Stress is the basis for 80-85% of all diseases and medical diagnoses. We cannot eliminate stress in life, therefore it is the inability to manage the stress of life that is the source of almost all major ailments, injuries, illnesses and diseases.
The corollary is that health is the ability to manage stress: physical, mental, and emotional stresses under varying circumstances and durations. Health is a level of robustness, a type of flexibility that allows us to rebound from stress. It is a state of anti-fragility achieved by balancing training and rest, while developing and rehearsing strategies in preparation for the next time that we do engage a stress/stressor.
It stands to reason then that a professional athlete should be an expert in health as the entire focus of a pro athlete is to develop themselves to handle the physical stress of training, the mental stress of competition, of competitors, of juggling their sport organizations, sponsors, of home and work life, and the emotional stress of failing forwards in order to achieve their goals.
For a professional athlete to be unhealthy, to have failed at managing stress is a contradiction of states, its an incongruency. To be an athlete and to be unhealthy is to fail at the exact skill set that you are supposed to excel, to model. For a pro athlete to compromise or sacrifice health to achieve performance goals contradicts the very meaning of athleticism. To be a pro athlete means to be equally adept at planning and laying out appropriate timelines for goals, preventing over-reach, ambition, desire, and covetousness from taking over.
As a coach, to have an athlete who is unhealthy is to have failed in the role of teacher, mentor, advisor. It is to have overexposed your student to stress without appropriate preparation, with insufficient training and/or rest. It is to have demanded too much of your apprentice too soon.
I believe that we have forgotten what it truly means to be an athlete, what it truly means to coach.
To be an athlete used to mean pursuing your potential through exploration, learning, skill acquisition and development. Now the objective seems to be all about sourcing the short cuts which will deliver desired goals, where the attitude is anything goes, including the sacrifice, compromise, gambling and leveraging of health to cut the process to a minimum regardless of consequences and repercussions. We go so far as to call this approach active, healthy, balanced living.
As a health professional, a coach and athlete, I see swimmers, cyclists, runners, and triathletes all trying to achieve ‘healthy’ using this mindset, but instead of developing robustness, flexibility and capacity, they have become brittle, fragile, rigid, inflexible, chronically injured, ill, and overweight. Instead of gaining and enjoying freedom, they have become jailed and debilitated by their training and racing. The belief at the root of this dysfunction is that if we only try harder, push harder… the health which has eluded us will finally arrive.
In a 2016 Triathlon Magazine Canada article, pro triathlete Alex VanderLinden shared that this summer he dealt with ” low energy, poor recovery, lack of motivation” and having some blood work done was informed that he had a B12 deficiency and low testosterone.
Pro athletes who are unhealthy tend to make it seem as if their issues are mere inconveniences, ‘flesh wounds’ as in the Monty Python Dark Knight skit, not an indicator of anything significant.
To be injured, to be ill, to be unhealthy is a state that a pro athlete cannot be in. It is no different than a bank going bankrupt… its not supposed to happen, banks are supposed to be impenetrable institutions, no different than the body, mind, and spirit of a pro athlete.
When things don’t go as planned, we should stop. We don’t.
Instead we resume training, typically training even harder.
To progress, an athlete must honestly evaluate training, recovery, competitions, appraising the value of each and every aspect to adjust upcoming cycles. When an athlete begins to suffer pain, dysfunction, injury, illness, or ends up developing symptoms to a syndrome, or a full blown medical condition training should come to an absolute halt so that a thorough autopsy is performed to ascertain what went wrong.
In Formula One, Indy, and World Tour racing, the cars and bikes used by the athletes are routinely stripped down to the frame. Every screw is examined, regreased, and retightened exactly to spec. Cables and fairings are inspected, repaired or replaced, and engines or gears and chain are taken apart, then put back together. Nothing is left to chance, absolutely nothing.
