Over-training or over-complaining?

Trigger warning: This post is long and self-absorbed, even compared to my general long-windedness. Feel free to fast forward to the final 5% for the good stuff like you probably do with all your other online entertainment.

I was hesitant to talk about over-training lest I be lumped in with the ‘I did too many tricep pulldowns yesterday and now my arms are sore I think I’m over-training,’ crowd. I’m not one for overt complaining beyond what is acceptable at the climbing crag (e.g. anything related to temps, tips or tequila) and generally do well with being uncomfortable so when I was waking up tired every day for weeks I brushed it aside and kept on the training schedule. My thinking went along the lines of ‘training isn’t supposed to be fun, keep pushing and you’ll feel better later.’ The only thing was, I was never feeling better and kept feeling worse.

As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts I came into this training cycle as a casual sport hobbyist at best and a lazy glutton at worst. The closest I’d come to structured training was a 15 week stretch 6 years ago where I tried to train for a half-marathon before getting a stress fracture in my foot. Despite that, when it came time to select an hourly target to build our plan on we decided to pick the maximum option, thinking we’d grow to adapt to the volume and everything would be great. Turns out I was wrong about that one simple trick…….and you won’t believe what happened next!!!!!!

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But anyway, things started to go downhill for me after getting back from our trip to Katahdin. We had 21 hours on a week that only called for 16. The following week called for 12 but I misread the schedule and did 14 instead, finishing with a mentally gruelling 24km, 6.5hr hike with a 30lb pack. I had done exactly the same hike a few weeks before with no problems but for some reason this last time was brutal. It felt like it went on forever (the pouring rain didn’t help) and I collapsed when I got back home. I had to force myself out the door in the first place and then spent the entire hike questioning whether or not I was cut out for training or climbing at all. Up until this point I hadn’t had to deal with this lack of motivation, and I think the only reason I finished the workout was because it was a hiking loop and I need to get back to the car.

The next week called for another 12 hours or so and I was already running a 7 hour surplus over the previous two weeks. This may not seem like a lot, but it really felt like it was taking its toll. At that point we’d had about two months worth of ~12hr weeks. By the time Thursday rolled around I was feeling really beaten down. I had a shitty workout in the gym and decided to take Friday off to prepare for some outdoor climbing on Saturday.

I woke up that morning after not sleeping very well. I made a bowl of oatmeal, took two or three bites and then couldn’t stomach even looking at it before tossing it into the garbage. Not being able to eat breakfast is atypical for me and was one of the first signs, beyond lack of motivation, that I was spiraling out of control (note: I’m not normally this dramatic in real life but I’m dialing it up for story telling purposes). I arrived at the crag already tired from the 30 minute hike in and tied in to second a warm-up climb on a 5.9 that I’ve climbed cleanly on lead a number of times. It’s one of those routes that you have dialed where you could write the beta out move-by-move. Over the next 45 minutes I came off at least a dozen times, finding myself almost completely unable to hold on to any holds or combat the fear of falling (I’m still on top-rope, so fear of what, exactly?). The only reason I finished the pitch was because my belayer/leader told me he didn’t know how to lower from the top in guide mode. I’m sure he was joking, but I needed the motivation to continue upwards. Once at the belay my partner wanted to continue on to the second pitch – a 5.8 with mostly big jugs. I hadn’t climbed it before but figured that since I was ‘warmed up’ now it wouldn’t be a problem. He led up and away, making the climb look easy. He built his belay on top, put me on and told me I could climb. The first two moves involve going from one jug with good feet to another jug with decent feet, the sort of thing you’d put someone on their first time out to make them feel good about themselves. By the time I grabbed the second jug my hands were curling open like I was fighting a tough bouldering problem – I had no control at all and was completely mentally fried. I asked to be lowered, apologized profusely for being a wuss while my partner patiently listened to me run through all the available excuses I could come up with (it was too warm, I was dehydrated, no sleep, etc.) and let me rap to the bottom first to think about what I’d done.

