I’m not sure why, but something has been holding me back over the past few years from posting my story of overtraining syndrome here on GXunited. Maybe it’s out of shame for what I did to my body; maybe it’s out of fear of being judged for not being the ‘perfect’ fitness professional, or maybe it’s simply not wanting to post my personal stories here on GXunited. Who knows the reason why, but it’s time I step aside from the fear and share my story to help other fit pros and enthusiasts not fall down the same awful path that I did.
While I hope you don’t find this article because you are experiencing overtraining syndrome, I do hope that my unedited/unabridged story (published originally between 2014-2015) can be a source of inspiration to help you NOT go down the same pitfalls that I did. But if you are, please know that I’m here as a source of support. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an expert, but I am an unlucky person who has had their life changed because of beating my body to hell and experiencing OTS.
Part 1 of 4 | Originally published June 2014
I have a confession to make….Are you ready for this? (Am I ready for this?!?) Well ready or not, here I go.
Hello. My name is Summer, and I am an overtrainned fitness professional who overtime developed a bit of an unhealthy addiction to exercise (I prefer to say junkie, but I think addict is the preferred term when making these confessions!). I love to workout. I spend many hours each day in the gym or out on the roads in the pursuit of becoming a better athlete. Being strong and getting faster is gives me such a thrill. Being in the gym has always been a place I felt comfortable. Lifting weights and teaching group fitness came easy to me. Being inept at sports, the gym was one of the first places where people noticed my abilities.
I started working out in the gym when I was 15. Since then, I have gotten myself more engrossed in the fitness industry. I have found myself always wanting to do more. To become better. And always finding new ways to redefine my limits. I have struggled with the “more is better” mentality for years. Constantly saying “Another class – SURE. Another mile – WHY NOT? Take a day off – what does that MEAN?!?” Fitness has not only become my hobby and a way to stay healthy, it has become my way of life.
Whew, glad that is over. That was really tough to admit to you guys. People have been saying it to me for years, but I have always just smiled, nodded my head, and said, “No…I just have a passion for performance. A passion for being better. And a passion for helping others become the best versions of themselves. Isn’t that a good thing for a fitness professional?”
Many of you may be shaking your head furiously up and down to this confession. Thinking to yourself, “YES THIS IS ME and WHO CARES!?! I love teaching/running/cycling/lifting weights, and I am going to keep doing it for 20 hours per week. My body can take it. More is ALWAYS better.” Well unfortunately for you guys, I have another confession…..
Okay…this is the really hard confession. This is the one that has made me face my ‘addiction’ head on and realize that more is NOT always better. This is the confession that has made me question who I REALLY am…and what my identity REALLY is. Are you ready for it????
I confess to you guys – not only am I an exercise addict, but I am also an overtrained fitness professional. My body has given me a huge middle finger. It has decided that if I am going to continue to do more, it is going to FORCE me to do less by messing with my health. Over the course of the past 3 years it has sent me on a rollercoaster of issues and emotions. Thousands and thousands of dollars, hundreds of doctors’ appointments, and more tests than I can count have forced me to make this confession.
Are you on your feet now yelling “WTF?!? – you are a fitness PROFESSIONAL and you have allowed yourself to become overtrained?” Or thinking “Huh??? What does it mean to be overtrained? It can’t be possible to do TOO much?!?
As much as you are on your feet yelling those things, I am right there with you. Trust me. Just like an alcoholic first admitting that they aren’t just a ‘social drinker’ and that ‘yes, drinking at 9am is a bad thing’; it has taken a lot for me to admit to both myself, my family, my colleagues, and my participants that YES, I may love fitness a bit more than is healthy for my body.
Admitting I have a problem….
One of the downfalls of being a fitness professional who craves knowledge, is that I have both an undergraduate and masters degree in Exercise & Sports Science. I hold multiple certifications from all of the top ranked fitness organizations, and I am constantly working to learn more.
Why is this a bad thing you ask? Because it makes it that much harder to admit that I have a problem. I have all the knowledge, skills, and experience to explain to people the importance of rest and recovery. I can easily encourage clients/participants to pull back in their training when their legs are tired or when their body is fatigued. I know the warning signs…so I should have known how to make them stop on myself.
I will bore you with much more of the science later on about what overtraining is, but just so you have a frame of reference as we continue on, here are many of the common signs/symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Sadly, over the years I have experienced all of these sings/symptoms.
