Overtraining is not a Virtue!

“I’m going to tell it to you straight,” said the physical therapist as he paused the video that starred the lower half of my legs, larger than life and extremely pale, jogging on a treadmill. “You’re not built to be an endurance runner.”

Then he told me that my left leg is a hair shorter than my right. “Maybe you’ll make it through a marathon, maybe not,” he said. “But I can guarantee that in time, if you keep running like you are, you’re going to start feeling pain in your hips.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. Thanks.” But even though I heard the words, I wasn’t listening. It was only after I ran my first marathon, after I signed up and began training for the next less than a month later, and after I started to feel a sharp constant pain in my left hip that they started to register.

For a long time, I thought that overtraining was a sign of ambition. I’ve always believed that hard work is a crucial step toward success, and in other aspects of my life, this attitude had tended to work. I never had to drop out of any classes in college because my brain hurt too much from studying, had I? Nor had I had to quit a job because learning the ropes was too challenging. Why shouldn’t hard workouts translate directly to winning race times and overall health? So I ran. A lot. Every morning, and usually before eating anything.

I suffered through the hip pain for weeks into my second marathon training before finally quitting in tears. A month later, shortly after I started to jog again, I sprained a foot. Then I sprained my other foot. In addition to all of these injuries, I suffered bouts of strep throat and other infections. I regularly felt fatigued, achy, and useless.

According to Troy Stratton, a physical therapist at the Sharon Health Center, illness and injuries are just two of many signs that an athlete is overdoing it. “Overtraining can be presented in different ways,” he said, listing diminishing athletic performance, increased muscle soreness and resting heart rate, and difficulty sleeping as major physical symptoms. “Mood changes can happen as well,” he added. Decreased motivation, lack of confidence, depression, and anger are all indicators of an unbalanced lifestyle with too little rest.

And even as my body deteriorated, I was convinced that I was in the best shape of my life. I was committed to running, and I was afraid that stopping meant a swift and certain transformation into an out-of-shape sack of potatoes on the couch.

Flash forward to this morning: I rolled out of bed when the sun was already high in the sky, and I ate pancakes for breakfast. I lay on the carpet in a patch of sunlight and read a book, and then I walked a mile (for exercise) to a coffee shop (for something frothy and decadent). Later, I might get chicken wings and watch a movie. Maybe I’ll watch two.

Basically, I’ve become the sack of potatoes I once feared, but it’s a surprisingly healthy and happy sack of potatoes. I’ve decided that a drastic activity level reduction is good for me, at least for now, and so far it’s working out well. I haven’t gotten any more injuries, for example, and getting eight or more hours of sleep every night is awesome.

If you’re an athlete, you’re probably thinking, “Sheesh, that sounds terrible.” I know, I know. Once it’s established in your everyday routine, the quest for physical fitness and peak performance can be thrilling, rewarding, and tough to back down from. But while it may seem counterproductive, rest can actually help you perform better.

Stratton recommends plenty of it, as well as increasing calorie intake. “Athletes must balance their activities with hydration, nutrition, and rest so they can rebound and make gains, not further break down their bodies,” he said.

I imagine I’m not the only one who has pushed through drowsiness, hunger and pain to accomplish feats that my body wasn’t built to do. Partly this has to do with a genuine desire to be strong, but it also stems from a deep-seated craving to be congratulated for my efforts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt proud of being called an overachiever, whereas I’d hate to earn a reputation as a slouch.

If you can relate, then allow me to call you an overtrainer and mean it in the worst way possible. Do not take any pride in being called this name, because it is not a compliment.

Instead, just stop doing whatever it is that’s grinding you down. Just for a short while — maybe a few days, or maybe longer. Do nothing more physically strenuous than vacuuming your rug. Relax: make friends with Epsom salts and baths. And allow people to judge you for your indulgent behavior. Who cares? In the end, the only name-calling that matters is the kind that your body gives you, and wouldn’t it be nice if your body called you anything but overtired and overstressed for once?

Think you’re at risk for overtraining? Schedule a visit with a physical therapist today.

Mari recommends…

  • Sharon Health Center, Sharon

The home of Gifford Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Clinic houses a great staff of specialists in sports medicine, physical therapy, and athletic training—many of whom are athletes themselves. (802) 763-8000 giffordmed.org/sharonhealthcenter

  • The Rehab Gym, Williston, Colchester, Burlington (new Barre location coming soon)

Focuses on minimizing and preventing future injuries, rather than just tackling each diagnosis as it comes. In addition to physical therapy, offers classes accessible to people with injuries or disabilities. rehabgym.com

  • Mansfield Orthopaedics, Morrisville

If, heaven forbid, you should reach the point where you need more than just physical therapy, this is the place to go. Here, specialists in sports medicine deliver great orthopedic care, from pain-relieving treatments to joint replacement surgeries. (802) 888-8405 mansfieldorthopaedics.com

Mari Zagarins

When Mari isn't running, biking, hiking, or jumping-jacking in and around her home in Montpelier, she is practicing her facial expressions in the mirror and contemplating whether she should learn to swim.