And what was going on? Had I really spent the last six months training for a huge climbing trip, posting up blog updates here, dedicating my non-work life around getting better only to find myself completely unable to climb a 5.8 on top rope? Should I cancel my plane tickets? Sell my rack and take up golf? Suffice it to say I spent the rest of the day on the deck with my harness off, apart from one more effort to climb a different 5.8 where I only got 5 meters off the ground before asking to be lowered again. I went home with my tail between my legs thinking I’d get a good sleep and bounce back the next day to finish off that week’s volume requirements.

Well, that didn’t happen. I spent a mostly sleepless night lying on the couch staring at the ceiling while my entire body ached. And ached from what? The 1.2 pitches of easy climbing that day? I had no right to be sore, but I was. I felt like I had run a marathon.

The night passed slowly. I got up, brewed some coffee and wasted a few hours online, deciding without formally expressing anything that I would have no part of training that day. My girlfriend was wondering what was wrong but I didn’t want to talk to her, staring at the computer screen in silence until about 3pm when I decided that there was simply no point in being up, so I went to bed. Not to sleep, just to bed. Apart from a few bathroom breaks and a half-hearted attempt to eat the dinner my girlfriend made to cheer me up I laid on my back in bed staring at the ceiling for 17 hours in a row, sleeping only intermittently before my alarm clock went off at 8am, telling me it was time to go to work. This is when I started thinking that something was actually going wrong.

I spent a good part of that workday Googling my symptoms like every other moron does when they’re not feeling well. It seemed like I had all of the classic symptoms of over-training: tiredness, soreness, lack of sleep, irritability, sudden drop in performance, loss of appetite, etc. The symptoms are actually similar to clinical depression, which would explain why I’d spent the previous day wondering if anything mattered at all, why keep going, what’s the point, etc etc etc…very much a throwback to the 6 months I spent in my mid-20s doing a poor job of understanding Nietzsche, but not at all typical of my outlook on life.

After talking about my symptoms to Pat at Ironstone he also reached the conclusion that I was suffering from adrenal fatigue, or over-training (and no, I didn’t go to a doctor because that would involve actually doing things and going places, two things I’m not great at). I did some more searching online and found a fantastic resource about the ins and outs of the causes of over-training. Lyle McDonald, a writer, trainer and former speed skater, maintains a blog about training and nutrition that has lots of sciency words on it that seems accurate to someone without any physiology training like me . You can find the first of what is at least an 8 part series on the subject (Lyle is even more long-winded than I am but at least he has a wealth of useful information to share) at his blog.

As a very short summary, Lyle breaks the idea down into two categories: over-training and over-reaching. Over-training is what occurs when an athlete engages in sustained, high and/or long intensity exercises over many months or years without adequate recovery. Over-reaching is similar, just over a shorter time period. Over-reaching is to over-training what changing a flat tire when you run over a nail is to continuing to drive on rims, sparks flying, what little rubber you have left shredding itself on the asphalt as you scream down the highway at 100mph. True over-training takes years. McDonald gives examples of athletes training themselves into a massive metabolic hole during a 4 year Olympic training cycle that it took several years of zero activity to recover from, if the athlete recovered at all. Over-reaching, on the other hand, is more likely the category that I fell into. I signed myself up for too intense a training load for my training experience and for the recovery modalities that I was able to employ (I’ll touch on this later) and I burned out. Week after week of 12+hrs of work with little rest caught up to me. Yes, we programmed in ‘rest weeks’ but those generally ended up being normal weeks because we were so in the groove of training that we didn’t want to stop. So we kept going and kept digging a deeper and deeper recovery deficit until my body pulled the parachute cord itself and gave me a very strong warning to stop being an idiot and take some time off.

And that’s what I did. I was advised to do one full week of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, followed by a very light duty week. I was also encouraged to spend a bit of time straightening my diet out. I was able to make some interesting observations during that week off. The first was that I definitely needed it. It was Wednesday or Thursday of that week before I was able to sleep somewhat normally. I also noticed that training had taken over such a large portion of my spare time that I was terrible at entertaining myself. I spent a lot of time sitting on the couching wondering what the hell I was going to do until it was time to go to bed. Focusing on improving my diet pointed out just how terribly I’d been eating for the last couple of months. Its only now, two full weeks after my Saturday meltdown, that my mood is back to more or less a normal level where I’m enjoying just being awake, spending time with my girlfriend and not hating my life.

