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One Woman’s Struggle With Marathon Addiction
Last year, I consulted with a 27-year-old woman named Alison. She’s a marathon runner and has been suffering from what I call “exercise fatigue.”
For the past two years, I have been treating Allison on and off for a range of issues including hip pain, back pain and plantar fasciitis (foot pain). She’s been getting injured more often lately and has complained that she can’t stick to her training schedule.
Here’s how she described her problem:
“I feel bad. I’m tired and unhappy at work. I’m training for Chicago (Chicago Marathon) and it’s not going well. My stomach keeps bothering me. I know you do adrenal tests, and I want to see Let’s see if I can do it. My game is two weeks away, so can we do it after that?” I agreed. Alison finished her game, but she wasn’t happy with her time. She said she didn’t feel like herself and was exhausted for three days after the race. She’s here to get her test kit, and she looks exhausted.
“Why don’t you take a few weeks off from training until we see how you’re doing?” I suggested.
Alison agreed. I gave her the functional adrenal stress test kit to see what was going on with her adrenals. I also had her complete a metabolic assessment dossier to see if she was digesting protein properly and to see if there was any cellular damage from excessive exercise. Her tests showed that she had literally knocked herself to the ground. Her lab tests showed:
- Her adrenals are in stage two burnout.
- She is gluten intolerant.
- She does not digest protein adequately.
- Her body is under stress from free radicals.
When I discussed Allison’s test results with her, she asked a question many athletes love to ask, “Can’t you tell me which supplements to take?”
Unfortunately, today there is a mindset of: “Is there a problem? Take your meds.” While this may work in some serious cases, the truth is that health problems and athletic performance problems are rarely caused by a lack of meds ; prescription drugs or supplements.
So, in Allison’s case, the answer is no.
“Look at Alison, we need to know about your diet, training plan, sleep and recovery, then we can discuss which supplements you should be taking. In a situation like yours, there are no quick fixes and I can tell you from experience, These problems will get worse.” I told her she needed to work with me for six months so we could actually get her back on track. She agreed and signed up for a 6-month individual program.
After she took home the starting point assessment and faxed it to me, it was easy to see that Alison had several things going against her.
- She is overtrained. Long-distance athletes tend to train too much, compete in too many races and not get enough rest. Alison is no exception. She has run 4(!) marathons this year and has done some short distance triathlons. She plans to compete in a half triathlon next year.
- Alison severely over-consumes gluten grains and carbohydrates in general. High-carb diets remain popular among long-distance athletes. Alison ate a lot of pasta and cereal and used too much protein powder.
- Alison also experienced quite a few digestive issues. Her diet includes a lot of processed foods and doesn’t cook enough whole foods.
- She doesn’t get enough sleep. Alison was up late for a run. She averages 6-7 hours of sleep per night.
- Alison has a low libido problem. This is very common, especially among female athletes who train too much. She has been married for a year and a half, and having a baby is also in her plan.
As a result, Alison’s overtraining, lack of sleep and gluten drained her adrenaline. We have to get the problem under control first, then we have to see how her digestion goes.
The first thing I made her do was stop running for a full month. Yes, a whole month. I even banned her from the turkey trot. Here’s why: Many runners are addicted to running. They’ll keep running over pretty much everything. When someone starts having some of the problems Allison is experiencing, it’s crucial that she takes the time to heal. She wasn’t allowed to ski until December.
While the break itself would have helped Allison a lot, taking a month off would allow her to go to bed later. Sleep is essential for adrenal recovery.
That’s all we did in the first month. I’m not going to lie: Alison resisted at first. But after I explained that getting her adrenals back up now would pay off next year and told her that adrenal fatigue was the reason she felt so bad during runs, she agreed.
For the first month, we saw each other every week. Alison spent about a week in the runner’s withdrawal. She had to resist the urge to run 10 or 12 miles a day. But she survived. She quickly went to bed late, sleeping about 9 hours a night. I told her month 2 would focus on getting rid of gluten, but she quit right away. She wants a big project so she can focus when she’s not running.
We also started her supplement program.
A month after she stopped running, I put Alison back on. She agreed to reduce the distance to 3-5 miles 3 times a week. She does kettlebell circuits twice a week at home, each lasting no more than 30 minutes. If she goes skiing, that week can replace a day of running.
After the first month, Allison is doing well. Her digestive issues are still bothering her so I sent her to the doctor. The doctor ordered a stool test and it turned out that Alison had an intestinal infection. Her doctor prescribed antibiotics, and within a few weeks the problem improved (an example of “Is there a problem? Take this drug” that works).
At 3 months we had Allison repeat the adrenal stress test and the results were much better. She has stuck to her plan and has really been a great patient. After about 4 months, Allison is doing very well. She completed the Supplemental Program. Her libido is back to normal, she’s gluten free, and ready to start training for her first marathon of the season. But then something happened. guess…
Sometime around month 5 of her plan, Allison told me that she and her husband were expecting their first child. She will be taking a long break from her marathon training.
Alison’s case of exercise fatigue is very common, especially among women who participate in long-distance sports. (Men also suffer from exercise fatigue, but with different symptoms.) Taking enough time to recover, eating right, and training properly are crucial.
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