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Remaking the Body – Dealing with Fatigue

July 21, 2013

As far as running goes, this summer has been the worst. I have not been ‘in training’ since Wednesday, June 5th, and I’ve scarcely been able to muster a decent hour of running since that same day. Here is my account of what went wrong and what I’m going to do to fix it.

On May 13th, I wrote the following:

I have a tendency to run myself into the ground. Many reading this are probably guilty of the same thing. For the most part though I’m not talking just about training, running, and racing. Generally speaking, I’ve been able to keep that part of my life sane, balanced, focused, and productive. No – mostly, I’m referring to the rest of my life. You know the drill – taking on too much, adding another job or two, starting new projects, studying a new subject, reading another 3 books (all at once). No matter how you ‘spin’ it, waking up at 3:00am is not a recipe for success in the long term. We glorify/worship/exalt this type of behavior way too much in our society. For the past three years I’ve taken this approach to life nearly year-round – all while forcing as much training as possible into my schedule – and have paid a heavy (fatigue-laden) price. Slowly, I’ve come to realize how unsustainable this really is and how counterproductive this actually is in the long run. You’ve all read my late-spring and mid-summer posts from the past  few years – describing fatigue, burn-out, exhaustion, and a lack of fitness. Not this year. I refuse to do the same thing this year. Time to take a stand.

When I wrote that paragraph on May 13th, I was two weeks into dealing with some significant fatigue, but I assumed that I could take a little time off, alter my training, and be right back at it again in no time. The problem is that I still haven’t recovered. Rewinding just a bit further, my problems began on April 25th when I felt the beginnings of a period of fatigue setting-in. At that point I became unable to wake up with my alarm, coffee had no effect, and I became relatively useless at work. I knew things were out of whack, but I didn’t immediately heed the warning signs. Instead, I reduced my training a bit and geared up to race the Collegiate Peaks 50 on May 4th. Although I lacked that ‘extra-gear’ on Race Day, my result was promising and I figured that a stellar summer of training and racing was in the forecast. It was not to be. The two weeks after racing Collegiate Peaks were awash in fatigue, soreness, and a lack of ‘real’ motivation. I put on a smile and kept trying, but by May 13th, I knew I needed to make some changes.

We (Annie, Jordan, and I) headed to Bend, OR for a 2-week block of training from May 22nd – June 3rd. This chunk of time held significant promise to train well, eat well, and rest well. I had shifted to much lower volume training and had increased the training intensity per session. I strength-trained well, ran a few nice sets of intervals, upped the amount of plyometrics I was doing, and slept 8 hours per night. I was hoping to recover a bit by lowering the volume and to boost my energy with the increase in intensity and strength. By June 1st, I thought I had cracked the code; I figured I was ‘on my way again’ – but this ‘buzz’ was short-lived, and by June 5th (back home and at work) I was feeling so wretched that I was taking 90-minute naps on my office floor each afternoon. Wasted. Annihilated. Toast. Scorched. You get the point…

At this point, the only option I saw was completely taking time off to rest, recover, and hope for the best. I decided it was time to see a doctor too, and the ‘diagnosis’ (on June 11th) was Adrenal Fatigue. I came away from that appointment knowing that my adrenal glands are tapped-out and not producing the necessary amount of stress hormones needed for living, working, or training. For most of the spring I had been noticing an elevated resting heart-rate in the morning AND a suppressed heart-rate while training. So, instead of a resting heart-rate of 40 and a training heart-rate of 130 – I was seeing a resting heart-rate of 60 and a training heart-rate of 105. I had no ability to push myself during training. My legs were heavier than ever and my breathing became ragged. I had gone from 8:00 min/mile pace in training to 10:00 min/mile pace. I’d also completely lost any sort of appetite control – which has been an on/off problem of mine for years. Some days I was eating 1800 or 2000 calories simply because I wasn’t hungry, while other days I was eating 5500 calories – even on days off. Coffee, although tasty, had lost it’s effect, and my eyes felt like they were completely sunken into the back of my brain. Things were not good. Since then?

