Overtraining: from Finish to Start

Standing at the OCR World Championship finish line this past October, I was covered in mud, stinking of sweat and offering up hugs to hundreds of competitors from all over the planet. But I hadn’t crossed the finish line with them. Instead, I was limping around in a cast presenting finisher medals. Yes, I was honoured to be there, in that big moment, for so many members of my racing family. And yes, despite that sincere affection, I admit the process was just a little painful too.

A year earlier, I had crossed that same finish line as a very inexperienced racer. From the moment a volunteer had presented me my first OCRWC medal, I had vowed to return stronger, faster and more prepared in 2017. Instead, I set myself on a course where I would demonstrate an even higher degree of naïveté.

If any sport lives up to the idiom of “blood, sweat and tears” it’s ours. And it’s safe to say you’ll find all three elements at every obstacle course race. At the OCR World Championships, some of the most inspirational athletes you’ll meet take that adage to an entirely new level demonstrating levels of endurance, agility and strength rarely seen in sport. The exhilarating experience of running alongside those amazing human beings as a 42-year-old newcomer to the sport had launched me straight into training for the following year.

Setting High Expectations

If I was going to reach a new level of performance, I had two main areas where I wanted to improve: grip strength and running endurance. For starters, I spent the fall of 2016 increasing strength in my shoulders, forearms and legs to fly through even the most intimidating obstacles like mini-rigs and floating walls.

Besides resistance training for all three muscle groups, I was spending a couple of hours every weekend at my obstacle course gym which I dubbed my “play day”. To get there, I ran 10 kilometers which meant I was doing the equivalent of a race every Sunday for months. In fact, weekends alone accounted for over 25 kilometers. I was running more than a half marathon over Saturdays and Sundays.

Most of that distance was on early mornings and that meant I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. Throw in a new, stressful position at work with an earlier start time and I was lucky get an average of six hours a night.

The Downward Slope

When I developed a serious case of tennis elbow in the first weeks of 2017, I ran to and from physiotherapy. I worked around my left arm to get as much weight training in as I could but my upper body fell behind. I was happy when the pain in my elbow began to subside in the spring and I jumped right into my first Spartan Race of the year.

I qualified for the OCR World Championships but woke up the next morning with an incredibly sore left shoulder and had to back off my upper body training once again. And again, I ran to and from the chiropractor, masseuse and acupuncturist. Despite running over 30 kilometers a week, I had somehow gained 10 pounds.

Lo and behold, by mid-summer my legs and feet were in constant pain. My left shin in particular was giving me trouble and after continuing to race (sometimes twice in one weekend) I found myself getting treatment on my shoulder and leg simultaneously.  At that point, the fear of missing the World Championships in the fall forced me to my senses and I stopped running and focused mainly on low-impact recovery exercises.

With OCRWC on the horizon, standing still wasn’t leading to improvement. My doctor rushed a bone scan to get a sense of what I was dealing with. Two stress fractures lit up the results. Even brighter was a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that I’d always assumed was just par for the course. When I asked my doctor for an honest assessment, he told me that one of the stress fractures had actually reached the inside of my tibia. He called it the worst he’d ever seen. The next day I traded my OCR World Championships registration for an aircast and a volunteer t-shirt.

Under the Radar

I wish I could say that’s where my downward slope ended. In the weeks after my cast came off, my shoulder and foot seemed to get worse. I knew rest, patience and some excruciating shock-wave therapy was the best option for my foot. My shoulder was an entirely different mystery. An MRI eventually revealed that I had torn my rotator cuff at that first race in June. Blood tests later showed I was also recovering from adrenal fatigue.

So you might ask me: “Overdo it much Sean?”. You know what? I don’t think so. I committed to doing whatever it took to improve and I’ve made that very same commitment this year. The difference this time around is that I’m applying some very hard lessons. Not about overdoing, but about overtraining.

Reality Check

What separates “overdoing it” from “overtraining” is a collection of minor, common sense strategies and when any or all of them are ignored, the consequences can be devastating. This is where my blog post moves from a sob story to a series of eureka moments I hope will bring some insight to anyone out there who might be on course for a similar fate.

Most of us who take our racing careers seriously spend our days at full-time jobs that have nothing to do with OCR. Most of us juggle personal lives and responsibilities that professional athletes don’t face every day when they get out of bed. And for most us, stress takes its toll beyond the psychological effects we so often accept as part of our day to day lives. If you’re like me, you use exercise to cope with all that stress-induced cortisol shooting into your bloodstream.

I know I’ll never lift like Hunter McIntyre, conquer obstacles like Ryan Atkins, or run like Mark Jones. I spend most of my days in boardrooms and talking on the phone. I’m a weekend warrior who squeezes out every second of training on weekdays to be the best I can be on course. When we take exercise to the next level in our 40s and find ourselves juggling everything else to get a serious sweat every day, we end up with more stress. And you guessed it… more cortisol. That means among other things: a weak immune system and lower bone density. Not to mention weight gain.

The Adrenaline Toll

Tapping into the adrenaline our caveman ancestors once used to summon superhuman speed as they ran from saber-toothed tigers is an often-quoted concept. But what happens when you call on those instincts every week? When you pursue (even court) that kind of stress to fuel your training and racing 12 months of the year — Well, your adrenal glands say “go f*ck yourself” and your body runs out of gas.

Even professional and Olympic athletes schedule significant breaks. And more importantly, they don’t train for peak performance all year round. Instead of pushing for personal bests in their preparation, they ramp up their intensity in order to maximize their bodies’ capabilities at competition time.

Getting some Zs

Something else the pros and Olympians do is sleep. Seven hours is generally the minimum number of hours prescribed for your typical adult. Throw in one to two hours of intense training per day and seven hours might as well be a nap. When an OCR athlete goes to bed during all-out periods of prep and competition they’re not just looking for a rest. They’re looking to heal bodies broken down from the inside out and most of that happens when we’re in dreamland.

Fueling Frenzy

What’s another consequence to always aiming for overdrive? Constant carb loading. And a consequence to my constant carb loading was chronic inflammation. Many of my most common sources of carbohydrates were inflammatory foods.

Since switching to a lower carb/high fat diet I’ve had dramatic improvements in my shoulder and foot. I don’t plan on going totally keto any time soon but there’s no disputing the results I’ve experienced in fueling my training with doses of healthy fats instead of carbs.

Getting in the Zones

I’m also paying extra attention to my heart rate zones. Monitoring my levels of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise is maximizing the benefits of my training and returning me to my ideal racing weight again. That’s meant making more efficient use of my time by avoiding junk miles. The realization that I can run 10 kilometers every weekend instead of 30 and get better results could mean my most serious injury in 2018 might just be my mind blowing!

Training over shorter distances also means I spend some valuable time recovering in bed. And on that subject, taking every fifth week to ease off high impact workouts to focus on yoga, Pilates and mobility training is now a compulsory part of my schedule. Now at age 44, I recognize that keeping my engine maintained to compete with people half my age requires twice as much time “tuning up” in the garage.

#BeastMode might be trending on social media but serious athletes are recognizing the only thing to gain from driving themselves into the ground is a huge following on Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with “blood, sweat and tears” at races. But bleeding to death, passing out from dehydration or crying because we’re handing out medals instead of earning them is just plain dumb.

See you at the start line!
Sean – LegendBorne Ambassador
photo by Ken Kim

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