Apparently we respect cars and bikes more than we respect ourselves, more than we respect our bodies, minds, and spirits because how often do you hear athletes taking such care of themselves? How often do you hear of coaches analyzing training and racing to such a degree to improve performance while preventing over-training, injury, burn out or blow out by their athletes?
Instead, we have set our narratives of athlete and coach precluding us from seeing what needs to be seen, preventing us from stopping. Our narratives as they stand now:
- Athletes are models of health, of vitality, of physical, mental and emotional capacity. To be an athlete is to be healthy. Athletes achieve this health, by training. Therefore, to be an athlete is to train. It follows then that not to train, implies that you are not being an athlete, that you are not pursuing health or are not healthy since you are not training.
- A coach is someone who is educated and experienced to train athletes, hence coaches are reservoirs of information and wisdom in how to achieve health: physical, mental and emotional well-being. To coach is to train athletes. If a coach is coaching, then their athletes are training. It follows then that athletes who are not training, are not being coached.
See the problem? These narratives preclude stopping, resting, recovering. As a result, athletes cannot rehabilitate fully, cannot rest, recovery or heal completely, because not to train means not to be an athlete. We have cornered ourselves where we cannot stop even when continuing on causes us pain, causes us injury, causes us illness… we are driving ourselves into disease and cannot stop because we are trapped in a negative spiral, a doom loop of our own creation.
We can be on a handful of medications, need regular medical appointments, require taping, bracing, medical grade compression stockings, receive regular adjustments, massages, and therapy, we can ever suffer a heart attack or stroke, but as long as we get in our training… because of these narratives, we are convinced that we are truly healthy.
In psychology, a state of contradiction is called: denial.
Bent on upholding that our lifestyle, our training, our coach, and our lack of recovery is healthy, athletes will injure themselves, drive themselves to extremes of over-training with the resulting physiological and psychological chaos written off as bad luck, bad genetics, or just bad timing.
Bent on upholding our narratives, by refusing to question the status quo:
- Training is never questioned, never doubted, never evaluated to ascertain if it is truly delivering desired goals without undesirable consequences;
- Coaching is never questioned, never doubted, never assessed to determine if the philosophy is capable of delivering desired goals without undesirable consequences; and,
- Rest, napping, sleeping, downtime, real recovery including appropriate pre-hab & rehab, total rejuvenation, full healing are all impossibilities because none exist in the narratives we use to define health, wellness, well-being.
As an athlete or coach, to have your training methodology questioned is one thing, but to have to consider your training methodology as wrong… well, that’s just not going to happen, and if it does happen then there will be no admission to being wrong. Too much rides on being right despite the risk of harm that we refuse to admit ignorance or incompetence when it comes to our own health, hoping that ‘good intentions’ will insure us against unwanted side effects.
In psychology, the term describing the refusal to challenge and confront narratives, thus to live in contradiction (i.e. denial) is: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance: The mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values. [From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
Cognitive dissonance regarding our health and the resulting lack of health is our new normal. How else do you explain the popularization of the adage “no pain, no gain”? We deny the deep pain we live in, we normalize inner turmoil to the point that we inflict harm to ourselves to override the divide, to deaden the inner conflicts we struggle with when we refuse to deal with our fears.
OVER-TRAINING in the best cases, DEATH in the worst.
Ask athletes or coaches if their athletes over-train, are over-trained and the reaction will be… get outta here, no way, never! There can be no such thing as over-training because by our own narratives over-training is synonymous with being over-healthy. No one would admit to being ‘over-healthy’ therefore over-training is an impossibility.
Physical injury, mental impairment, and emotional fragility should suffice as clues to an athlete and their coach that something is wrong. But nothing is ever wrong in a society where “no pain, no gain” is the reigning mindset towards life: you weren’t wrong, you just didn’t suffer enough, you didn’t try hard enough. Its a society where crawling across finish lines is heroic (instead of mindless), where inflicting and tolerating pain is a testament to manliness or womanliness.
Where does it end?
