Episode 012: What Really Happens When You Overtrain
In this episode, I get really personal and share the nitty-gritty details of what happened when I overtrained.
I also share five red flag signs of overtraining, the one thing that finally made me realize that I was overtrained (although I looked and seemed healthy on the outside, my gut, hormones, and mindset were pretty messed up), what I did to recover and that lessons that I've learned from it.
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In this episode, I’d like to get personal and really share some inside details that I’ve never shared before about one portion of my story. It’s just one portion, but it’s likely the most important one, because it’s what finally made me realize that, although I seemed healthy, and looked healthy, my guts and my hormones, and my mindset was really, pretty messed up.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you may be familiar with my story, but if you haven’t heard it before, you may want to go back and listen to Episode 001 before you listen to this one.
Because today I’m going to go a little deeper and share the nitty gritty details of what overtraining looked like for me.
And I think this is a super important part of my story that needs to be told, because like I said, to the outside person, I seemed healthy, I was running marathons, I had cut out gluten and dairy from my diet, yet inside, I was a mess.
And like I’ve said before, while my story is unique to me, it’s not all that much different than many other people.
And when I was in the throes of overtraining, deep down inside, I knew that I was overtrained, yet I didn’t want to admit it, and when I tried to read more about it, I got incomplete, and sometimes blatantly wrong advice from popular running periodicals, and of all the running blogs out there, I only found ONE, yes, just ONE blog post that someone had written about their experience overtraining.
So either people had no idea what overtraining really does to themselves, or weren’t willing to share their authentic experiences. And I suspect a little of both.
One thing that I’ve promised to myself, and to my listeners is to always be transparent, so my hope in sharing this topic is to help anyone, even you, recognize the signs of overtraining, so you know you haven’t been the only one to experience what you’re going through, and things will be okay, really, they will.
Like anything else, overtraining shows up in many different ways for many different people. Today I’m going to share how it showed up for me. But first, let me set the stage for this.
In 2003, I was over 40 pounds overweight. My exercise consisted of 20 minutes 3 times a week on the elliptical. And during those 20 minutes I read fashion magazines so it really wasn’t even an intense workout. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say, low intensity would be pushing it.
I commuted to my unfulfilling, stressful job that irritated every fiber in my being. I had terrible sleep, cystic acne and had no cooking skills so my diet consisted of vending machine food, fast food and takeout from greasy restaurants.
At the end of 2003, I celebrated my 29th birthday and started feeling the dread that the next would be 30. I wasn’t a very happy person. I hated how I looked, I hated how I felt and I didn’t have any self-esteem.
It just so happened that a new Gold’s Gym was opening up in my neighborhood, and they had a really good introductory package so I signed up. It wasn’t opening until after the new year, so I thought, “What a perfect time to start something new.”
When you join a new gym, you get a free session with a personal trainer. In that first session, I couldn’t even do a pushup. Not even one pushup. Barely half a pushup. It was embarrassing.
Now it wasn’t my plan to continue on with personal training, but not being able to even do one pushup motivated me, so I started working with a personal trainer. I complained a lot during my personal training sessions (because let’s be honest, it’s hard!) but secretly I started loving it!
From 2004 to 2006 I worked out with this personal trainer and lost more weight than I ever expected, and was stronger than I’d ever been in my life. I dropped over 40 pounds and four dress sizes.
That trainer had told me, “Being healthy is simple - burn more calories than you eat” and that was the guiding principle that I lived by. I started using CalorieKing.com to track my calories religious and ate Lean Cuisines because they were so low in calories.
At this point I had zero concept of what “nutrient-dense” meant. I paid zero attention to sugar grams, or what nutrients was I eating (or rather not eating). All I cared about was calories in, calories out and a little about carbs (making sure I had a lot of it), protein, and fat (making sure I ate as little fat as possible - because I had no idea that eating fat, in fact does NOT make you fat).
In 2007 I took a break from personal training and started going to 6 am group exercises classes like Body Pump, Body Combat and bootcamp classes. I always started running more. I had been doing track workouts with my trainer, but now I started running longer with friends and coworkers. And the stairmill - you know the one where the stairs move? - that was my new best friend.
At this point I was still not sleeping well, still had terrible acne, but I looked great, which was all I really cared about.
The next year, in 2008, I started a new job. So here’s the thing about Silicon Valley tech companies. You live quarter-to-quarter. Meaning, that many companies, especially ones that aren’t performing well, do regular layoffs every quarter. They’re called “RIF’s” which stands for “reduction in force.”
