High guys! Sorry it’s been a while since my last post, I’ve been busy with work, and I’ve had a lot of planning to do for things coming up. Part of that planning includes this new regime I’ll be sharing with you! This a longer post than usual but read on to find out all about overtraining and metabolic damage, the symptoms, causes, my previously crazy schedule and my new regime!
So, if you read my most recent post about my experience with the Insanity workouts, you’ll have seen a couple of the reasons I decided to stop following that programme, and some thoughts about changing my cross-training routine. In the couple of days that followed that post, I was feeling pretty rubbish, and in the course of general fitness-related reading online, I came across something that really seemed to apply to me.
There are various labels for this physical state I was finding myself in, the most popular being “metabolic damage”, “overtraining” and “adrenal fatigue”. The reason there’s no proper term for it is because it’s not a medically recognised syndrome: many people deny that it exists, but there is no denying the relevant manifestation of symptoms. This article I feel explains it best… there is an area between ‘healthy’ and ‘disease’ at which the body can be in a state of dysfunction. You may not measure highly enough on some test or scale to be diagnosed with a specific condition, but the body is not working as it should and is somewhere on the path leading away from health and towards disease.
Metabolic damage and Overtraining
Metabolic damage, or overtraining, is something that happens mainly to athletes, especially those who need to keep their weight low for competition. To be specific, talking about metabolic damage is something caused by very restrictive dieting in combination with a lot of exercise and other stress. Overtraining is more specific to way too much exercise and not enough rest. Adrenal fatigue is more likely caused by stressful lifestyle and/ or occur after a serious or prolonged illness, although it can also be seen as a manifestation of metabolic damage and overtraining. Either way, the symptoms for all of these things are pretty much the same: it occurs when the metabolism is put under the prolonged stress of increased exercise (both amount and intensity); decreased calorific intake and cutting out food groups such as carbohydrates; lack of rest and recovery time, including lack of sleep; other lifestyle stress, and possibly illness. If this continues for long enough, the adrenal and thyroid glands become overworked an inefficient, the nervous system is not able to function as it should, and the digestive system and immune system do not work properly. This leads to many problems and symptoms including:
Slowing and stopping of weight loss, and eventually weight gain
Loss of muscle tone, feeling of weakness in the muscles, muscle soreness that is not directly relevant to exercise
Chronic fatigue, including feeling exhausted upon waking even after sleeping for a good length of time and feeling extremely tired about an hour after exercise
Increased hunger and cravings for sugary, salty and fatty foods
Becoming very hungry during the night and/ or waking up ravenous
Low blood sugar
Low blood pressure
Higher energy levels at night and difficulty sleeping
Irregular periods and loss of periods in women
Weakened immune system (picking up illnesses easily, recovering slowly)
Digestive problems such as gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, loose stool, and developing sensitivities or intolerances to foods which did not cause problems in the past
Dry skin and scalp
Dark circles under the eyes
Slow thinking, poor memory and difficulty concentrating
Lack of motivation
Depression and anxiety
Frequent need to urinate
There are more symptoms, but you get the idea of the sort of thing that starts happening to the body when in this dysfunctional state. I have been following a pretty healthy and sufficient diet, and although there have been periods where I probably wasn’t eating enough carbohydrates (which are important after exercise to help the body recover), I never seriously restricted or got to a low weight or low body fat percentage. What I am suffering from more specifically is overtraining, and adrenal fatigue. As I said, these things are all more or less the same: a dysfunctional state in the grey area between health and illness leading to similar symptoms and complications. Many people might say these conditions do not exist, but I have been suffering many of these symptoms, and my training regime and lifestyle fit the described causes, so regardless of what we call it and what its medical status is, I want to be taking action to reverse this damage!
How did this come about?
Since starting at my ballet school two years ago, things have often been difficult. As my school offer a vocational course which does not lead to a degree or diploma, there’s no student finance or any funding available. I have an arrangement with the school which involves me working on reception in exchange for my classes so that I don’t have to pay fees, but I still have to fund my living expenses. That means that for the last two years I’ve been working as a bartender, in a few different places, because it’s one of the very few jobs that can offer me hours around my training schedule. This means that after a day full of class and cross-training, I’m often setting off to work where I not only spend the night on my feet and do quite a bit of lifting and carrying, but get home and go to bed extremely late. I’ll get home from work between 2am and 3am, and I’m back up early the next morning for class and cross-training. This lack of sleep is bad enough short-term, but it’s been going on a long time. Luckily, now that I’m living with my boyfriend, the financial burden is shared and I don’t have to work full-time any more. I have recently started a new pattern of shifts that allows me to work one weeknight, Saturday night and Sunday daytime, minimising the lack of sleep. However, that still means that on my only day off from ballet, which is Sunday, I’m still on my feet all day.
I’ve also been under pressure, not only from the school but mostly from myself, to lose weight, gain strength and progress technically. There was a time when I first started that I definitely wasn’t eating enough and lost quite a bit of weight very quickly, but since then I have not been on any particularly crazy or restrictive diets. I have tried many different approaches to eating in an attempt to lose weight, such as cutting out carbohydrates, cutting out all forms of sugar (including fruit etc.), and every-other-day fasting. I have never had significant or lasting success, and all the yo-yo dieting is definitely not good for the metabolism! I have also been gradually adding things to my cross-training routine, always looking for where I can fit in something extra to give me the edge. Although my cross-training experience has been largely very positive, I did not realise how badly the lack of rest was affecting me. As well as class six days per week and my bar shifts, including the 45-minute walk to and from work, I was doing daily conditioning exercises which kept increasing as I got stronger. Initially I was also doing floor barre and pilates three times a week, which I stopped but kept going to intermittently, and I changed up for the gym and swimming, then stopped for a time, just going for a (very) occasional run or to the outdoor gym in the park. Then recently I added more cardio into my routine with the Insanity workouts, without decreasing my other exercise or increasing sleep, calories or rest days. I have been going on like this, gradually adding more and more to my routine, and having virtually no rest days and not enough sleep.