Stage 1 Over-Training ends typically with an injury, an impairment, or illness of some sort. If proper rest and recovery or rehab are provided, then the athlete can return to a balanced state, a state of being healthy, truly healthy, but these days the mindset is screw that, get adjusted, get taped, foam roll, wear compression clothing, add a brace, get a prescription, pop the pills, get back out asap to training as these imply health. Its cosmetic health, but hey, cosmetic health is good enough because at least you look healthy. As a result we skip Stage 1, and we speed right along into Stage 2.
Stage 2 Over-Training is marked by weight gain or weight retention due to increasing and/or unmanageable levels of stress and the subsequent flooding of cortisol into our blood. The availability of so-called sports nutrition products (i.e. candy for adults) gloss over the signs and symptoms of Stage 2 leading most to continue along, unaware of the damage they inflict to their physiology and psychology. The fueling with gels, sports drinks, and every other sugar laced product power the adrenalin-cortisol hyped workouts and state of mind, ushering the athlete onto Stage 3.
Stage 3 Over-Training starts with diminishing or negative returns from training as the credit account of health is nearly depleted, leaving nothing further to leverage. Stage 3 is when athletes start to suffer from issues such as metabolic disorders, food sensitivities and intolerances, hormonal imbalances, neuro-endocrine fatigue, arrythmias, anxiety, insomnia amongst other signs and symptoms. Whereas in Stage 2 athletes start to underperform in competition, in Stage 3 athletes start to dislike, even hate competing. The stress of competition simply overwhelms them, but being so far gone these athletes come to the conclusion that they are simply bad at racing, good at training, so they train even harder as a compensatory reaction. Stage 3 makes its presence known in a myriad of ways which is why it confuses athletes, coaches, even health care professionals: multiple signs and symptoms develop over a period of time dilute connections. Signs and symptoms pop up across all 3 dimensions: physical, mental, and emotional, and to further confuse the matter, pop up in combinations. Stage 3 asserts itself when the individual finally breakdowns, often ending up with a physical or mental medical diagnosis (a diagnosis that they fall on as a crutch to explain their condition, as opposed to realizing that how they have trained has resulted in this condition). In the worst scenarios, the individual never makes it to an health professional until after they suffer a heart attack, a stroke, fall into severe depression or worse, skip right to the final scene: dead.
I encourage all athletes to consider… if your training, if the coaching you are receiving is not moving you towards your goals and improving your health, then what is the end game of the path you are on? Think about it now, before you end up any farther down the path, and hopefully long before you end up in an hospital Emergency Room.
Here are links to a series on the topic of Over-Training from the website breakingmuscle.com:
- Part 1 – Overtraining Can Kill You: The 3 Stage of Overtraining
- Part 2 – Overtraining Can Kill You: The 3 Stage of Overtraining
VanderLinden isn’t the only pro triathlete with health issues… fellow pro triathlete Cody Beals shared that he faced similar issues earlier in 2016, and now pro Matt Bach wrote an article on these exact same health issues. Question is how many more pros are there who are not healthy, but are training and racing as if they are? How many are pressing on like Monty Python’s Dark Knight believing that “tis only a flesh wound” and that they are fit to fight? For their own sake, and for the sake of all those that these pros serve as role models… I can only hope that they are awakened to the fact that they are hurting themselves by how they are training, that how they train is what is inflicting the damage. Health and returning to training and racing healthy is possible, but not on the path that they are currently on.
P.S. An acquaintance shared that they heard of a young guy, 40’ish, a husband, a father of two who recently played a game of shiny. After the game he had an heart attack and died. What would we have said if he was 70? Likely, sorry, that is sad, but considering his age an heart attack is not entirely unexpected. If he was 60 we would have said, oh, that is unexpected. If he was 50, we would be shocked, saying wow, that is young. So what do you say when a 40 year old dies of a heart attack? It says our definition as a society of health, of being healthy, of exercise, of being active and fit are wrong, totally wrong wrong wrong. It says that how we are pursuing health, fitness, performance is incorrect. Think about it. Know anyone who was too young to die?