Yesterday I received an email from a female pro cyclocross racer who shall remain anonymous. She described what certainly sounds like overtraining. It’s hard to be certain, as I’ve written about here and here. But I’d be willing to bet that she has indeed pushed herself beyond her natural limits, which takes great motivation, and is overtrained. Her email described how she had been feeling lethargic and producing very poor race performances. Those are certainly common symptoms. She went on to explain that she had blood testing done which revealed high cortisol and low estrogen levels. Again, common signs of overtraining for a female athlete. She asked if I could provide any guidance as to what she should do to get back to normal training again. There’s not much. The following is my reply
I’m sorry to hear of your current condition. Overtraining is certainly a life-altering condition when it happens. While actually rare among athletes, it is possible to drive oneself so hard that it becomes obvious that something is wrong. You were wise to get a blood test done. High cortisol and low estrogen seem to support your conclusion. Your numbers for those certainly increase the likelihood of it being OT while reducing the possibilities of other diseases with similar symptoms, such as Lyme disease and mononucleosis. But those should really be eliminated as possibilities before ignoring them. Being a CX’er would certainly put you in an environment where Lyme disease could happen. Mono is also a possibility.
Assuming these are not what you are experiencing I’d continue to be aware of OT symptoms that indicate the condition. The most common is fatigue. While the motivation to return to training may be high, if fatigue is still present then rest is the only option. Once unrelenting fatigue is no longer a factor then you can return to training, but it initially must be all aerobic (zones 1-2) with no anaerobic or even high aerobic-intensity training. The rides should also be short, probably meaning, for you, an hour or less followed by a day or more off when you start back. This reduced training may last for a few weeks. It can’t be hurried. Gradually over several weeks you can return to “normal” CX training but the process must be very gradual taking weeks if not months to allow for healthy adaptation. Don’t try to rush it. I’d be hesitant at this point to plan on doing those world cup races in September. Better to be 100% healthy for the remainder of the season than to force your body back into an unhealthy state and then miss an entire season. The body doesn’t operate on an artificial timeline. Patience is the key.
I’d suggest no racing or training timelines that must be met until you are without doubt healthy and feeling normal again. Along the way pay close attention to how your body is responding. Frequent days off are likely to be a necessity for some time. Be very careful to monitor your status on a daily basis by watching recovery metrics such as hours of sleep, quality of sleep, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, appetite, body weight, general health, normal periods, irritability, and depression. There are apps available that can help with most of these.
I’m sorry I can’t be more specific as to the details of your return to a normal lifestyle, especially the timing. OT isn’t the same for all athletes so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all process to follow. So what I’m suggesting above is just a guess on my part based on the little I know about you. You and your coach will have to watch your progress very carefully. Again, be patient.