Right off the bat I am going to be honest with you. This post is as much a cathartic exercise for myself, as it is meant to be informative. Bits and pieces of this have tried to creep into almost every blog post I sit down to write, so I need to dump it and move on. Take it or leave it.
My experience with over-training is a large part of why I became a coach. Experiencing first hand what over-training does to a body has a great impact on the kind of coach I am today, and why I often error on the side of caution, even with competitive athletes.
5-10 years ago very few people would have been at risk for over-training, and the conversation really would have only been relevant in athletic circles. Today things are different. With the high intensity craze in the fitness world today more and more people walk the line of over-training. Not only is high-intensity a common choice of training but the “go harder and more often” attitude pervades as well.
There are a couple things worth noting before moving forward.
What is Over-training?
Simply put over-training occurs when you are doing more work than your body can handle and recover from. This can lead to injuries, sickness, loss of sex-drive, decreased performance, depression, loss of appetite, etc. In some cases this can take years to recover from, and in some cases the damage done is irreversible.
There is no such thing as over-training, only under-recovering.
I agree with this, but I think this is often taken out of context and used as justification for people to do more training who have no business doing more training. Training is stressful to the body, just like lack of sleep or a shitty job. If your capacity for stress is already capped out, (which is likely the case if you are plateau’d and think you need more training), if you want to add more stress (extra-training), something has to give if you want to gain benefit and avoid complications from the added training. That means you need to add significant calories to your day, quit your job so you can reduce stress, sleep an extra hour a night, take “vitamins”, etc. Most people continue with the same lifestyle while adding training volume and continue not seeing results. If you do this, you will either be wasting your time, aging yourself, or you will get sick/injured/loss of sex-drive, etc. So, yes, if you are a full-time athlete, and your job is training, then this adage may apply, but if you are a normal person, it is more than possible for you to be doing too much to the detriment of your health and performance.
Resiliency- Everyone has a different capacity for handing stress.
If you follow James Fitzgerald, winner of the first CF Games, Canadian, and founder of Opex Fitness, he often references resilience as the main quality required for success in the sport of fitness. I believe this can be extended to many other sports as well, and even academia and business. A person's resilience, or ability to handle stress, is largely a part of their make-up. Some people have a big reserve, and some have less to work with. Instagram is a great place to find examples of Crossfit Athletes with amazing resilience. Some of them do absolutely ridiculous training like Fran on the 4:00 til failure, and dumb-shit like that. Despite the immense amount of stress they are putting their body through, somehow they continue improving, don’t get injured, put on muscles, etc. These are freaks. A very small part of the population. Some people might be able to carry on like this for two years then crash, and some might be able to go on like this for 10+ years. For the non-freaks, which I can confidently refer to as everyone else, there is a limit, and it counts down. Think of it like a bank account and every time you go “high intensity” or lactic or over-do it, it is like spending a couple dollars. But you don’t know how much you have in the account.
My journey through overtraining
I became obsessed with training somewhere between the second semester of grade 12 and the following fall. I had signed with a Junior A hockey team, and was really undersized, so I decided that I was going to “bulk-up”. Even though I’d never be the tallest on my team, at-least I could do something to not be the weakest or the lightest. That summer I really over-did things. My dad was generous enough to pay for me to train at the university with the Human Performance Center with other hockey players my age. I did this training in the morning, but felt that I wasn’t getting enough weights. I would go home, eat, rest, hang out with my girlfriend (which was also physically taxing somedays), and then go to a gym at night and lift-weights. This landed me in the hospital. I was extremely sick, had pains in my side, and my piss was the color of coca-cola. I was admitted and the doctors said it was a kidney infection as my creatinine levels were really high. Knowing what I know now, this was classic Rhabdo. I got Rhabdo before Crossfit made it cool. Furthermore, I had depleted my immune system so much that I was diagnosed with Chronic Tonsillitis. The doctors said that any time I exerted myself too much I would get a throat infection. The only answer was to get my tonsils removed at age 18.
This resulted in me not being able to report to training camp. Between the kidney problems, and the tonsillectomy I lost all of the weight I gained in the summer. I reported to my team out of shape, weak, and hadn’t skated in a couple months. I didn’t last very long.
I was living out my dream of playing college lacrosse the next year at a small school in New England. I was recruited for lacrosse, but the school had a much higher ranked hockey team. I decided that I would try out for the hockey team as a walk-on. My favourite movies at that time were Rudy and Invincible which were both stories about “walk-ons”. It is a good thing I was young and not doing a lot of thinking at this point because I never stopped to evaluate what I was putting myself through. 6-8 am M-W-F was dry-land training with the hockey team and at the same time on T/TH with the lacrosse team. Then it was off to a full class load. After class I had lacrosse practise, and after lacrosse practise I had hockey practise. I didn’t want to “puss-out” so I refused to skip practises or training sessions from either team. The try-outs were long and hard with the hockey team as you had to go to all the dry-land training and the practises for over a month before the team was picked. On top of this, the veterans didn’t like walk-ons, so the majority gave me the silent treatment until the day I made the team.
Having the ability to push myself to great lengths is on one-hand the reason I was able to make teams. However, the same ability, paired with not knowing when to take it easy, is why I ended up hurt, or underperforming throughout my entire career as an athlete.
I haven’t yet shared the full extent of my training and schedule during this time. Once again I didn’t feel like I was getting enough weights in with the team training on either teams. I was losing weight, but I wanted to stay big. I had to fit in extra work outs on weekends or late at night. This was a problem however because the gym had a fairly early closing time especially on weekends. I was so obsessed I scoured the gym for a way in. I found that there wasn’t a security alarm, and there was a door panel with four tiny screws that I could unscrew. I was literally sneaking around at night and breaking into a gym to lift weights. I had a crazy Swedish partner in crime from the hockey team, and we would pump bench-press and wait in silence when the security guard did his rounds.