Signs of Overtraining
- Decreased Physical Performance
- General Fatigue
- Loss of Motivation
- Feels of Depression and/or Moodiness
- Change in Appetite
- Feelings of Nausea
- Loss of Body Weight
- Loss of Strength, Coordination, and Maximum Working Capacity
- Muscle Tenderness
- Elevated Resting Heart Rate and/or Blood Pressure
- Increase in Number of Major Injuries (sprains, strains, etc)
- Increase in Upper Respiratory Infections
Furthermore, this is not the platform for me to discuss the details of exercise addiction, but here is a great quote to help you better understand how admitting I am an exercise addict has had the implications it has on my overtraining syndrome.
“Beyond the obvious downsides of overdoing it, such as fatigue and injury, there’s an even more troubling problem. Spending hours at the gym can be a sign of exercise dependence, distinguished by the classic signs of addiction: needing to do more to get the same effect, doing more than you plan to, having trouble cutting back and feeling symptoms of withdrawal, like depression and irritability, when you skip a day or two. It’s not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but some mental health professionals now believe that exercise dependence is a form of behavioral addiction, like gambling.” (Graves, 2014)
Let’s take a walk back in time….
Activity has always been a huge part of my life. From growing up as a dancer, to playing sports in high school, to picking up endurance running in college, exercise is just part of who I am. It was not a surprise to anyone when I decided to go to school for exercise and sports science and pursue a career as a fitness professional. I loved being in the gym. In high school I worked at the local gym and found any opportunity I could to attend classes and learn more about different training techniques. Learning about exercise was easy for me. I enjoyed it and continued to want to know more. That interest in learning lead me to become a group fitness instructor in 2003. From the first time I stepped in front of a group and put a mic on my head I knew it was my calling.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what this calling was going to lead me to do…..
For anyone who is part of the group fitness community, you understand the obsession to always ‘teach one more class. Learn one more format. Push yourself just a little harder.’ My addictive and obsessive personality lead me to do just this. I found myself easily teaching 20+ classes per week. Which if you think about it is CRAZY. That is 20 hours of exercise in one week. The general recommendation is to accumulate 120 minutes (2-hours) of moderate intensity exercise each week. I was doing 10x that JUST IN GROUP FITNESS CLASSES. Most athletes aren’t doing this much activity in one week, and they are highly paid professionals!
Justifying my addiction to myself…
From my first days as a group fitness instructor, and still to this day, my belief has always been that I am not there for my own workout. I am NOT “getting paid to workout”. (And if you are a fitness professional with this mindset, you may want to rethink your career choice). I am there to motivate, instruct, and encourage participants to push their own limits. Therefore, when I am teaching, I am never giving my full efforts or abilities. With this mindset, I always believed that it was necessary for me to still complete my own personal workout outside of my group fitness classes. Whether this was going to another class, completing a strength training routine, or going for a run, I was always finding ways to give myself another workout.
Those ‘other workouts’ became more intense as I found myself migrating towards the world of endurance running in 2005. While I was building my career as a fitness professional, I was also discovering a love and passion for running and endurance sports.
On an aside, you should know I was NEVER a runner. However, I had been inspired by Oprah when I was 13-years-old to complete a marathon, and from that day on I was determined to do one! Once I started running, I found I was actually pretty decent. But moreover, I loved it. Eventually I built up my endurance and abilities and I completed that first marathon (and have gone on to do 2 more full marathons and numerous half-marathons). However, the bad side of this was that I found myself teaching 2-3 classes in a day, and still going out for long runs. On more occasions than I can count I would go run 6-10 miles and then go teach 2-3 group fitness classes. The challenge was that separating my teaching from my personal workouts is not a bad things. However, I found that I wouldn’t always fuel before, during, and after a workout as I needed to. My body was pushing and I wasn’t giving it the calories that it needed to recover. Over the years though, this just became my norm. That became my regular day and regular week.
