**In an effort to help other women (and people) who may experience some of the same situations I do, I want to try and use this blog as an honest and open assessment of things I go through on this ‘Road to Couer D’Alene’, and in life. Some of it isn’t wonderful. Recently, I have been battling depression for the past few months, and I have made an incredibly enlightening correlation between my mental state and my physical Ironman training.**
Curious as to how? Read on…
I’ve always been an impatient, relentless, “can’t sit still” type of person and anyone who knows me is probably chuckling to themselves right now saying “Yep.” When I was a senior in high school, my aunt actually said to me (after asking about all of the activities and sports I was doing) “You’re going to be on Prozac by the time you’re 30.” Little did she know how right she was…and little did I know that my “relentless restlessness” was probably contributing to the declination of my health.
When I began seriously training for this Ironman, a good friend and mentor of mine, Troy, told me to try and get ahead of the physiological side of my training program. Particularly, to take control of my hormone levels, because chronic stress (any kind of stress, mental or physical) tends to screw with those levels – and intense training creates both kinds of stresses, let me tell you. This was an aspect of fitness I had never, ever considered…hmm. He told me that being that I am a “life-long competitive bad-ass” (aww thanks Troy), it would serve me well to get on top of these issues and prevent any fluctuations that would keep me from performing at and being my best. Initially, I took light interest, but inevitably brushed it of and kept doing what I was doing. Sometimes I think I know everything…well, I don’t. Wrong decision.
Fast forward about 2-3 weeks into my training plan (I am currently about 1.5 months in), where I was working out in volumes I hadn’t touched in a long time – the weekly hours probably doubled, almost overnight, from my regular workout program. The positives? I started to drop weight, the distances of the race felt mentally less daunting, and I saw my training as a “distraction” from my personal woes. The negatives? I was really struggling in a lot of areas that were NOT body related….and I was depressed as hell. I had memory fog, sleep problems, a feeling of numbness, all things associated with depression. I was simultaneously experiencing some very upsetting personal life situations as well. I blamed those situations, and this is why I saw my training as an escape…so I dove in head first. The hardest part of all of this is that as someone who genuinely has a lot of things to be grateful and happy about, this whole state was/is very frustrating. It’s as if you are standing outside your body, looking in and shaking your head. It didn’t make any sense. I had been able to shake things before, but this time felt very different.
When you are stuck in a rut, you tend to hit a point where you become almost angry at how you’re feeling and you’ll do anything to escape the dark place. ‘I am better than this’, I thought. ‘I have every reason in the world to be happy. Be happy.’ I took some action and saw a doctor, began taking antidepressants, but it was right about when I hit this frustration point that I began thinking about what Troy had told me regarding hormone imbalance. I began to research. What I found out…was life changing.
So. My drastic increase in training volume is referred to as Overtraining Syndrome…noted from one of my research sources:
“Mood changes are an early and sensitive marker of OTS. Emotional disturbances usually occur before a noticeable drop in performance and parallel an increased training load. Depression and chronic fatigue represent the most common OTS condition observed in highly fit individuals.”
Isn’t overtraining just being tired and sore a lot?…hmm, well…about 2-3 weeks after my mental state was at it’s worst, I hit a week where I was sleeping in every morning, swapping my normally cherished morning training sessions for half-assed evening ones. I had not been that tired in a very, very long time. And I’m like…really sad. Huh.
‘Ok, so what is going on inside my body, from a scientific standpoint, that is causing this to happen?’ I wondered. As it turns out, endurance athletes are very likely to suffer from out-of-whack Cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is released when your body or mind is under chronic stress (read: mental stress, physical stress…basically anything psycho or physiological). The more stress placed, the higher your levels are. According to this, and knowing myself, I have likely been operating on very, very high cortisol levels for most of my life. Wow! No wonder I felt like such shit!
(The other thing I had to research was if the chemicals released into your system from antidepressants interfere with your hormone levels and body chemistry. No real evidence on this, but I couldn’t help but wonder if one was affecting the other).
A secondary yet equally interesting side effect of high cortisol levels, is decreased testosterone (this happens because Cortisol is recruited from OTHER hormones when you hit a certain level of stress and your others are depleted of it…thieves!). Important to note, this inhibits muscle growth, which can obviously lead to an increased chance of injury as well (and in women, it can really mess with your cycle…which causes a whole other set of issues). Suddenly, it made sense to me…strength training for endurance athletes is not only important to keep you functionally strong and balanced, but the secretion of testosterone when you weight train ALSO keeps you, well, more sane. Holy shit. (Ben Greenfield has EXCELLENT resources on how to incorporate weight training into endurance sport training. I highly recommend you read his stuff. He talks about these hormone imbalance issues well).
Ok, so, now what? I can’t cut my volume, or I will never get in shape. I am not going off my medication just yet. Well first and foremost, it is very recommended that one has their hormone levels tested to see what imbalances you have. So there’s that. Then you can troubleshoot from there…
What I found, for the most part, is that there are a ton of alternative additions and changes I can make to my life and training to help regulate these levels and ultimately my mental and physical state while keeping up with my program. I have started to do the following, with almost 180-degree turns overnight:
- Focus on RECOVERY, both mental and physical – foam roll. Ice-cold showers and lot’s of stretching
- Meditation (foreign to me, but trust me the power of controlled breath is kinda strangely miraculous)
- Go to bed earlier. No seriously, just do it. And do anything you can to improve the quality of your sleep (I revamped my curtain situation so that zero light now gets in).
- Drink less alcohol – this one for SO many reasons, but within the last week I have stayed further away from it and it’s really, really helped
- When your training calls for an easy run, GO EASY. Decrease the 110% efforts you do. Relax your mind, smile at the people on the trail, walk up the hills if you have to. GO. FUCKING. SLOW sometimes. Crazy how effective this one is…it also helps you maintain Ketosis (more on that, and it’s benefits in endurance athletes, another time)
Am I blaming my depression solely on hormones? Absolutely not. You have to “Do the Work” (READ THIS BOOK) in all aspects of your life. Is it a contributing factor? Yes, I believe it is. Regardless of the causes, I am definitely walking away from my learnings with a greater sense of self, a better understanding of the contributing factors to my performance and well-being, and a more concrete plan on how to move forward with this ridiculously crazy endeavor I am on. I’d call that a solid W.