also came back normal, the doctor couldn't think of any other tests to do and so I continued trying harder. As the years passed, my times got a bit slower each season, and I pushed harder in workouts. In 2014, after graduating from university, I trained for another marathon, aiming for a sub-3 hour time. That fall marathon, and another half-marathon in spring 2015, ended in disappointment.


Finally, in July 2018, after a new batch of tests came back normal and a referral to a sports medicine specialist, the sports medicine doctor confirmed I had overtraining syndrome. I had read so much about overtraining at that point, that I couldn't help but start crying in her office. I knew recovery, if possible, could take months or years.


Finding My Way Back


The sports medicine doctor’s only real advice was to find a coach experienced in helping athletes recover from overtraining but this isn't really something coaches advertise on their websites. I reached out to several coaches in Montreal, and eventually went back to my original coach, who understood my training history and agreed to help navigate my recovery. Even with a coach, much of the recovery work had to be done by me learning to "listen to my body," a skill I had never really developed despite years of running.


What I’ve Learned


Since those overtrained days, I've learned a lot. Not just about training, but also about nutrition—like how insufficient calorie intake corelates more closely with running injuries and burnout than high mileage. Well now that I know that, I know exactly how I got into this hole in the first place. In the winter of 2013 (about 4-6 months before my first two running injuries - only about a month apart) I saw a nutritionist who drastically changed my diet, initiating a 4-week "detox" that eliminated several food groups; dairy, gluten, corn and soy. This turned out to be a huge mistake because it eliminated all the sources of carbohydrates in my diet while I was running about 100 km per week. If I could go back, I would ignore that advice and never go back to that office, but that's not what I did because I'm really good at following plans and I was being told that this would help me in my quest for that sub-3 hour marathon.


It took over five years for me to run a personal best in any distance. I ended up running a marathon personal best (although not a sub-3 hours) in 2019, and I’m still working to take down my shorter distance PB's. Does that mean I have been recovered since 2019? Not exactly. I still struggle to do long workouts that have lactate threshold and marathon pace in them. These used to be my strength prior to 2013 and they're my weakness now. With so many yeas of struggle following that diet shift in 2013, I’ve become overly sensitive to any talk that demonizes certain foods or food groups. I also won't trust my food plan to anyone who doesn't have the initials R.D. (which stands for Registered Dietician) in addition experience working with endurance athletes. I realize that there could be other people that are knowledgeable about nutrition and give good advice without R.D. behind their names, but I've been burned too badly to give them a try. I just don't want to make any more mistakes with the competitive years I have left.


Let's Talk About Overtraining


Have you experienced something similar? Has anyone else been diagnosed with and recovered from overtraining syndrome? Share your stories or questions in the comments. Let’s help each other avoid and recover from this dream crushing scenario.

Photo: Just a throwback to a winter run with friends a few months ago. One of the reasons I persevered through the years of disappointing results is that I just kept wanting to be out there running with my buddies.

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Unknown member
07. Mai

Thank you for sharing! This must not have been easy to write.

I don’t have experience with overtraining but definitely learned a lot from this post.

Thank you ❤️

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