Now at the time I thought I was being a bad ass. A true athlete. Just like Rod Brind’ Amour. I was certain that if I kept getting stronger I’d continue improving as an athlete. I was so obsessed with training that it became a security blanket, and a near compulsion. If I missed lifting weights, I’d feel weak, small, and sometimes not feel like going out. Furthermore I never stopped to evaluate whether or not all my training was actually making me a better hockey or lacrosse player, but sooner then later that didn’t matter.
After a couple months of this schedule and output I woke up one morning and found that I had no feeling in my right foot from just below the knee down and couldn’t walk normally. I went to hockey practise that day and every time I crossed over on my right-side I fell. Nothing there. I found out soon enough that I had a herniated disc in my back and it had messed with my sciatic nerve. Rod Brind' Amour had more resilience than I did it turns out.
This resulted in me not dressing for a single season game with the hockey team after all that hard-work, and never getting past fall-ball with the lacrosse team. I didn’t return for a second semester because it was thought at the time that I would need surgery to get my foot back.
I will skip over my last year of junior hockey because it was much of the same and ended in injury as well. College lacrosse is when I started to learn more about training, but this basically meant I found more effective ways to deplete myself. It would be a common day of the week for me to have a 2-3 hour lacrosse practise, train with the team, and then lift weights on my own because as always I wasn’t getting enough. Again, somehow at that time, I never stopped to evaluate if all the hard-work I was doing was translating into better performance on the field. It wasn’t. But training had become such an addiction by this point it was like breathing. I didn’t stop to think that while I was in the gym destroying my legs, the guys I was competing against for playing time were at home resting, so they could perform better at practise. I had it all wrong.
When I look back on lacrosse nowadays I have a few memories that dominate because they are so vibrant that I can still taste them. The last game I played in a Knights uniform was against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and I was on the first line as an offensive middie. I was finally experiencing some success. We lost. While we were being lambasted in the film-room the day after, one of my “dodges” from the top was being reviewed. The ball was swung around the net and worked up the side-line as I trotted up to a high position on the left-side of the field. I caught the ball and ran at the defender covering me. I slowed my speed, gave a stutter-step and pushed off my right leg to streak down the wing looking for a shot. The key to dodging is change of speed/change of direction. So after you stutter-step and get the defenders hips to move you blast out the opposite way and hope to get some separation between your hands and his stick. The video of this dodge is one of the best examples of over-training fatigue I can think of. I remember the dodge so clearly. I felt like I exploded out of the stutter-step and went from 15-60mph (proverbially) in an instant. I was actually excited to see it on film because I thought I’d be looking like Mike Vick. The video showed something different. There was no spring in my step, and no change of speed. I had completely lost my top-end power and speed. Completely flat. I still remember sitting in the film room and being a bit shocked at the difference between how I thought my body was performing and how it actually was performing. There was just nothing left in the tank.
It was the last week of our fall-ball, which is the equivalent of “Hell-Week” which happens in the first semester of school and lasts for over a monthl. The actual season isn’t actually til the second semester, but fall-ball is extremely competitive with coaches trying to weed out the fakers, rookies looking to flex their stuff, and vets trying to keep or solidify playing time. Since we had a poor fall-ball tournament the coaches were on us, and to top it off one of our players showed up late to practise. This just isn’t allowed. We had to run hills that day. We ran hill sprints for over an hour in full gear. The boys were stiff the next day, and unfortunately one of our players forgot his sweats. This meant that even though it was around 0 degress celsius we’d have to practise in shorts. If one person didn’t have sweats, no one could wear them. By then end of fall-ball the body is pretty beat up. Pair this with all the hill sprints the day before and the cold temperatures, and you have the end of my days playing lacrosse. Once again I went in for a dodge, stuttered, planted, got a great jump on my d-man. I didn't get far. There was a loud click followed by a surge of pain I have trouble describing but I would use worlds like immense, and soul shaking. The pain doesn’t actually last that long when you tear an ACL, but it is the most emotional 5-7 seconds of agony you can imagine. I still choke up today when I see someone tear an ACL.
I was lying on the ground and I could see my breathe through my mask. I was gritting my teeth and my stomach cramped from clenching. I knew in an instant that it was all over. This was my second ACL tear and I was finally ready to admit defeat. I was done.
Once again, it was all over before it began. I missed my senior season.
By the age of 24 I had virtually destroyed my body through a combination of over-training, lacrosse, and hockey. I had a herniated disc in my back, an inguinal hernia, I had separated both my shoulders multiple times, tore all the tendons in my right foot, and torn both ACL’s. And for what really? A game?
Would I do it all again? Yes, undoubtedly. But believe me, I would do things differently.
I try not to be bitter, because there are no guarantees that if I trained smarter that things would have turned out differently. But sometimes I can’t help but think about how poorly my training was aligned with my goals, how often I played through pain and injuries only making them worse, and how I let training take away the energy I needed to perform on the field/ice. I wonder how I let training become such an obsession and the insecurities surrounding it. I wonder how I let all my passion get channelled into the wrong areas.
Today, I mostly worry about how my body is going to feel at the age of 40. I still feel a lot of these injuries daily, and am terrified of the day when I lose the ability to enjoy my body as I do now.
So, as you can see, I learned things the hard way. The really hard way. If I believed in fate I would say that it all happened for a reason, so that I can teach people how to be smarter with their training and avoid some of the pitfalls I did. But I don’t so I’ll say that it happened. I went through it, and therefore I am in a unique position to help others be smarter with their training and have a healthy relationship with training. Thank-you for listening,