  1. I have not trained at all since June 5th and my longest run has been 1 hour. My pace as varied between slow and super slow. Running has not felt good. My breathing feels better though and my running heart-rate has started to increase again. (My capacity to push is increasing again). 80% of the days – completely off.
  2. Strength training has felt okay. I’ve cut any strength work back to ‘general strength training’ and opted for only 4 – 5 exercises per session, totalling 20 minutes in the gym at a time. Seems to help with energy.
  3. I’ve gone from an average of 6.5 hours of sleep per night up to 8.5 hours of sleep per night. I can’t tell you how much this seems to be helping. My day-to-day energy has vastly improved and I don’t feel the need to sleep on my office floor any more. My afternoons have become productive again.
  4. I’ve been drinking (99% of the time) only 2 small cups of decaf coffee per day. Crazy to think that I may have finally ‘kicked the habit’ of 60 – 80 oz per day of black coffee. No doubt this decade-long addiction and my lack of moderation was a MAJOR contributor to this onset of Adrenal Fatigue. We’ve even put our coffee-maker away in the pantry and have been using the world-famous AeroPress to make our coffee.
  5. My appetite control appears to be coming back around. I feel more consistent day-in and day-out with what/when/how/how much I am eating. The weight I’ve gained is a slight negative.
  6. I’ve increased my intake of OptygenHP from First Endurance. In addition, I am taking another Adrenal-support supplement. I’ve also upped my intake of trace minerals, water, and herbal teas.
  7. Carbohydrates. I’ve drastically increased my intake of carbs. Now, I’m consuming about 45% of my diet from carbs, compared to 20% or 25% this spring. This seems to be helping on some level. Carbs are all in the form of fruit, veggies, sweet potatoes, and a bit of Quinoa/Gluten Free Oats. Hoping this will help.

So, why now? I’ve always struggled with periods of fatigue, but I’ve also always been able to dig myself out from any hole – until now. This time was different. Why? Why have I been completely derailed for over 3 months now? Here is a short outline of the reasons why I ran out of gas this time.

  1. Coffee. This is no different from past years, but I was noticing little-to-no-effect from caffeine this year. No buzz. No boost. Or, if there was a boost – it took twice the amount of caffeine. So, complete over-consumption of coffee once again ‘nuked’ me.
  2. Lack of Sleep. This is something else that I’ve struggled with for several years. This spring though – I was really forcing life on only 5.5 or 6.5 hours of sleep per night, nearly every night. It just wasn’t enough and it finally caught up with me.
  3. Mental Fatigue. I started working at Western State Colorado University this past year. A great position that I am super thankful to have, but – I was also trying to juggle several other projects and side endeavors at the same time. My inability to effectively manage the totality of this work caught up with me. Essentially, I once again bit off more than I could chew.
  4. Low Carb Lifestyle. When I was injured in January/February, I began tinkering heavily with eating a very low carb diet. This worked exceptionally well while I was taking time off from training during the winter. My activity levels were low, and thus my need for carbs was also low. I was eating between 20g and 100g of carbs per day. I lost weight, felt lean, and was much more efficient when I returned to training in March. I should have recognized the need to periodize my carb-intake, but instead – I forced more and more training volume AND intensity while stubbornly refusing to bump-up my carb intake. I found some success with this approach, but generally speaking, it’s safe to say that I was not recovering properly from training. Because I was mis-applying the approach, low-carb zealotry became another significant stressor in my life.
  5. Intermittent Fasting. In addition to zealously pursuing a truly low-carb approach, this spring I also began experimenting with intermittent fasting, with the hope of further enhancing my fat metabolism. Man – I felt great! I remember several times going out in a completely ‘fasted state’ to run for 30 miles. 18 hours of fasting, a shot of coffee, some coconut oil, and then 30 miles of running where I’d consume maybe 100 calories. Things felt great while I was training this way, but after awhile it became clear that I was under-recovering – especially when combined with a low-carb approach. Instead of helping me, because I took it too far and was doing it inappropriately, intermittent fasting became yet another significant stressor.

