Written by Kyla Coates, MSc, PhD student
My sister Alex has been studying overreaching, relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), anemia, and cardiac fatigue in endurance athletes. As she gives more presentations, podcasts, and becomes better known, she has been inundated with frustrated athletes looking for advice on their overtraining symptoms. If they are reporting symptoms consistent with “total system failure”, she will pass them over to me. Their medical tests usually come up with nothing significant, their coaches and teammates only believe them to varying degrees, and they are terrified of the prospect that they may never get better. The more mature athletes are worried about their future quality of life as they can’t even go for a walk without having to pass-out on the couch in exhaustion with deeply-aching muscles afterwards. The young ambitious athletes haven’t started to think that far ahead yet, and are more worried about what this will mean for their athletic careers (hint: it’s likely over). I can’t direct them to a medical test that will find some external culprit to blame for their sudden, debilitating exhaustion, chronic pain and brain fog (although a viral/bacterial load often contributes, so you could go looking for Lyme disease). Even a serious disease diagnosis would be a relief for them because others might begin to sympathize with their new isolated reality. If they had a diagnosis, doctors could offer them some hope in the form of treatment, and the cause of it would be something other than their body utterly betraying them. Unfortunately, the only alternative diagnosis to overtraining syndrome that I can offer them is chronic fatigue syndrome. I can’t offer them a magical supplement that will help speed their recovery (and yes- I did try everything). But even still, people with overtraining/chronic fatigue syndrome want to talk to me because I am the first person they have talked to that has shared their experience. They get to hear that they are not alone. They have affirmation that their experience is worse than that of their teammate who also had “overtraining syndrome” but took a bunch of supplements/probiotics/carbs and a couple of weeks to months off, and came back fine. I will confirm that what they are going through is different than the diagnosis of depression that they received from their doctors (even though they are certainly experiencing depression as well). It helps them to hear that someone has come out the other side (kind of), so there is hope (mostly).
My sister suggested that I write a post about my experience, and we wondered why I hadn’t done this already. The truth is, after several rollercoaster years of non-functional overreaching, and weird symptoms including many episodes of passing-out in races, I ended up with overtraining syndrome/chronic fatigue syndrome in 2012. I was 22. Like everyone else with unexplained chronic illness (even though that is not how I think of myself anymore), telling my story didn’t help me, which is why I focused on becoming a researcher instead. I’m 30 now, and finally, after 8 years, I’m at a level of health where I can do just about any type of exercise that I want to do so long as it stays in the realm of
recreation and not training. It now takes an effort for me to remember life as ‘triathlete Kyla’ and all of the frustrations associated with not only ending an athletic “career” prematurely, but also ending it after such prolonged health issues that I felt like the only person on the planet who remembered that I had once had potential (not an uncommon way to leave sport, I know). I learnt my lesson in humility younger than most – hard work and dedication and sacrifice do not equal success – but, most athletes learn this eventually. It has been a long-time since I've grappled with the loss of identity of being an elite athlete, but I do miss being fit, and being someone who can suffer. I am finally able to participate in most of the active adventures I want to do, so I only get frustrated when I have to find an excuse to get out of recreational races with friends, or avoid being a subject in one of my fellow exercise physiologists’ demanding testing sessions. There is no way to express that despite how healthy and active I appear to be, it isn’t worth it for me to lose the ability to exercise entirely for the next year, or lose the brain function to keep doing my job, if this exertion pushes me back over the edge. Their lack of understanding and dismissal sucks. But! I will share my experience if it will help more people feel less lonely and dismissed. Uniting our stories will increase our understanding and awareness of this rare, but life changing condition.
Next up. Part 2. The science from PhD candidate and coach Alex Coates:
How to determine if you are experiencing relative energy deficiency in sport (most likely), long-term overreaching (probable), or overtraining syndrome/training induced chronic fatigue syndrome (very rare but not as unheard of as you think).