I don’t know about anyone else in the tech community, but this was a major source of anxiety for me. Especially because, up until this time, I worked for really mediocre companies with poor leadership that weren’t performing well. So this anxiety was something that was a constant source of stress for me.
So when I got this new job in 2008, it was great. Larger company, more stability, but uber micromanagement. I don’t know what’s worse - living quarter-to-quarter with the fear of layoffs or living day-to-day being under the microscope of leadership questioning your every move.
And with the financial crisis that hit in 2008, it was both. I was under more work stress than I had ever experienced. And you guys, I survived the dot-com bust! This was NOTHING compared to that!
So I used exercise to cope with the stress. Not only was a regular at 6 am bootcamp, I also started going to classes in the evenings - and this was Monday to Friday.
On some days, I’d throw in a third workout of the day with a lunchtime yoga class or run.
My “rest days” were on the weekends where I only did one workout a day.
In hindsight, I was even more stressed out trying to fit in all of my workouts, and get to them in time so that I could be front and center of the class - yes, I was that person. And trying to pack my gym bag for multiple workouts, and food on top of that - it was crazy!
And I wasn’t even running at this point! It wasn’t until 2008 that I ran my first half marathon, the Big Sur Half Marathon. I can’t remember what compelled me to sign up for this race. I didn’t really have any running friends. At this point, I wasn’t reading any running blogs. I didn’t know anyone else who was running the race (although I did get my friend Veronica to sign up for it and we ran it together). I just remember sitting in my dimly lit cubicle, hating life, and signing up for this race.
I didn’t even know how to properly train for a half marathon. I ran nine miles, two weeks before the race, and my longest ever run, 10 miles, one week before the race. I didn’t know what GU was, and ran in cotton clothing.
But crossing that first finish line was exhilarating. I was someone who had never been an active kid. Despite being the child of a basketball coach, I never played any sports and was always the last kid picked for teams in PE class. So the fact that I ran a half marathon was pretty satisfying. And it made me feel like I could do anything.
The next year, in 2009, I continued my 3-a-day workouts and ran two more half marathons - the inaugural Seattle Rock n Roll, and the inaugural Las Vegas Rock and Roll.
By now, I had found a running community on Twitter, running blogs and my circle of running friends started to grow. Unfortunately, and this is the first time I’m admitting this, as my running community grew, I realized that my race times that I’d been blissfully, ignorantly proud of, were actually pretty slow. That old comparison devil was back and suddenly, I didn’t feel all that confident anymore.
And in hindsight, I believe at this point, I was already overtrained, and this was before I even ran my first marathon.
I ran my first marathon in 2010, and between 2010 and 2013, I trained for nine marathons, finished four of them, as well as 19 half marathons, took up swimming, did yoga and still worked out with my personal trainer. Training was my life and I was still in a highly stressful job.
And, I was always injured. During this time period I went through three rounds of physical therapy, began seeing a chiropractor every three weeks for active release therapy (ART), started acupuncture, was seeing a therapist because I still wasn’t sleeping, still had raging acne - oh and despite all of this training, I started to gain weight.
I was dishing out thousands of dollars in treatments, massages, running clinics - anything to “fix” me.
And I was completely oblivious, or maybe even in denial, that what I was doing was too much for my body to handle. My running coach - who was fabulous - even voiced to me several times that he thought I was doing too much. But did I listen? No, I just ignored him and would hold things back from him.
But I loved the whole experience of it. I loved the discipline that marathon training requires. I loved being on a training schedule. I loved the friendships that I created with other runners and community I belonged to. I loved being able to say, “I just ran a marathon” and feel that finally, I was an athlete.
But that last marathon that I finished, the San Francisco Marathon in 2013 did me in. My body had been trying to tell me to take it easy for years, but I chose to ignore it. And during that training cycle, it finally screamed so loud that I could no longer ignore it.
A simple Google search will pull up endless articles from Runner’s World, or really, any fitness-related magazine explaining what is overtraining and what the classic signs are.
They give you advice like, “take rest days”, “run easy,” “do a different workout” and “get more sleep.” All great advice, but I don’t think they painted a realistic picture, at least at the time that I was searching these articles, about what actually happens when you overtrain.
And this, my friend, is what I’m sharing with you. I’m sharing 5 red flags that I had, and ignored, that were clear signs that I overtrained. Red Flag #1: I exercised but didn’t lose weight
There I was, counting every calorie I ate and every calorie I burned, but yet I didn’t lose a pound. For a while, I wasn’t gaining weight, but I wasn’t losing any either. If you subscribe to the “calories in versus calories out” mentality like I had, it didn’t make sense.