The general guideline for people suffering from adrenal fatigue is to rest as much as possible for up to a year or more. That’s a long time – and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that. For now, I’ve committed to taking time off for the remainder of July and August, while eyeing a return to training in early September – with the hope of being fit and ready for a unique race opportunity in November. This is my optimistic plan anyway. Short term? I will have to officially pull out of the Leadville 100, Run Rabbit Run 100, and UROC 100km. I will be finalizing these decisions this upcoming week. Pulling out of these races is definitely a negative blow to the ego, but remember this:

The ego satisfaction of going all-out, all of the time, will only last until you can’t do it anymore.

Three years in a row of poor performance. I hate reading that sentence, but I also need to own it. I set out to ‘Remake The Body’ in 2013, but I never envisioned ending up at this point, on this path, and moving in this direction. I’m confident though that I will come out the other side better off than before. I need to remain optimistic. I’m also confident that my best running is still to come. I must believe this. At this point though? I’d take just one of those effortless, fluid, smooth, and efficient runs again. Just one. I can’t even remember what it feels like. Here’s to finding that feeling again. Here’s to healing. Thanks for reading. Live well. Train well. DC

  1. Matthew permalink
    July 22, 2013 6:10 AM

    The best thing about running (and racing) is that it will always be there. The mountains will be there, the great comrades, the focused mindset you find on the trails…still there. With patience, we can walk away from these setbacks with renewed vigor and, if we are lucky, a bit of wisdom. Cheers to your health and many more miles.

  2. Maureen permalink
    July 22, 2013 6:34 AM

    Your next book might be one about A-Type personalities. I’m a lot like you + it’s most compulsive and annoying. Progress never seems to be satisfied.

  3. Ray permalink
    July 22, 2013 10:19 AM

    Weird. Just make sleep a priority. Get 8 hours and you’re fine.

  4. Eric permalink
    July 23, 2013 1:26 AM

    Must be tough on you. I wish you a steady recovery and that you will return better than ever!

  5. July 23, 2013 12:18 PM

    I’ve had a similar experience this year after getting sick in January, I was wiped out and unable to really run again until late April. To get back on track, I did a lot of the same things you are doing – eliminated caffeine and alcohol, increased sleep (I stopped using an alarm for several weeks), and cut out any extra work stress that I could. From May to June I took a very conservative approach to training just to get the bare minimum preparation for Hardrock. I paced friends at their 100 milers instead of going out to run my own training races. And I ran long runs and hard hill workouts whenever I was recovered and ready to run them – not because they were on the schedule for a specific day of the week. And I took a lot more recovery days when I didn’t do anything more than walk with my 13 year old dog. Hardrock actually turned out much better than I expected – just a few hours slower than the 2011 puke fest …minus the puking this time and overall a much more enjoyable experience with good friends. Now I’m looking forward to taking as much time as I need to rebuild and hopefully get back into racing shape for 2014.
    I’m sure you’ll rebuild much faster than you expect. And along the way you might actually enjoy the experience running without pressure or expectations, meeting new people who normally couldn’t keep up with you, and contributing to other runner’s achievements.
    Good luck!

  6. July 23, 2013 9:33 PM

    I really enjoyed your article. I’ve unfortunately felt many of the same symptoms as of late so appreciate hearing your diagnosis and treatment. Funny how hard it is for us to rest, take it easy, sleep in, but good for you for trying to stick to it! I fear I may have to do the same sometime soon. Best of luck!

  7. Mary Beth Driscoll permalink
    July 25, 2013 10:30 AM

    Be very careful! I have an official diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency. Twenty years after – life has regained much of its normality, but I still have to be careful not to experience water intoxication or hypoglycemic incidents. Take your doctor seriously and don’t cause yourself to go through a life altering experience.