The symptoms start to appear…
Over time, this ‘new norm’ started to play a toll on me. The first time I remember feeling absolute fatigue, where I found myself constantly getting sick, and when I first remember having lots of trouble sleeping at night was in 2006. I was in my final year of my undergraduate course work as a double major in exercise and sports science & dance, working as a personal trainer/group fitness instructor, and training for my first half marathon. I remember thinking to myself ‘I just don’t feel right. I don’t feel like myself.’ As an exercise science major, research was really important to me, and I had the tools available to me to investigate what was going on. Doctors suggested I simply was ‘living the life of a college student’ and was stressed out and dealing with bad allergies. However, in doing a bit of research on my own I read that I may be in what was a little bit of an overreached state. Meaning that my body was telling me to SLOW DOWN. It was yelling at me to give it a break. It needed more sleep; more calories; and more time to recover. I didn’t want to, but I took a few days off, and low and behold I felt better! Feeling better allowed me to continue on the same path.
Over the years, I would find myself in similar situations time and time again. I would take a few days of rest, and typically would bounce back quickly. People started to make comments to me about how crazy I was with all my exercise; and sadly, I took pride in this. Being able to do more and go further than others was a since of accomplishment for me. Thus, I always wanted to push just a little further than the next person. And this I did. I kept going and going and going. I worked, taught, personal trained, lifted weights, and ran. Often putting in 70+ hour work weeks. Pushing my body to new limits and new extremes for the joy and pleasures I got out of my profession and my personal sports accomplishments.
Unfortunately, this continued push caught up with me again really bad in 2012. I was back in school completing a master’s degree in Kinesiology. For anyone who has gone back to get a masters, you know how time consuming and challenging that can be. Well my crazy self decided it wasn’t just enough to just do the minimum requirements. NO, I was going to try to max myself out each semester with classes (signing up for 18 credit hours my second semester), teach 2 undergraduate lecture courses, teach 10+ group fitness classes per week AND train for a marathon. Yes. I was insane. No. I did not sleep much; and NO I did not get adequate nutrition throughout my day.
In the spring of my first year I found myself insanely sick. For 7 weeks I was without a voice and 5 solid weeks with a CONSTANT headache. My blood levels were up and down and all over the place. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me. I spent more time in doctors’ offices and waiting rooms than I did at home. At one point my doctor had no idea’s left, so sent me to the emergency room because she thought I may have meningitis. (6-hours later, luckily I did not have meningitis!) I was in and out of every doctor’s office one could imagine over the course of those 7 weeks, without any real diagnosis. They would guess certain things, but no one really knew what was going on. They suspected it was a sinus infection that lead to bronchitis that eventually turned into phenomena. I was put on bed rest, and forced to stop doing activity. Which was good, because I could barely run 2 miles without getting exhausted. My ability to lift had diminished, and overall activity was extremely tough for me. Therefore, I resounded myself to doing very little in an effort to just get better and complete my course work.
Eventually, with time, I got better. Within 3 months I started to feel more and more like myself, and I was able to start working out again. Around this time, my husband and I relocated to Florida and I begin working a VERY DEMANDING job while finishing my final semester of graduate work. Unfortunately, I was unhappy in my job (I was now working a 60+ work week and only teaching 1-2 group fitness classes each week), unhappy with my performance in school, and down on myself because I hadn’t been working out like I ‘normally’ did for quite some time. Lack of sleep, stress, and feeling like crap were now my new normal. Therefore, I decided it was time to train for another event. So just 5 months after dealing with major medical issues, I jumped into training for a half-Ironman distance duathlon (3.1 mile run – 56.1 mile bike – 13.1 mile run). I wanted to take on this new challenge as a way to get me back into my old training habits.
I trained and trained for the race. However, a lot of my motivation and drive were lost. I was getting sick a lot, and I was having a really hard time sleeping through the night – leaving me exhausted during the day. I contributed this to the stress of my job, and continued to go through life as normal. By May of 2013 I had had enough with that job and found myself no longer there. I jumped back into teaching and training full time. I was happy again. I was teaching 20+ group classes each week (maxing one week at 32 classes), running my long runs, and overall felt more like myself. Unfortunately though my body started to again feel the toll of these weeks. Recovery was becoming a lot more challenging for me, and more and more of the overtraining syndrome symptoms were starting to sneak in.
The final straw…
By December 2013 I was finding myself sick more than I was well. I was having constant stomach issues, headaches, sinus issues, and a host of other issues. I was never sleeping through the night. I would wake up feeling more exhausted than when I went to bed. More and more I was finding the need to get last minute coverage for my classes, reschedule my clients, and find ways to just stay in bed. My body had finally had enough.
Are you on your feet yelling at me to STOP at this point? Are you saying “you are an IDIOT. What are you thinking??? WHY are you continuing to push and do so much?!?” If so, you were not alone. My husband, boss, and coworkers were all saying the same thing….
