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In a truly stunning turnaround over the weekend, swimmer Simone Manuel secured a spot at the upcoming 2021 Olympics in Tokyo by winning the 50-meter freestyle at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, by a fraction of a second - 0.01 seconds, to be exact. It was this split-second success that puts Manuel among the swimmers qualified to head to Tokyo next month, where she'll represent the U.S. in the Summer Games. (ICYDK, other sports that have Olympic trials include curling, diving, gymnastics, and track and field, and they're all happening in the weeks ahead of the Games in July.)
No one appeared as surprised (and relieved) by the win as Manuel herself, especially since earlier the same week, the 24-year-old failed to advance to the final of the 100-meter freestyle - the race for which she famously took home the gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, making her the first Black woman to win an individual swimming gold medal at the Games.
During a press conference just three days before her win, the Texas native got emotional while she opened up about a months-long health battle she faced during her training. Back in March, she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome and experienced scary symptoms that could have derailed her chances of going to Tokyo. She called her battle with the emotional and physical ordeal her "biggest fight." (For more: Is Your Really Intense Workout Making You Sick?)
Manuel explained that in January, she had begun feeling "off," and by March she started experiencing some alarming symptoms both in and out of the pool. She says her body "had completely crashed." After receiving the diagnosis, she started a modified training schedule under the guidance of her doctors, but her condition continued to decline. She was forced to take a three-week break from swimming until mid-April, which threatened to keep her from competing at the trials.
Wondering what overtraining syndrome is and whether it's something you should worry about? Read on.
What Is Overtraining Syndrome?
Much like it sounds, overtraining syndrome occurs when someone is training at such a high level of intensity that they're unable to adequately recover between sessions. It most commonly occurs among athletes or those who are very physically active - but it can happen to anyone, whether you're training for the Olympics, prepping for a marathon in your neighborhood, or you're simply relying on daily sweat sessions to combat pandemic-induced stress.
Manuel said her first symptom was an elevated heart rate at rest, before she began experiencing other physical and emotional ailments, including sore muscles, loss of appetite, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and irritability. "Just walking up the stairs to the pool I was gassed," she said. Other symptoms of overtraining syndrome include increased resting blood pressure, weight loss, and excess cortisol production. Your body responds to the intense amount of exercise by producing too much cortisol, the stress hormone, which can lead your muscles to weaken and increase your risk of illness and/or injury. (Read more about the link between cortisol and exercise here.)
It's not just your physical health that's impacted, either. "Overtraining syndrome can seriously affect your mental health. It can sap your motivation, make you short-tempered, hostile, cranky, sad, anxious, depressed, and a whole host of other not-so-fun mood changes," as Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl previously explained to Shape. This was absolutely true for Manuel, who shared that she "didn't want to be there" during training, because she knew she wasn't reaching her peak performance. She said she began isolating herself from her loved ones and would "snap" at family members - all of which was out of character for her. (Related: 7 Signs You Seriously Need a Rest Day)
The TL;DR - when you don't give your body adequate fuel, rest, and recovery time between workouts, you could find yourself at risk of seriously stressing your body and developing overtraining syndrome.
How Common Is It, and How Do You Know If You Have It?
Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all rule for how much exercise is too much, and overtraining syndrome is difficult to diagnose. There's no one specific diagnostic test, though your doctor might run labs and blood tests to check your electrolytes, thyroid, iron levels, cortisol, and testosterone if you present with symptoms and you've been going particularly hard lately. (Read more about how much exercise is too much here.)
It's believed to be more common in endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, rowers, cross-country skiers, cyclists, and swimmers, as well as power athletes (sprinters, jumpers, and weight lifters). It's especially common in swimmers, like Manuel, with somewhere between 10 to 21 percent of swimmers experiencing signs of overtraining during the course of a competitive season, according to research published in Acupuncture for Sports and Trauma Rehabilitation.
It's also more common in women athletes, who are also at risk for the female athlete triad: the trio of eating disorders, amenorrhea (loss of periods), and osteoporosis (when bones become weak or brittle), all as a result of failing to consume enough calories to support exercise recovery and bodily functions. (See: Are you at risk for the female athlete triad?)
Manuel attributed her burnout to other external factors as well, including the year-long Olympics delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as being a Black person in America during a year of increased racial tensions. "This past year for the Black community has been brutal," she said. "I can't say that that wasn't something that I saw, it's not something that I could ignore. And it was just another factor that can influence you, mentally, in a draining way."
Treatment and Prevention
The only treatment is rest and lots of it. But taking a day or two off won't cut it - symptoms can persist even after weeks or months of complete rest, with severe cases sidelining athletes for months or more. Prevention is the only surefire way to protect your body and mind from burning out, which means you'll want to prioritize rest, eat a nutritious diet (and eat enough), get enough sleep, and protect your mental health. Just remember: No matter what you're training for, caring for both your body and mind is of the utmost importance.