My experience with overtraining has a similar story to quite a few that I have heard about. The thing was that none of the warning signs meant anything to me because I did not know anything about overtraining syndrome, or even knew that “overtraining” was a thing. I began feeling my first symptoms of overtraining in January of 2019 right at the end of a Christmas training block and within 2 short months, my swimming career would be over.
I’m sure that my experience was accumulated by years of stress on my body without me even realizing it, mostly due to under recovering and pushing limits too frequently. I didn’t see myself as an outlier though, the culture of swimming is a lot. 4:30am wake-ups, 2 practices a day most days, little to no actual recovery sessions built into the program and a culture of pushing your max and leaving everything in the pool during every practice definitely contributed to it. But at the time, it was all I knew, and I was obsessed with swimming, and everything that came with it.
My 2018-19 season was the best season I had ever had. I was almost hitting best times in practice, I was cutting times at meets like I was a 12 year old again and I was having the most fun I had ever had in the pool. I attributed it to having had trained hard through the summer (again), in retrospect, this may have been the first red flag. The thing with varsity swimming is that there are really only a few big meets that you suit up for, which means extra pressure for them. I personally never liked racing, only practicing as I would get so much anxiety before the meets. But this season was different, I was almost having panic attacks before races and was so stressed about them for weeks in advance, red flag #2.
In November 2018 we had one of our biggest meets of the season, where I hit lifetime PBs and missed some goal times by less than half a second in a few events. The combination of continuous hard training, major life stress, and my hardest and busiest semester yet had pushed my body to its max. I had been throwing up during that 2 week period daily due to so much stomach reflux, red flag #3. This was unusual for me, but I attributed it to a stressful time and assumed it would go away when my last exam was finished.
But after exams, swim teams go into a hard block of training for the tradition of ‘Christmas Training Camp’ which is a 2-4 week period of the hardest training you will get all year. By the last week of camp, I was starting to feel it- not tired or unmotivated necessarily, just the absolute inability to get any kind of speed. This was an easy sign to brush off as everyone was tired from the practices anyways. Everything just continued to build and I continued to throw up a few times a week for the remainder of the semester and started cried almost daily, frequently in the pool out of frustration. As the semester continued I started getting more tired and I could barely even finish practices, let alone hit pace times.
By the time I got to OUAs in February I was so cooked already I wasn’t even nervous anymore, I just wanted it to be over. The pressure of the meet and my other life stress had weighed on me so heavily and by the time we started tapering down for the meet I knew something was wrong. When the meet came I didn’t do as poorly as I thought I was going to, but still ended up barely missing the podium in 4 events, and not making any of the times I was hoping to. I wish I had enjoyed it a little more, as I didn’t realize at the time this would be my last time racing as I had to take an early retirement shortly after.
The following months would entail chronic fatigue, sleeping about 16 hours a day for ~4months and still being exhausted all the time, hormones being absolutely shot, my brain felt like absolute mush and I could barely hold a conversation at times. I even considered dropping out of school for the semester because I couldn’t even muster the energy to go to classes for the majority of the term. The thought of getting out of bed made me want to (and did) cry a lot of those days due to sheer exhaustion.
The worst parts lasted about 6 months, but even now, 2 years later I still feel like I have to manage myself because I know my threshold of stress is dramatically lowered. Although I have tried to fight it and convince myself that I’m different and I can still be an athlete that trains and lives the same way that I did, I have come to terms that it's just not true no matter how badly I wish it were. I may have lost my identity as an athlete but I’m learning to love and appreciate the sport from another angle.
I didn’t talk a lot about what I was going through to fellow teammates, because I didn’t think they would understand ‘overtraining syndrome’ just as much as I hadn’t a few months prior. In retrospect, I really regret this as I felt so isolated during a really hard time in my life, and felt it was a missed opportunity to help educate and possibly prevent another story. I think the thing that broke the camel’s back was actually my life stress, with the physical stress of the sport being secondary, which is why I don’t think I understood what was happening until it was too late. But this is why platforms like One Athlete are so important and has the potential to help so many athletes. I feel like I’m a drop in an ocean with the same story using different words. Every athlete should get to choose how and when they get to walk away from their sport.