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Epidemic of Overtraining Strikes Epidemic of Ultramarathons

timv's picture

Another one that I spotted this week:

Running on Empty

Meaghen Brown, Jun 12, 2015


“OTS is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my 30 plus years of working with athletes,” says David Nieman, former vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “To watch someone go from that degree of proficiency to a shell of their former self is unbelievably painful and frustrating.”

Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, has spent his career studying the effects of training on the immune system. In 1992, he received the first of a dozen distressingly similar letters from endurance athletes, each of them describing a sudden loss of ability as they struggled with everything from anemia to chronic dehydration to a basic inability to get out of bed. Nieman was both troubled and fascinated by these tales. Their symptoms all seemed to point to overtraining syndrome, and he’s been looking into the root causes of the condition ever since.

Nieman, like other specialists in sports medicine, was aware of OTS back then, but with so few documented cases there were effectively no studies to review. The earliest known scientific reference to OTS was made by a researcher and athlete named Robert Tait McKenzie, who noted in his 1909 book, Exercise in Education and Medicine, an acute exhaustion and “slow poisoning of the nervous system which could last weeks or even months.” Decades later, renowned South African exercise-science professor Timothy Noakes wrote in detail about the condition in The Lore of Running. Published in 1985, it’s one of the few books athletes with OTS have as a reference. The runners Noakes examined had pushed themselves to a point at which their bodies—and, more perplexingly, their minds—had simply stopped responding. As a result, they suffered everything from “generalized fatigue” and “recurrent headaches” to “an inability to relax, listlessness,” and “the swelling of lymph glands.”

Well I'm an old running geek who's had his copy of The Lore of Running since it was a new book (and it's still a terrific resource) so overtraining isn't really news to me.

The take-away for me is really more that ultramarathoning is now "a hypercompetitive sport attracting big-time sponsors." Reporters do sometimes over-promote as a rapidly growing trend whatever they're covering, which might in fact be a few of isolated examples. But poking around some, there does seem to be a bit of a mini-boom lately in ultramarathon participation. And, cynical me, these in general seem to be expensive indulgences for most of the competitors; very well catered and provisioned events for frequent-flying warriors who have perhaps burned out on buying $5000 racing bicycles and are in need of a new thrill.

As for overtraining, I'll never forget Floyd Landis's priceless comment: "If you overtrained, it means you didn't train hard enough to handle that level of training. So you weren't overtrained: you were actually undertrained to begin with." Although at this level of competition, it might be that the stress of the event alone is causing the breakdowns and adding extra training stress would only make it worse.


eebee's picture

Adrenal Fatigue

Those symptoms also sound like something I've read about called adrenal fatigue, which came up while searching for self-diagnoses. The 'inability to get out of bed' bit in the above excerpt got my attention. Adrenal Fatigue seems not to be a recognized condition yet by the mainstream medical community. So if the sports docs want to call it OTS and treat it accordingly, then that's some progress.

I remember first hearing the term overtraining in my early days of skating with the Atlanta crowd. When I heard the definition, I think I said "Oh, so you mean previous lack of training, then?"

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