The Perfect Storm
Athletes push hard; that's what they do. But what happens when obsessive overtraining, lack of proper recovery, stress to perform, life stress, incorrect nutrition and overuse of stimulants converge?
A complex reaction takes place in the human body when it is overloaded
with continued physical and/or emotional stress. Typically, the body produces flight or fight hormones in such stressful situations. This is what it is designed to do, but continued chronic stress compromises the body’s ability to produce the hormone cortisol in a condition known in layman’s terms as adrenal fatigue. In the first part of a two-part series of articles, triathlete Paula Armstrong speaks candidly about overtraining, her complete obsession with the sport, and the lasting toll it has taken on her physical and emotional health.
HALLO, FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF ADRENAL FATIGUE.
Kidding. There is no ‘other side’. This journey goes on forever.
The long and winding road back from adrenal fatigue has taught me two
things: firstly, this thing is complex and goes right to the core of who I am, and,
secondly, overtraining and adrenal fatigue in amateur, age-group athletes are often a symptom of a far more ominous beast.
I’m writing this as a middle-of-the-pack age-grouper with delusions of grandeur.
I worked my way from coming third-last in my maiden triathlon to an obscene number of top-10-plus-one (11th-place) finishes and the odd age group almost-podium in some small local races. What I lacked in talent I made up for in hard-headedness.
For the sake of transparency, I’ll run through my credentials:
• Ace swimmer: could swim before I could walk.
• Below-average cyclist: always had rad bikes, though.
• Enthusiastic runner: if swimming was my true love, running was my mistress (a whole lot more fun than the pool, but ultimately cost me the dream).
• Mental health: average at best; clinically depressed, medicated for anxiety (for real, though – ICD10 codes and err’thang).
• Profession: irrelevant (noteworthy characteristics – desk job requiring intellect).
At this point, I need to be quite clear this is a story about me. This is about my experience and in no way reflects the reality of anyone else. It is not an indictment on triathlon or triathletes. You guys are rad. You’re crazy, but you’re rad.
In a nutshell, I trained myself into the deck, through the deck and six feet into
the ground below the deck. It has cost me almost five years of racing, surgery from which I’ve still not fully recovered after two-and-half years, and a financial hole from which I am only now starting to emerge. And what I have to show for it are a 10th place IRONMAN finish in the Women 30-to-34 age category (about eight places and 90 minutes too slow for a Kona slot) and an old-school indoor trainer that now lives under my bed. Also, how weird is this sport that when you do so well that you finish first or second in your age group, your prize is the opportunity to do it all again, at your own cost in US$, in an oven in Hawaii?
Throughout this process, I had outstanding coaches. The mess I made of my adrenal system can in no way be attributed to them. In fact, it was my coaches who called it and banished me to the couch for three months.
Did I listen? Of course not. Prior to my explosions, the only disconnect between my coaching programme and the hole I dug for myself was the assumption (both mine and my coaches’) that I was mature enough to handle myself. That I would know when to stay in bed with a scratchy throat and an achy body; that I would call the interval session early when it felt like my scalp was lifting off my skull; that injuries taking months to heal meant no track for a while; that night sweats and a plummeting appetite meant blood tests with a sports physician. These are dramatic examples, but the symptoms never start out that way.
I started having scrappy training sessions. I became depressed and weepy, and started missing target times in races by 40 minutes, despite having left everything out on the course.
Perhaps the most telling sign was the lethargy that began to set in. I wanted to train but I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. Yet I somehow managed to finish every single session. That was the beginning of this disaster and it hasn’t ended.
I’ve been athletic my whole life, so how did I get it so horribly wrong that I’ve been on the sidelines for close on five years? This is the part that might piss off the triathletes, so I’ll refer you back to the disclaimer. This is my experience. The majority of triathletes
don’t fit this mould – but if it sounds like this might also be your story, I’ll hazard a
guess it’s time for an introspective deep dive. More on that at the end.
I got here because I was lost in the world and found an identity I could live
with in triathlon. I needed to belong to something and to define myself. I needed a place to direct my anxious energy. This sounds like addiction, doesn’t it? Escapism, denial … In my story, triathlon is a placeholder.
‘Triathlon’ could have been anything.
The need for an identity didn’t start with triathlon; triathlon was just a tool that
eventually inflicted tangible damage.
It became a socially acceptable – even admirable – hiding place for compulsive
behaviour designed to fill a massive hole inside me, and a desperate attempt to escape the suffocating loneliness that comes with trying to win all of the things.
It became the primary relationship in my life and, in the process, wrecked quite a few others.
