by Amber Pierce
A big part of what I love about being a professional athlete is helping promote lifestyle choices that lead to better health and overall quality of life. Fitness plays an integral role in maintaining and optimizing health, and people often look to professional athletes as paragons of human health. Unfortunately, fitness alone does not equate to health – a lesson I learned the hard way.
We gauge fitness as a measure of performance. As a cyclist, I track threshold power or watts per kilogram of bodyweight as measures of fitness; a runner or swimmer might track pace. While good health provides the necessary foundation for optimal fitness, in reality, the parameters we use to gauge fitness do not directly relate to health, only to performance. As a result, great fitness can actually mask poor health.
Not too far into my racing season this year, I found myself dreading training sessions and even races. Normally, I love riding my bike and look forward to the challenge of a hard workout or race, so the loss of motivation should have been a blatant red flag. Instead, I kept pushing. When my “numbers” (the power data I use to track my fitness) didn’t progress as expected, I would fret over my “lack of fitness” and train harder. My performance in races soon plateaued and began to decline. I got sick, again and again. Missing training due to illness only made me push harder to “make up for” lost fitness once I’d get over each ailment. In the meantime, personal circumstances unrelated to my sport and beyond my control continued to take an emotional toll, which I tried to mentally set aside in order to continue training and racing.
From the moment I crossed the finish of the final race of my season I didn’t touch my bicycle for more than six weeks. Meanwhile, I finally decided to check in with my doctor and got some blood tests. The results astounded me: I was anemic, and my hormone levels had dropped below the low end of the normal range. Worse, my LDL-HDL cholesterol ratios and triglyceride levels indicated I was at very high risk for heart disease.
I’m a professional athlete. That after racing a season of World Cups, I would need to worry about endocrine problems or heart disease boggled my mind, but my body provided the proof: I may have been competing at a very high level, but my health had deteriorated… severely.
How could this have happened?
Stress and Overtraining
Stress itself is a good thing. The human body possesses a miraculous ability to adapt to stress, and seen in this light, stress may be the single greatest source of human strength – physical, mental and emotional. It is stress that challenges us and therefore enables us to grow, becoming fitter, smarter and more resilient. To do this, however, the body requires the opportunity to adapt, i.e. recovery. To make the most of the stress in our lives, to become the fittest, smartest and most resilient we can be, we must balance stress with recovery. When the body’s ratio of stress to recovery becomes too great, both health and performance begin to suffer, and over time deteriorate to a state of overtraining.
Physiologically, the body responds to mental and emotional stress the same way it responds to physical stress: by releasing stress hormones, including cortisol. In response to stress, the body begins to produce cortisol at the expense of producing other hormones like DHEA, weakening the immune system and further disrupting the production of other important hormones. Cortisol increases inflammation in the body, increasing the stress of normal physical training and therefore, the need for recovery. Elevated cortisol also disrupts sleep patterns, preventing the body from sleeping as deeply as normal, thereby reducing the quality of recovery even during sleep. Over time, and without adequate recovery, this cascade of effects becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of increased need for recovery (increased immune system stress and inflammation) and reduced quality and efficacy of existing recovery (sleep).
If not addressed, overtraining can lead to serious consequences; in my case, those included anemia, hypothyroid, dangerously high LDL-HDL cholesterol ratios and triglyceride levels (high risk for heart disease) and an impaired immune system. I felt these physical/chemical effects as deep fatigue, lack of motivation, weight-gain, frequent illness, anxiety and depression, not to mention compromised athletic performance. Not only my performance suffered, but also my health – physical, mental and emotional: my quality of life as a whole.
When an athlete experiences a physical injury, the cause is often obvious, the extent of damage can be seen or easily measured, and the treatment and prognosis are usually clear. In a way, overtraining is a biochemical or hormonal injury. Over time, elevated stress wreaks havoc on your hormones, which in turn affect everything from your mood to digestion to bone health. These imbalances constitute serious injuries and although they may not be visible or immediately obvious, they can pose serious health risks and require as much attention, treatment and healing as any physical injury.
The key is to prevent the cycle of more stress and compromised recovery in the first place, by matching your overall stress levels with rest and recovery.
I’m a professional athlete; it is literally my job to manage this stress-recovery balance, and to know when my body needs recovery. So where did I go wrong?