There is also significant lifestyle stress involved in my situation; obviously having to work to fund my living expenses has been really hard, and most of the time over the last two years I’ve been living with the constant stress of not quite being able to make ends meet. It’s been much better recently, but there’s always worry about money here and there. Then I’ve been stressing about not being able to lose weight, about feeling like I’m not progressing at ballet, about having to work in a job I don’t enjoy which takes so much away from my training just to pay the bills- even though I have been happy overall, there has been a lot of stress going on in the background which every now and then all builds up and I get completely overwhelmed. I know it’s silly to get so worked up but that’s what happens when all these little things come together, especially when I’m so exhausted! I don’t want to seem like I am complaining; I feel so lucky to be able to train and do what I love every single day, I love my home, I love living and studying in London, but these other stresses are present and will have contributed to my current health state.
Written down like that in front of me, I’m thinking wow, how did I not see this coming? I was just so focused on putting in 110%, and I thought that as long as I wasn’t getting injured, I was fine. I didn’t stop to pay attention to all the warning signs that my body wasn’t coping, and I just wasn’t aware that they were connected or relevant. Increasingly over the last two years since I’ve been doing this, very gradually, I’ve noticed some of these things, but especially in the last few weeks. I think that adding Insanity to my schedule, renewing my effort in class and in my conditioning exercises, and trying to prepare for an audition, was just the last straw. I’ve been exhausted, my immune system has been suffering, I have dark circles under my eyes, my nails are weak and brittle and my toenails keep splitting and breaking off, I have had digestive problems and suddenly developed sensitivities to many foods. My muscles and joints have been sore and achey, even if I’ve been doing something relatively un-taxing like going to work, and I have been slowly gaining weight, regardless of if I was eating like a saint or eating a load of rubbish, and regardless of how much or how little exercise I was doing. It recently got to the point where I was my heaviest ever weight.
So, what am I doing about it now?
First, I took a week off from ballet and other exercise, only walking and doing my shifts at work, and trying to rest and sleep more. I used the time to devise a new, much more gentle, training regime, which I put into place on Monday. I am at the very early stages of starting my road to recovery: I don’t know if a week off was enough, I may need more time yet. I am just trying to listen to my body and see how it goes. I have kept my diet the same, because I was already following a very good eating plan, but I am eating less because I am eating mindfully. I have taken steps to try to overcome the emotional eating habits that were plaguing me before, and it has resulted in me being able to eat much less without feeling hungry, which is great. I have already lost 7 lbs in the first week of eating this way: I am going to write a proper post about this very soon and I’m excited to share that with you!
To support my diet, I have added carefully-chosen supplementation. I am taking magnesium through the form of magnesium flakes in a bath every evening for muscle recovery/ soreness and better sleep, I am taking a very potent good-quality probiotic for digestion, rhodiola rosea for energy and to help the body cope with stress of all kinds, and glucosamine chondroitin MSM for joint health. That’s all I have for now because good-quality supplements are very expensive, but I will be adding krill oil and black garlic to that as well, both of which have many health benefits for the whole body.
I am continuing with class, as it is an anaerobic activity, and crucial to my progression in my training. If I were to stop completely now, it would end my chances of becoming a professional. However, I am listening to my body and will take time off from class if it is necessary (today as I am writing this I have taken the day off because after returning to exercise over the last couple days and then working late last night, I’m feeling very tired and achey). I have taken up daily yoga practice, every weekday morning before breakfast. This is not only to fit in exercise in a very gentle way, but to help combat the stress that exacerbates overtraining symptoms. I am noticing an amazing improvement already and am really enjoying these sessions. For cardio, I have joined the gym so that I can go swimming. This is a great way to exercise without stressing the body too much and without causing trauma to the joints; I am taking it easy, keeping my sessions 30-45 minutes long and going at a fairly leisurely pace, just enough to be out-of-breath. I am also walking as a form of exercise.
For the moment, I am keeping my daily conditioning exercises.These are mostly some strength exercises (using the resistance of the own body rather than any weights or equipment, so just things like crunches, planking, back lifts and arabesque lifts) and various stretches for flexibility. Depending on how I feel, I might need to cut back on this and just stick to the stretching elements of my routine most days.
In combination with these things, I am trying to cultivate good sleep hygiene. I am going to bed early whenever my schedule allows it, getting up at the same time every day, and taking time to wind down before bed. After my bath with magnesium flakes, I’ll ban myself from the phone, computer and TV for at least half an hour before bed, and usually just take the time to do some skincare things and read in bed. If I feel the need for it and have time, I sometimes nap around 4pm or 5pm.
The last thing I’ve been doing is using a nail treatment to strengthen my nails as I can’t really dance on pointe until my toenails stop splitting and falling off!
Of course this is still very early days yet. I wanted to talk about everything I’ve learned so far about overtraining and metabolic damage, and share my plan for recovery, but it’s going to be a long process that will likely require many adjustments. In a couple of months, when I’m hopefully feeling much better I’m going to do another post where I can talk about the things that have worked best for me and my advice on overcoming overtraining. I’ll keep you posted how it’s going: follow me on Twitter and Instagram, which I update daily!
Wish me luck…