I also got out climbing yesterday for the first time since the meltdown. I’d spent the previous two weeks nervously preparing myself for the worst: what if I’d lost it? If I couldn’t get up a 5.8 anymore I’d have to cancel the trip, sell my gear and find a new hobby. The thought ate at the back of my mind every single day. I was surprised at how nervous I was packing my climbing bag that morning. It turns out my worries were unfounded. The day went great, James and I got in a leisurely 6 pitches and were home before dinner. I woke up today with no pain and in a great mood. I’m back on the horse and with only 5 weeks to go until our trip it wasn’t a moment too soon.

One of the most interesting pieces of reading I did around over-training, mostly on McDonald’s site, is the idea that casual athletes like me look to the pros for inspiration for training, thinking ‘if I do what they do then I’ll be just as successful.’ What we choose to ignore or never realize in the first place is that those athletes typically have decades of endurance and strength training behind them. This not only influences their ability to perform their sport at a high level, it also influences their ability to handle training loads at a high level. House and Johnston make this point in their book but I glossed over it, not realizing what it actually meant in practice.

Often times these program are just training to train – the work you do today is setting your body up to do more work tomorrow, this year’s work informs the next year, etc. etc. until an athlete has the decade or two of training experience under their belts that they need to train at a truly elite level. No (self-aware) weekend warrior would expect to be able to drop themselves into the middle of an NFL game and survive but somehow expect to be able to adopt the same training plan that those same pro athletes do and not get ground into dust. For a more specific climbing analogy, I would never in my wildest dreams follow an alpinist like House, Twight, Conrad, etc. up a fast and light first ascent attempt in Alaska or the Himalaya, but for some reason I assumed without reservation that I would be able to jump into their training plan and accept the training load without falling apart.

Pro athletes have the luxury of time, meaning they generally don’t need to work full-time jobs, or any jobs, while they train for their sport (Olympic, amateur and ‘vertical’ athletes are usually exceptions to this and I feel badly for you all). That means that not only do they have time for 20hr training weeks, they also have time to eat properly and rest properly. Many people will give lip service to the idea that recovery is just as important as training but I get the impression that few of those same casual athletes pass up Friday night party plans because they need to stay in and recover, or pass up that extra try at a bouldering project because it would hamper their recovery. Over-training, as mentioned above, is not discussed as an absolute training volume, but rather a training volume enacted without sufficient recovery time. Twenty hour training weeks are fine if you also have 20 or 30 hours each week to rest, eat and recover. However, if you’re like most of the target audience of the New Alpinism book, this isn’t you.

Depending on who actually reads this blog (or this far into this grotesquely long post), there may be people that will say that they could do my training load with their eyes closed. And they’re likely right – again, the volume limit for over-training isn’t an absolute limit. It’s specific to a particular athlete, so with my lack of training experience and general low levels of fitness going into this project, this was too much for me. It’s entirely possible that I could repeat my exact volume plan from this cycle in two years and find it to be too easy. Only time will tell, which is why it’s important to take the time to reflect on how a particular person is handling a particular training/recovery load at a particular time, and adjust.

Luckily I was smart enough to catch this problem very early on. Two weeks later I’m starting to feel more like myself, but I need to resist the urge to jump right back to where I was before. I’m going to work on a reduced volume schedule for the rest of the cycle and seek to basically maintain whatever fitness I’ve gained thus far and work instead on making improvements in technique and efficiency while climbing. Had I put my head down and powered through it’s entirely possible that I would have had a bigger meltdown while in the Bugs, possible even while on a climb. The consequences of not being able to finish a 5.8 pitch while at my local crag are basically nil beyond feeling like an asshole, but not being able to finish while in the mountains puts myself and my partner at serious risk.

