Overtraining Syndrome: Our Bodies Are Ecosystems

the female body drawn with internal organs showing

Debbie says:

Brianna Sacks’ perrsonal story at BuzzFeed, “I Overstressed My Body Until It Shut Me Down” is simultaneously illuminating and familiar. Sacks is a runner and a journalist who had no idea she was endangering herself until her symptoms became extreme.

I’d had insomnia for nearly three months. I was so tired that my eyes hurt, but my mind was dark and wild, thoughts pinging so fast in every direction it felt like they were physically bouncing off my skull. My heart rate was racing too, as it had been for days. … My brain felt like a tunnel, fuzzily manic. I struggled to focus at work and felt anxious. My thighs, face, abdomen, arms, and chest had inflated and felt like hard jelly. Inside, I was heavy and numb.

Sacks describes herself and her motivations vividly:

I had put my body through so much stress, over and over, without giving it adequate rest, love, or nutrition, for a long time. I’ve viewed and treated my body like a machine, militant in the way I command it to grind and perform. In life, I subscribe to a “do at all costs” mentality. I seem to have been born with one speed: go. And I live for the hustle because, while a lot of it is my personality, society often defines success as how much you can do and how well you can do it. As a 32-year-old millennial, I felt like I had to be bionic to succeed. As a journalist, the more news I can break, the more likely I can keep this job and rise in my career. Plus, I genuinely love my work. I’m intrinsically pulled toward disaster zones, mass shooting sites, and racial justice protests, and I am not satisfied until I am burrowed deep in the intensity, so I can get to the root of the pain and problem and share the voices of those who are hurting. I get into this gear, and I prioritize stories over my own health, because they matter more to me than sleep, rest, or food. And during these high-pressure work events, I run, because the movement helps clear my mind and soul of what I’ve taken in.

I don’t agree with the way she sees her body as somehow separate from herself: “I” do these things to “my body,” which responds to “me.” Although that’s an extremely common cultural formulation, I would say that my body and my mind (and my spirit), to the extent that they can be separated, are all me–and perhaps that framing helps us to value and care for all aspects of ourselves (not that I am a model for doing that well, just to be clear).

Sacks goes on to tell more of her personal story, and to explain some of the mechanisms of overtraining, drawing on the work of Dr. David Niemann, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University:

Your heart rate spikes doing easy things, like walking up the stairs. Your athletic performance plummets. You can’t sleep, but are exhausted all the time; you become moody and depressed. You lose your appetite, sex drive, and can get sick more easily. If you have a menstrual cycle, it stops, and hormone levels go all over the place. Dozens of elite athletes have quickly disappeared from ultrarunning when seemingly at the peak of their careers. People who once could run hard for 24 hours ended up damaging their systems so badly they could barely make it around the block before their heart rate rocketed and breathing became too labored. This past summer, Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel said that she failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle finals because OTS had made her a shell of herself. (A significant factor in her condition, she pointed out, was the mental and emotional drain of seeing a pandemic and police brutality rip simultaneously through the Black community.)

Again, I don’t like the way Nieman calls the immune system “the weak link.” I would say the immune system, which triggers all these symptoms when it is overstressed, is the guardian–the strong link that is not prepared to see everything else fail. I’m also struck by the ways that overtraining syndrome, which I never heard of before I read Sacks’ article, mimics so many other stories.

If it’s not overtraining, it’s overwork. Or it’s burnout, which Sacks discusses. Or it’s anorexia. Or ongoing relationship stress. Or complex PTSD from childhood (which figures into Sacks’ story)  Or the intense level of effort required by being unhoused. Or living every day with micro- and macro-aggressions of racism or transphobia.  Or or or …

And not to mention the myriad failures of the immune system, and the cascading effects those have on the people who experience them. When the guardian of your total health can’t do its job, the consequences are extreme.

Sacks’ story ends on an encouraging note, as she talks about rebuilding herself slowly, gradually, and with awareness. She remains committed to the mind-body dichotomy, and I suspect that she agrees with Dr. Nieman that her immune system is the weak link. I really appreciate her deeply honest examination of where she was, how she got there, why it matters, and what she’s doing about it. She knows that she’s fortunate in having the choices she has, and the resources she has. And her essay provides a fine pathway to understanding just how internally interconnected each of us is … and the implications of that interconnection for sanity, health, and joy.


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