But like I said earlier, what I failed to realize that calories, while a valuable data point, is just one data point. It doesn’t paint the whole picture.
I paid no attention to what nutrients I was getting, and what ones I weren’t. Eating Lean Cuisines, carb-loading on pasta just doesn’t cut it and still eating copious amounts of sugar just wasn’t cutting it. Red Flag #2: I exercised and gained weight
My weight started to plateau in about 2007 (and let’s be honest, I didn’t need to lose anymore weight, but that’s a topic for another show I should do on Orthorexia), and in 2008, when I started running long-distance races, my weight started creeping up.
Here I was, running dozens of miles each week, for hours at a time, still counting calories and yet I was gaining weight? I was even more perplexed than ever.
So my personal trainer suggested I cut out gluten. He didn’t explain it this way to me at the time, but by cutting gluten, it was one way to manage inflammation.
Cutting out gluten didn’t do anything for my weight, but what it did do - and this was completely unexpected, was that it changed my complexion. After dealing with acne since my pre-teen years, it miraculously went away, and I no longer had an excessively oily complexion.
For some people, cutting out dairy clears their complexion, for others it’s sugar, for me it was gluten, and for some - it’s all three. Red Flag #3: I had raging IBS
It’s a common problem for runners to have poop problems, but like I always say, common doesn’t mean normal.
I had IBS problems for a really long time, and by IBS problems I mean - painful gas, extensive bloating, belly distension, diarrhea, constipation (although I really have constipation problems, but it is a common symptom for IBS).
Although I struggled with those symptoms for a long time, I naively thought that my first major experience with IBS happened when I had to DNF (runner talk for Did Not Finish) the Petaluma Half Marathon. I was having bad stomach cramps, spent a considerable amount of time in the porta potty and decided that I could not deal with that kind of pain for the next 6 ½ miles. It wasn’t worth it.
That was my first DNF and I felt a tremendous amount of guilt and shame about it.
After that race I went on a bland diet of rice, pasta, broth and grilled chicken breast - the most boring diet in the world. And from then on, I had anxiety for how my stomach would do on long training runs, and on races.
I tried every diet hack I could think of, took Immodium before running, and sometimes didn’t eat at all. And guess what - sometimes those things worked, but most of the time it didn’t. I couldn’t find a pattern and it stressed me out.
Now I know that the gut is the “second brain” of the human body and your poop tells you A LOT about your health. And IBS symptoms like what I experienced were a HUGE red flag.
It’s your body’s way of trying to tell you that something is wrong. It’s under more stress than it can handle and it's asking you to tone things down - give it some rest. Red Flag #4: I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep.
I struggled with sleep for years, way before I started running, but overtraining made it worse. My insomnia was debilitating, and I know I’m not the only one who struggled with this.
Some night’s I was able to fall asleep but then I’d wake up at 2 or 3 am completely starving and not able to go back to sleep. I was getting up at 5 am every morning to run, so most days I’d just stay up until then.
Other night’s I couldn’t go to sleep at all. I’d count sheep, keep a notebook by my bed to write down my thoughts, I’d take melatonin - but nothing helped.
Every night that I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep, I’d get on my phone and check Twitter (which by the way is so the wrong thing to do!). And I would see all my fellow runners on Twitter in the middle of the night, also complaining about not being able to sleep.
And isn’t it puzzling? I mean, if you’re running dozens and dozens of miles a week, shouldn’t you feel tired and sleep like a baby?
Not being able to sleep is another way that your body trying to communicate with you and tell you you that something is not right. Your blood sugar might not be balanced, your cortisol levels might be off, or it might be something else altogether - and by the way, was all of these things for me.
And like I always say, we can get away with a poor diet, we can get away with not enough exercise, but we simply cannot function effectively without sleep. Red Flag #5: I had intense leg pains that wouldn’t go away
The worst IBS symptoms in the world, the countless nights without sleep was, the never ending injuries - none of it was enough to stop me from training.
I finally - finally - admitted that something was wrong when I had intense leg pains after running just a couple of miles.
And it was unlike any kind of pain I’d experienced. It wasn’t a pulled muscle - I certainly knew what that felt like. It wasn’t a stress fracture - I got it checked.
It was just -- pain. I don’t know how else to describe it. But I couldn’t move when I felt it.