The major stumbling block for me (us?) in using triathlon as an outlet for this emptiness is how I think about training and the ‘suffering’ that goes with the sport. We pride ourselves (as we should) on our ability to get up at sparrow’s fart and grind through a
two-hour interval session before the sun’s up. And we pride ourselves on our willingness and capacity to run intervals in the afternoon of the same day. And don’t misunderstand me – it is massively impressive.
Yet for our personality type and for the part of us that needs this level of adversity, it’s really no issue to train this hard. Our identity is deeply connected to our capacity to suffer. And suffer we do. You’ll will yourself through 30 x 1km reps before work on a Tuesday; you’ll will yourself through 53km of a mountain trail run with about 10km of sand dunes thrown in (trust me, I’ve done it). As a result you’ll lie in a hospital bed waiting to find out whether the rhabdomyolysis is bad enough to warrant dialysis.
(You’ll now also have to declare your rhabdomyolysis on any life-insurance policy that you take out and on any medical form you complete. In addition, it precludes any downhill Comrades Marathon or trail runs with a steep decline.) But while you lie there, you’ll be planning tomorrow’s swim because your upper body’s just fine. My point is that this isn’t hard for you. Sure, it’s physically tough, but the motivation comes easily.
The hard part comes when you have to dial back the beast and consider whether it’s wise to keep pushing through. Again, I’ll admit that I still keep pushing through.
You know that moron going backwards on the elliptical machine, doing intervals at 9pm at the Virgin Active with a Garmin that could knock Mars out of orbit?
That’s me. Because I still can’t run. I’ve never reached the state of zen that enables me to take a step back and scale it down. In truth, surgery scaled me back.
It dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the abyss from which I now click away at my keyboard. The obscurity of the sideline and mundane push notifications on the IRONMAN Tracker app. It’s like being in rehab while all your mates are still at the party. You know it’s the right thing, but, like, okay, you can kill me now. It has set in motion a radical journey that shattered my paradigm of who I am. The bottom line is I didn’t just stop. I couldn’t. It was aggressively imposed on me by an osteochondral lesion on my right talus. The injury and surgery itself are no biggie — easy, clean, well understood, non-invasive.
My body’s capacity to bounce back after being driven to hell and back? Less easy, less clean. I had to halt all operations and the fallout was messy. And the rest you know – five years later, no racing.
Despite my assault on the endocrine system, I’m optimistic if I ever emerge from the labyrinth, I’ll handle myself better than before. My advice is to get yourself a heart-rate monitor and find someone to help you use the data to understand when your body needs downtime. There are a bazillion techy training products on the market.
Some (but not all) are embarrassingly expensive. If you’re in that league financially, fill your boots. I absolutely wasn’t, still filled my boots and am still paying dearly for it. Don’t be a fool – just get what you need. We’re running a race here, not launching spaceships.
In fact*, following the macabre tragedy of Apollo 1 in which three astronauts lost their lives on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 during a launch rehearsal, engineers at NASA designed wrist-based control panels to allow future astronauts to monitor their biological metrics and essentially make coffee, light cigarettes and launch rockets from their person. They named it Phoenix to symbolise the rising from the ashes of the Apollo tragedy. Even those guys knew overkill when they saw it.
GUYS AT NASA: Nah, let’s leave it, guys. Let’s just focus on getting okes to the moon before the Russians. There is no conceivable reason why anyone would need this kind of technology attached to their body.
SOME TRIATHLETE WORKING AT GARMIN: Hold my beer… (Misspells
*This is not a true story
Bottom line: There is amazing stuff out there, and if you use it like you’re supposed to, and you have someone to guide you through the numbers and graphs, there is no reason to end up at the bottom of a physiological shit heap.
However, if your head is not in the right space to acknowledge what the numbers are saying, none of it matters. If you’re not in an emotional and mental space where you can step away when you’re too tired, too stressed, too bored, or simply just not keen, then you may be in dangerous territory.
I don’t think I could’ve avoided this outcome. My headspace in that period of my life determined that I couldn’t understand the consequences of running into the wall over and over again.
I don’t have any tips or tricks on how to prevent this sorry state of affairs. I am sharing my story to tell you where it has ended up for me. I hope this is not the final stage of the overtraining debacle and I’m optimistic that, with enough time, my body will trust me enough to let me train hard without breaking out into night sweats and getting sick.
There’s a chance that this is an experience unique to me. I doubt it, though, and it would take a huge amount of moral courage to admit that you recognise something of it in yourself. If you do, speak to somebody. Or write it down. Name it. It feels like failure – it still does for me. So you’ll need to reach as deep as you can to summon all of your courage. It might just save you from plunging your adrenal system into the
red, and from a hiatus of several years.
And also, perhaps most importantly, do it because shame dies in the light.