However, I didn’t listen to it. I would take 1-2 days to ‘get better’, and then jump right back into life as normal.
Over the months, I continued to get worse and worse. My energy levels were down. My sleep was horrible. My head constantly hurt. And my stomach was not allowing me to eat very much. However, I always figured I just had a stomach bug, a sinus infection, a cold, or some other ‘bug’ that was in the air. Never did I think there was anything ‘wrong’ with me. So I continued to push through.
Finally in May 2014 my body said “NO MORE. I am NOT allowing you to continue to treat me this way. I am going to FORCE you to stop.” And stop I did. I remember going out for a 3-mile run and barely being able to make it 1-mile. That day I made an appointment to see a holistic doctor that people had been recommending to me.
Through working with him and having LOTS of blood tests done, we determined that my thyroid levels were off, my adrenals were not functioning correctly, that my testosterone levels were low, AND that the mono virus I had in high school had re-surged in my body due to excess amounts of stress (remember: while exercise is a good form of stress, it is still a stressor one the body, and unfortunately our body is not smart enough to discern between good and bad stressors, so it just bundles them all together). All of these were lab values that should NOT be seen in someone my age, who eats well and is active. My doctor was baffled by the findings, but gave me a whole bunch of herbal supplements and suggested I take some time off from activity. He also placed me on a ‘modified elimination diet’ as a way to rule out food allergies.
Unfortunately 6-weeks later, the herbal supplements did very little to make me feel better, and the ‘modified elimination diet’ didn’t show any major food allergies. Therefore, I was back at square one. I was feeling like crap all the time, couldn’t complete a workout to save my life, and had no answers to what was going on.
It wasn’t until I was reading an article from the National Strength & Conditioning Association about overtraining syndrome that I started to connect the dots of my life. They described an overtrained athlete as one who experienced performance drops, felt sluggish, couldn’t sleep through the night, had abnormal thyroid and adrenal functions. They went on to describe many more symptoms that I currently was facing, and lightbulbs starting to go off. It was at that moment that I said to myself “OMG. I am an overtrained fitness professional….I have done this to myself and I have no idea what to do.”
I went back to my doctor, discussed my findings, and he agreed that overtraining could be the root cause of all my medical issues over the years. So on that day in June 2014, I told myself I was not going to run for 4 months. My workouts were going to be limited to the 5 group fitness classes that I was teaching each week and maybe a few other ‘play’ activities such as dancing, rock climbing, and yoga. However, I was not going to ‘force’ myself to do anything. If my body wanted me to rest, I was going to rest. But ultimately, I was going to admit to myself that I had a problem and that I needed help to get better.
Check out Part 2 for a full discussion on what Overtraining Syndrome really is. Use it as a check to see if you may be leading yourself down the same path as me…
Read the Full Story…
While you can get an essence of my struggles with overtraining syndrome by reading one part of the story, you really need to read the full 4-part series in order to get a true essence of the story, struggle, and changes that occurred over time. I originally published these stories in 2014 and 2015 as a way to process my emotions; today I hope they are a source of motivation and support as you work to overcome your own personal challenges.
It’s also important for me to note here that when I published this in June 2014 I was on a downhill slide to a major case of depression. In November 2014, shortly after publishing part 3 I set off on a 8-week hiatus of life to try and regain a sense of who I was and ‘find myself’ after feeling like I had lost everything. It was a very tough time for me both personally and professionally. I feel the raw emotions from that stage of life shine through in this article – which may make it tough to read for anyone experiencing the same situation.
While I never became suicidal, I was majorly depressed. These days I am a strong mental health advocate, so before diving into the article, it’s important for me to share this reminder. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
I share my story with the hopes that even one person may recognize that the “MORE MORE MORE” culture of both group fitness and endurance athletes is not always the best. Sometimes less really is more.
If you have any comments/questions/feedback, or just want to talk about your journey. Comment below, email me, or continue the discussion in our Facebook Group. I would love to hear your stories and see how we can help each other.
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BS: Exercise & Sports Science
NSCA: Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
ACSM: Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
Yoga Alliance: 200-hr RYT
ACE: Group Fitness Instructor
Balanced Body: Reformer Level 1 Coach
Schwinn: Indoor Cycle Instructor
RRCA: Running Coach