Of course, at first I tried to run through it. But it was debilitating. After a while, I couldn’t even run a mile without feeling the intensity of this mysterious pain. Nor could I run a mile without feeling completely exhausted.
I had to cut so many long runs cut short, and by now, with so many failed runs, races where I didn’t hit my goals, I had put so much pressure on myself to succeed and it felt devastating. There were so many runs cut short where I'd sit on a bench in Golden Gate Park in tears feeling like a failure and not a “real” runner, because by now, I’d tied so much of my self-worth around running. And that my friends, is another red flag in and of itself - when my entire life revolved around it.
I finally - finally - accepted the fact that something wasn’t right. But I wasn’t sure where to seek help from. I mean, at this point, I already had a team of physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, sports medicine doctors, a coach. No one really had answers for me.
So I sought help from a functional medicine doctor and if you listened to episode 001, I guess you could say the rest is history.
I learned how to look at my health from a bigger perspective -
That diet is about eating nutrient-rich foods that nourish our bodies - it’s not just about calories and fat grams That health is about more than diet and exercise That injuries, sickness and disease are rooted in inflammation That inflammation isn’t just about acute inflammation, but chronic low-grade inflammation from stress is at the root of chronic injury and disease That stress comes in many forms - from eating foods that we’re not tolerant of, to eating a poor diet and being nutrient-deficient, to exercising too much, to not allowing enough rest.
So how did I recover? It’s been 3.5 years and to a degree, I’m still recovering. I put my body through a lot during those years.
I had to go through a period of complete rest, which wasn’t easy and didn’t come right away. I had depleted my adrenals, but it took me a while to understand what that really meant, and I still tried to train for a half marathon and another full marathon - which as you can guess, didn’t go so well.
When I finally “got it”, I went on complete rest for months - as in zero exercise, no workouts. And for someone who was addicted to exercise as I was - it was hard. I had this intense fear that I would revert to being the couch potato that I used to be - and guess what - that happened too!
Now I do whatever my body feels it needs. Some days it’s reformer pilates, other days it’s rowing, or swimming and these days it’s mostly weight lifting. But I still get a run in every now and then.
I had to learn the hard way what was “too much” for me. It’s going to be different for everyone. I think that’s the most important thing I can share with you.
You can read blogs to see what someone else has done for a particular injury, read what a pro athlete eats, but at the end of the day, you need to be be connected to your own body, know how to listen to it (and if you aren’t sure how to do that, listen to Episode 010), and you need to not be attached to outcomes. Because trying to force something that isn’t happening just adds to your load of stress.
Now I want to make a point of clarification because I’ve had some people ask me if I think long-distance running is bad.
No, I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t regret anything that I did. But if I’m being honest, I don’t think it was a good idea for me, given the other sources of stress my body was already battling:
I was already probably suffering from a leaky gut (if you don’t know what that is, go back and listen to Episode 007), my body was already suffering not enough sleep, a poor, nutrient deficient diet, and I had a tremendous amount of stress from work. Imposing the impact of long-distance running - and let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s immensely taxing on the human body, and all of the emotional stress that I placed on myself related to it - well, it was just too much for my body to handle.
And there you have it. This is what what overtraining looks like for me. Now, this was my story. And like I said earlier, while it is unique to me, I am not all that different from many of you.
So if you have experienced one or all of these red flags, in whatever sport you do, whether it be running, cross fit, anything, then I really encourage you to have grace on yourself, show mercy and kindness to your body and step back and do an honest evaluation to see if it’s too much - for right now.
It can feel like a scary thing to do - I know, I get it. It forced me to make a complete life change and question everything about what I held important. But in the long run, having this new context, this new perspective, this new big picture approach, is helping me to feel better so that I can enjoy the activities that I loved to do, because for awhile, running just wasn’t fun anymore.
I hope you found this episode insightful. It was definitely a hard one to write and perhaps one of my most vulnerable ones yet, but I really do feel that it’s an important one that had to be shared.
That’s all I have for you this week. I’ll catch you next week for another episode of the Live FAB Life podcast!
Hi, I'm Naomi
I’m an expert in Functional Nutrition, a nerd when it comes to clean living, and my obsession is debunking fad diets and weight loss myths by teaching others where food meets physiology so they understand where health and healing truly begins.
A San Francisco Bay Area-based health coach, 21-Day Sugar Detox Coach, podcaster and puppy mama to Coco Pop, my happiest days are spent empowering health-conscious women to speak their truth and become leaders in their own healthcare.