Stay on track for your peak race of the year.
For many amateur triathletes, fall means it’s time to wind down the training, start (finally) practicing yoga or get back to focusing on work or family. But for top age groupers or anyone targeting a late-season “A” race, now is the time to peak and perform at your best without burning out after a long year of training and racing.
Qualifying for any of triathlon’s world championships means you have the talent and drive to race to the top of the age-group rankings. It also means—especially after a season of qualifying long-course races—that you have to find a delicate balance in order to peak, race well enough to qualify and then recover multiple times throughout the year, all while keeping up the motivation to train hard day in and day out. Nailing that perfect train-enough-but-not-too-much ratio can be tricky. If you don’t battle through some fatigue to gain fitness, you’ll never improve. But if you work too hard for too long without allowing the body to recover and adapt, you could wind up racing your worst right when you need to be racing your best.
The extreme result of neglecting proper recovery is overtraining syndrome, a medical term that is often tossed around but not always understood or properly diagnosed. Put simply, the syndrome is a result of overdoing your capacity for exercise and winding up with a decline in performance. The consequential physiological and psychological effects can go beyond just one bad race result—they could lead to career-ending consequences.
Overtraining syndrome doesn’t happen overnight or even over the course of a tough training week. “To get there, you have to have ignored the signs for weeks,” says elite coach Gordo Byrn. “When I’ve bumped into situations with overtrained athletes, they just couldn’t get out of bed—they are completely exhausted, their hormones completely out of whack.” Although some of the warning signs are desirable (fatigue is a natural result of training hard), it’s important to be able to identify when you’re pushing your body past its limit.
Because it takes a lot of willpower to train through extreme fatigue, the personality types most susceptible to overtraining are the classic Type-A triathletes. “It’s the perfectionist, the obsessive ‘enough is never enough’ athlete who is always striving for more—the very same personality qualities that make for an elite athlete,” says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a psychiatrist, coach and multiple Ironman Hawaii finisher.
Although the syndrome is more prominent in elite athletes who are singularly focused on triathlon, coach and exercise physiologist Krista Austin, Ph.D., says that doesn’t necessarily make age-group athletes less vulnerable to overtraining. “Many amateur athletes define themselves by how well they do in races,” she says. “I think a lot of them get too caught up in trying to take out the next age grouper.” In addition to chasing PRs and podium spots, age groupers have the mental stress of putting food on the table, keeping bosses happy and making time for family and friends. This mental stress, combined with a heavy training load, can be a recipe for disaster.
The Diagnosis Problem
As a medical condition, overtraining syndrome is not an easy one to identify. Incredible fatigue and the inability to bounce back to a regular level of performance within two weeks of adequate rest is the telltale sign. “The problem with overtraining syndrome is that there may be multiple types or variances, making it difficult to categorize and treat every patient the same because the symptoms can be quite varied,” says Dr. Kenneth Taylor, director of sports medicine at the University of California, San Diego. The list of symptoms associated with the syndrome are all across the board: chronic fatigue, elevated resting heart rate, recurring infections, weight loss, erratic sleep, night sweats, decreased motivation and moodiness.
Taylor calls the syndrome a “diagnosis of exclusion.” For the most part, overtrained athletes experience extreme fatigue, but that alone is a common symptom in practically every ailment—from infections to vitamin deficiencies—which makes it difficult to pinpoint one solid, obvious indicator. He says there’s a lot of overlap with thyroid disease and anemia; Winsberg points out that the symptoms look very similar to depression.
“There’s no one blood marker or finding that is the hallmark of this disease,” Taylor says. “There are some indicators that we lump together to come up with a diagnosis, but it’s not like Hepatitis B where you do a blood test and it’s positive. Overtraining syndrome is not clear-cut.”
When an athlete becomes overtrained, there’s a host of disruptions in the body, mainly stemming from an overactive pituitary gland. There’s an interruption to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the hormone regulator, which can act as negative feedback. “You’ll see too much cortisol relative to the other hormones, decreased testosterone and changes in things like metabolism and serotonin. You get this whole biological cascade that happens when you don’t let the body rest,” Winsberg says.