If I have any advice to give to those who are following a similar plan to us (and particularly to those ultra-amateurs like me) is to closely monitor how you’re feeling. Know the difference between the normal cycles of motivation and outright, bone-crushing sadness, know what bodily discomfort should be normal and what seems like it’s disproportionate and try your hardest to fit recovery in. To quote very loosely from the House/Johnston book (since it’s in the other room and I’m lazy), a plan is a useful motivator to structure your training but doesn’t supersede personal observation and reflection – don’t follow your plan mindlessly into the grave.

Does anyone else have experience with this? I’m really fascinated by the whole concept. I spent a week researching it and had to try really hard not to vomit everything I’ve read back into this post but I’d love to hear someone else’s perspective on what’s over-training and what’s just being tired.

tl,dr; trained too much, got sad, couldn’t climb, took two weeks off now I’m better again

– Matt



6 thoughts on “Over-training or over-complaining?

  1. Thanks for posting this unflinchingly honest report, which poses a very interesting question. I had a similar experience very early on in my training (in the second month of the transition period) when I kept throwing myself at my training plan, ignoring how exhausted I was, until two separate illnesses within a single month finally forced me to adjust my expectations to realistic levels. I was completely dumbstruck. I thought I was a natural athlete and that somehow I would be able to escape the gravity of normality. I was wrong, and that was a humbling experience.

    I remember asking James a while back about your previous annual training volume. When he said that you guys had based your 2015 planning on an assumption of 500 hours a year – which Training for the New Alpinism describes as the number of hours that a professional guide might put in – I was surprised. Even having trained for a 20K race in 2014, I knew that I was well below half that number, so I went with the 250-hour model (reserved for students and very active professionals), which was still crushing me – in the transition period!

    You’re absolutely right to point out that we amateur athletes simply don’t have the space to recover from gigantic training volumes like professional athletes. If we put in a twenty-hour sports week, that’s on top of at least forty hours of work. I remember reading Lance Armstrong’s War, and the author described how cyclists, when they’re in training, are obsessively focused on recovery; they won’t climb stairs, they sit down whenever they can, they take naps in the afternoon, they have professional massages and people who help them stretch, etc. Because that’s their job: train, recover, repeat.

    But back to your question re: over-training versus normal fatigue. I haven’t done any research on this, but I would say there are subjective and objective factors. Objective factors might include performance data from your workouts (for example, I’ve noticed my heart rate is higher when I need more recovery; compare data on a similar route / activity, and if you’re at 145 bpm on something that’s normally more like 122 bpm, you might need to take it easy). It would be interesting to look at your training log in the weeks leading up to Katahdin to see if a pattern emerges (other than logging more hours than planned).

    The subjective factors are the difficult part, because working out necessarily means suffering. So when you’re facing a big hike or a hard workout in the gym, of course there’s a little voice inside of you that puts up a fight and asks all of those doubting questions. Why am I doing this? Is climbing really this important to me? Am I even cut out for this? Am I a total wuss? Why am I not Steve House yet?

    But the real danger signals for me – aside from a fever, utter exhaustion, or similar really obvious things (for example, your stress fracture; a friend of mine in Paris, 50 years old, decided to start training for a half-marathon, and she ended up shivering her shin bone while running) – are those dark thoughts you mention. Healthy exercise is supposed to make you feel good, not like someone just beat the shit out of you. Yes, there are times to push hard, but you have to recover from that before you can re-apply the pressure. So when I am dreading a specific workout, or find myself looking for excuses to postpone or get out of it, or just feeling flat-out depressed, I ask myself straight out: do you want to do this or not? If the answer is no, then I take that Zone 1 workout and do a recovery workout instead (which, for me, means a leisurely walk in the woods, listening to music or an audio book). If the answer is yes, I really do want to work out today, I’m just worried about how I’ll perform, then it’s OK to move forward. It really comes down to an instinctual gut feeling, and a commitment to being compassionate with myself (which means not mentally abusing myself if I decide to skip a workout).