Learn From My Mistakes
I made two very big, very common mistakes, which ultimately led to overtraining. First, I misinterpreted genuine fatigue and loss of motivation as laziness, though in fact, these feelings provided two very clear signs of the first stages of overtraining. Certainly, some days one should push through feeling tired, so as not to give in to laziness. (Even professional athletes feel lazy from time to time!) But when the tired feeling creeps deeper and becomes constant, or when low motivation and hints of depression or anxiety begin to appear, it’s likely you’ve already pushed too far and have become overtrained.
Second, I stuck to a schedule of recovery that accounted only for training (physical) stress, not realizing that other stresses in my life – emotional and mental – had not only increased my need for recovery, but had also reduced the quality and efficacy of what recovery I was getting. To balance stress with recovery, one must account for the sum total of stress in one’s life, not just the training stress!
After this season, once the problem became clear, I took a good, long break, essentially allowing by body to hit the reset button. My health and sense of well-being slowly returned, but the question remained: how to prevent this from happening again?
The obvious answer is to get more recovery, but to do so is more complicated than it seems. As an example, let’s take a typical day from my season this year. I’d wake up, feeling unmotivated, not wanting to even get out of bed. Despite having just woken from eight hours of sleep, I’d feel tired, not looking forward to the day, and certainly not wanting to train. I’d consider what to do: perhaps I need a rest day. Then, my well-honed (and perhaps overactive) sense of discipline would engage: no, I lost four days of training last week due to that cold; I can’t miss another opportunity to get fitter.
This internal struggle would result in one of two outcomes. One would be that I would train anyway, robbing my body of much-needed recovery, adding to the already-heavy load of accumulated stress, and exacerbating the ongoing problem. Or, I would take the day off. You might think this would be a great option, given that I so badly needed the recovery, but in reality, I would spend the whole day questioning whether I’d made the right choice, or was just being lazy; I’d berate myself for not training, feeling guilty and anxious, stressing about losing fitness. The mental and emotional stress I experienced even on my rest days would easily negate whatever physical recovery might have been gained.
Ultimately, the athlete is the best judge of whether rest or training is best, because only the athlete knows exactly how he or she feels. Unfortunately, this subjectivity leaves plenty of room for the athlete to question his or her own feelings and decisions, and as was the case for me, this can lead to additional, unnecessary stress and poor recovery. The ithlete system, however, provides quantitative feedback that effectively eliminates this problem.
My Solution: ithlete
ithlete measures Heart Rate Variability (HRV); when you take your pulse, you’re actually averaging the number of beats per minute. In reality, the length of time between heartbeats varies, even at rest. Measuring the degree to which the length of time between heartbeats varies gives an extremely accurate picture of the body’s current stress and fitness levels (read more here: http://myithlete.com/FAQ.html#faq5). The fitter you become, the higher your HRV, but if the stress-recovery ratio becomes unbalanced, HRV decreases. The ithlete tracks HRV daily, allowing you to develop a benchmark and then determine for sure whether that tired feeling is a signal to rest, or a harmless side-effect of training.
The impact of this simple tool is profound. Now, if the ithlete tells me I need rest, I can take the day off without questioning my decision. I can recover far better without the deleterious effects of second-guessing myself. Likewise, if the ithlete says I have the green light to train at full gas, I don’t wonder whether I’m pushing myself too hard again. Not only has it helped me to get more from my physical training, but it has also relieved a huge amount of mental and emotional stress.
Further, the ithlete helps me learn which aspects of my recovery work best. For example, I’ve noticed consistent patterns revealing the close link between my diet and HRV; clearly nutrition is a key component of recovery and managing stress, but the ithlete is helping me fine tune this aspect of my training with surprising precision. Likewise, I’m learning how much sleep I need for a given level of training intensity, or how much more sleep I need when mental and emotional stresses arise.
My motivation and energy have returned stronger than ever, and despite getting back to a heavy training schedule, I’ve been able to maintain a healthful balance with adequate recovery. The difference between how I feel now versus how I felt even a few months ago is astounding. I finally feel like myself again!
Interestingly, my level of motivation correlates almost perfectly with my HRV: the more motivated I feel, the higher the HRV, and vice versa. This illustrates yet another benefit of using the ithlete; it is restoring my confidence in my ability to read my body and sense when I need recovery. The way that a heart-rate monitor or power meter can help train your innate sense of perceived exertion, the ithlete helps me hone my innate sense of knowing when enough is enough – an extremely valuable skill that can serve anyone, whether an athlete or not!