Friday, 18 September 2015

And then the wheels came off-part two

The last few weeks have been interesting. I have gone from day’s where I looked up races to attack, to day’s where I was ready to put my bikes on Ebay. Day's where I was ready to take on the world to day's where I was a sobbing mess. It was thanks to great friends who reached out and would mirror my thoughts that I started to think clearly again. Friends who had been through similar emotions and understood. Friends like Jantienne who with her brutal honesty simply made me question what I was doing as to her it did not look like something which was bringing me joy. She had been reading my blogs and pointed out this had been going on for 2 years now. So I did the same, went through my blogs and realised I was in exactly the same place if not in a worse place than I found myself 12 months ago. I am a veterinarian, I am supposed to be smart, but for a smart person I have been extremely stupid. I managed to dig myself the same big hole I was in last season. On hind sight I probably never managed to get out of it. I never intended to write a 'And then the wheels came off-part two' after writing
Training in Scotland is often lonely and I have been missing the camaraderie and support I had when I was part of MarathonMTB

The word ‘overtraining’ to me is like a swear word, I even know coaches who don’t really believe in the concept. But I heard it around me for the last couple of years, people suggesting that I was exactly that : overtrained. Strangely enough for me as an athlete it was much easier to accept that I was simply not good enough and use that as a reason for my under performance than the realisation that I needed a rest. The solution for not being good enough, is training harder you see, when the solution for being overtrained is complete rest.
'Resting day's' are spend hill walking with Michael
Last year I thought it was all in my head, my own confidence which slowed me down, the change in jobs, countries, hemispheres and the transition to elite racing in Europe which had intimidated me. The only physical sign other than fatigue was a very low heart rate. When I questioned people about my low heart rate and the inability to be able to push my HR to levels I would normally train at, I would generally get answers like ‘your legs must be to weak’ ‘you must be getting fitter’ or people not really having an answer at all. It worried me last year, for a pace I was normally sitting at 140-150 bpm, I was now sitting at 125 bpm and when I had to push it into 155-160bpm I would not be able to hold it for longer than a few minutes whilst the perceived effort was far greater, like I was going all out rather than a tempo effort. This caused for the biggest frustration in my training. I got tested last year and asked the cardiologist about this who had no answers as I tested fine for a 20min test, and although yes my heart rate was naturally low it was responding appropriately to exercise. I had not trained for 2 weeks when I did the test however.
Open water swimming in Scotland is a challenge due to the cold
With the all clear from cardiologists and respiratory specialists last year I was happy to start my winter training, thinking I had it all under control. I was forced to take a month off due to a nasty concussion after a fall of the MTB in my last race of the season and for me that counted as rest. As a medical person I should have known that it takes a lot of energy for a body to heal, and I could not count that as proper rest. And to be honest, my way of resting was following Michael up Munro’s in Scotland’s demanding weather conditions.
A great start of the season qualifying for MTB World Champs with an injured back
This season it went from bad to worse, my body was trying to slow me down. First I suffered a lower back injury early in the year due to which in my eyes I lost a lot of training and tried to make up for it with extra (not instructed by Nico) sessions.
With the MTB World Champs ahead of me and the Inferno later in August, I was ready to really attack the training. I ignored the warning signs of my at times very low HR and decided it was just me. I had day’s where I  was back in my normal HR zones but as the season progressed and I was getting more fatigued I stopped using the HR monitor as it demotivated me. I wanted it so bad that I was fooling myself. And doing most session with only dog Fynn as a witness, there was no one really there to say ‘stop’
Proud to represent the Netherlands at the World champs but it came with a toll
Close to the Inferno I had sessions where I felt like fainting and routinely my lips turned blue after a big day out on the bike or run. Looking back now I was very bad with nutrition during training, organising food costs time, and food shopping was the first thing which I would ban from the to do list (apart from the dishes and vacuum cleaning) There were 5hrs rides which I would do on just one banana. Often I had to back a ride like that up with another 5-6hrs training session the next day with a depleted body. On average I had been training 18hrs/week on top of a 40-50hrs work week and I had been doing that week in week out for almost 3 years. My GI system went into protest and I started to have stomach pains which would not resolve and would leave me paralised at times. I could not process food properly anymore. But even that I ended up ignoring.

The Inferno disaster was the last drop. Its failure was a combination of circumstances but the stress involved had pushed me into a complete (lucky for me) short lived melt down. I had barely enough energy to get to work every morning. When I told Nico that I did not understand why I was so tired and why I was not performing, he answered “I think you are the only one who does not understand, the demands that come with your job as a veterinarian, the pressure you put on yourself, and the conditions you train under are tough enough to push anyone over the edge.
Longing for the feeling of being able to lead a bunch of men up a hill
My friend Jantiene mentioned the word ‘burnout’, she made me open my eyes. Reluctantly I googled the words ‘overtraining’ ‘burnout’. Words which made me feel weak, soft, incapable. Words I really did not want to be associated with. I stumbled upon a couple of great articles which could explain exactly the way I felt. This first paragraph from a blog by hit the nail on the head.
Why can't I get my heart rate up to its usual rate on my run or ride?" "Why is my heart rate so much lower than usual when I work out?" Scour the internet, try to find why you can't perform a given workout at your usual heart rate, and you will almost definitely be misled. The form of overtraining most endurance athletes are most susceptible to is rarely discussed. In turn, a form of overtraining with completely opposing signs and symptoms is discussed. This drives endurance athletes whom are overtrained or on the verge of being overtrained to keep on digging that dangerous hole which is overtraining, and prevents them from reaching their potential’
Its the best feeling when you can really push your body to hurt, its a different kind of hurting than the fatigue due to overtraining
In another scientific paper I found more information on these symptoms being caused by a tired parasympathetic system. This paragraph which explained all my symptoms.  
“The parasympathetic nervous system is also called the autonomic nervous system and controls vegetative functions such as making your heart beat, controlling breathing and digestive functions. Parasympathetic dominant symptoms include the resting heart rate ‘appearing’ normal but failing to rise easily during an effort. When the effort is reduced the heart rate falls very quickly. Many athletes mistakenly interpret this as a sign of being very fit, but their performance is poor. Other symptoms include feeling spacey, fast gastric transit time, incomplete evacuation of the stool and disturbed sleep patterns.”
I emailed good friend and very experienced coach Alister Russell. He knew me well, he was the one who turned me from a weekend warrior into an athlete.He also had access to lots of scientific papers and working closely together  to D-squad legend Darren Smith, I knew he would be the one to ask what to do next.
His response was “well done! not ,many people manage to really overtrain. Most get a bit tired and back off. So you are part of a fairly exclusive club. The not so good news is that the only way out of it is absolute rest for at least a month if not longer"
The first thing I did now I had time and did not have to worry about injury it was going back to my first love
So that’s it, I am overtrained, depleted my parasympathetic system. Probably not a great surprise to the people who are close to me. I still hate the words, and I am still uncomfortable with the diagnosis. I have to learn to do nothing, to rest, to trust its ok. To let go. I am at that stage where I have no choice or I will have to make this hole my home.
Big thank you to all the people reaching out to me and making me face reality. Strangely enough I am looking forward to give it one more go next season. But first a few months where I have to  embrace being lazy and beat this 'overtraining thing'

“Optimist: someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a cha-cha”

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