  8. July 30, 2013 10:19 AM

    Damn Duncan I feel for ya man. I suffered with Adrenal Fatigue in 2011… my worst year of racing ever. A horrible Hardrock 100 and a horrible Grindstone 100. I couldn’t function without massive amounts of coffee, which left me only able to sleep after taking melatonin. I was pretty broken, totally burnt.

    I read and read and read, which is necessary and great — but it wasn’t until I employed the experts that I finally got my shit under control. It took months to come back, thankfully not a whole year. I would suggest a consult with Dallas and Melissa at Whole9Life (tell them I sent you)… and read Dr. Wilson’s book Adrenal Fatigue ~

    Good luck man…. let me know if you have any questions. I’m happy to share my experience.

  9. July 30, 2013 10:30 AM

    Thanks for the comments all. Matt – thank you for the advice. I appreciate it. Feeling like my capacity is absolutely coming back on line now – just day-to-day life though. Training can wait a bit longer. The break was needed.

  10. Jeff Woody permalink
    July 31, 2013 2:47 PM

    Tough call Duncan! I know this is hard on you. Perhaps things happen for a reason, and you will come back even stronger in the near future. It is very good of you to document your ordeal so that others can learn from your situation! Hang in there and thanks for your help in getting me ready for Leadville!

  11. Heidi permalink
    August 1, 2013 1:37 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with adrenal fatigue, Duncan. I can relate completely. It took me months of thinking I wasnt working hard enough, or even worse, lazy or uncommitted, before I was diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue.

    Now, like you, I have cut back stress (from endurance training and in my professional life), given myself permission to ‘sleep in’ and have cut back to only decaf coffee and tea… I am on the right track and feeling better, but am still just a shadow of the athlete and business owner that I (thought I) was.

    These things take longer to recover from than one would think!

  12. ben permalink
    August 9, 2013 10:13 PM

    I find your blog to be very inspiring. I enjoy your blog, because of the struggle and honesty you share with us. Thank you for that!

    When I read your blog it reminds me of the chapter ‘Right Effort’ in the book ‘Zen Mind, Beginners Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. I cut and pasted the first couple paragraphs of the chapter below.

    I’m wondering could more searching and seeking only drive you deeper down the hole of fatigue? Just run, Just walk, once you find the joy in just running again it will come from giving in, not from trying harder.

    RIGHT EFFORT “If your practice is good, you may become proud of it. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. Pride is extra. Right effort is to get rid of something extra.”
    The most important point in our practice is to have right or perfect effort. Right effort directed in the right direction is necessary. If your effort is headed in the wrong direction, especially if you are not aware of this, it is deluded effort. Our effort in our practice should be directed from achieve- ment to non-achievement.
    Usually when you do something, you want to achieve some- thing, you attach to some result. From achievement to non-achievement means to be rid of the unnecessary and bad results of effort. If you do something in the spirit of non-achievement, there is a good quality in it. So just to do something without any particular effort is enough. When you make some special effort to achieve something, some excessive quality, some extra element is involved in it. You should get rid of excessive things. If your practice is good, without being aware of it you will become proud of your practice. That pride is extra. What you do is good, but something more is added to it. So you should get rid of that something which is extra. This point is very, very important, but usually we are not subtle enough to realize it, and we go in the wrong direction.

  13. Neil D. permalink
    August 21, 2013 7:35 PM

    Great post. You pretty much described the way I have felt over the past 6 months after a heavy year of Ironman/Marathon training and racing, coupled with starting a new business. Nice to know I’m not alone and hopefully will come out the other end a smarter athlete and person. Good luck with your recovery!:)

  14. christobel permalink
    March 10, 2014 2:52 PM

    Gosh.. I am so glad that I found your post. I am just diagnose with Adrenal gland fatigue. my last race was a 50 Mile in Dec.. my body went downhill from there. I am happy with 13.30 ish pace these days. .. which is really bad ! I am struggling with recovering and really hope to get in touch to get more insight.

    any chance we can talk via email ?

  15. March 10, 2014 6:38 PM

    Sure thing. Find me on facebook and shoot me a message there. Thanks!


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