    One reason I’m so happy that you guys are reporting on your progress is that, if you read Training for the New Alpinism in a vacuum, you might well assume that you’re just a pusscake when you hit the wall. I mean, there’s Ueli Steck and Kelly Cordes and Mark Twight all singing the praises of suffering and making it sound super-awesome to work out until your body explodes. It would be nice if, in the second edition, the authors would include testimonials from ‘real’ people to kind of balance things out. Like people who really love to sport climb and are just getting into alpine climbing, and are getting ambitious about doing their first major multi-pitch climb in remote territory. What kind of gains do normal people see? Or is masochism a necessary quality of the alpinist? The stories of Steck and company are inspiring, but they’re also misleading in a way, at least for those of us who like to imagine that we are also potential badasses. There may still be an Übermensch inside of us (to borrow from Nietzsche, also one of my personal favorites), but we’ve all got a long way to go – not to mention the decisions we’d have to make about life priorities – before we could aspire to join the ranks of the elite. Maybe it’s enough to be a very good climber who can hold his own on a weeklong trip in the alpine backcountry.

    In any event, thanks for sharing your ups and down on your journey. And it sounds like things are definitely looking up for your next adventure!

  2. You’re right on the money. To extrapolate on Lance Armstrong analogy – all of those high level cyclists of that era had to run some pretty serious drug regimens to train that hard and not totally detonate.

    Actually, to go off on a bit of a tangent, I wonder what the incidence of PEDs is among mid- to high-level alpinists and climbers? They have the same training demands as elite athletes in other sports, often have death as a consequence of failure, and now that companies seem to be offering more sponsorships there may be further financial incentives for chemically improving performance. This isn’t something I don’t think I’ve EVER read about, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I actually don’t have a particularly negative opinion on PEDs -people can do what they want as far as I’m concerned but it may be something else to consider when we compare ourselves to elite performances and wonder what it took to get there.

    Back on track, thanks for the in-depth comment. Its been fun to go through this with other like-minded, like-abilitied people at the same time to compare experiences.

  3. Hi Matt (and Lee)(If you are still looking in on this),

    Interesting discussion. This topic is something I think about a lot as in order to reach close to your best you need to get close to the line of max training and sometimes I step over.

    I have been training (or at least exercising) for 40 years as I approach the milestone age of 60. I still like to hike, backpack, sport climb, ice climb, trad and alpine climb, run trails, and such. I’m water ice climbing at WI5 (guided), did a grade V 5.10a, 1500 ft wall at 13,000+ ft a couple of years ago (guided), lead 5.10 sport on a good day, lead climb the snow and ice gullies on Mt Washington. But with a job, wife and kids I don’t do as much as I would like.

    I noticed as I get older in order to not over-train (or really over-reach I guess) I need to do much more multi-mode training, and be more careful about rest. Unfortunately I have learned this the hard way, and I am somewhat of a slow learner. I have had some moderately serious injuries along the way – all preventable if I paid more attention and was less hard headed (yes, sometimes you can exercise your way out of injury but on the whole it is a lousy plan!)

    One challenge is the over-training/reach line keeps moving! As noted above, as you get more years under your belt you can handle a greater load – to a point. With age the line starts going the wrong way! But you have to train hard to slow the descent, and training smart gets to be a bigger and bigger issue! So this is a tricky business!

    The House/Johnson approach was a great find for me, but finding the line of about as much training as you can handle but not more is difficult.

    Thanks for the blog, very interesting reading.

    I simply cannot run 5 days a week for example. I now pretty much only work hard at a given workout twice a week. I run trails twice a week, stairmaster twice a week, strength twice a week, climb twice a week, yoga once a week, and rest as needed, and interrupt to have fun now and again – if my son says let’s go backpacking this weekend I do not say no.

    1. Hi Rod,

      Thanks for your comment (from over a year ago). I just wanted to check in and let you know that I’ve adopted your approach of a couple of hard days a week, switching back and forth between training modalities (running/lifting/climbing/etc.) based on some recent reading I’ve done. It seems like a more balanced approach than strict periodization and much more flexible for people with regular lives.

      I just wanted to let you know that you’re very right, even if it took me a year to realize!



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