Article by Elinor Fish, founder and CEO of Run Wild Retreats
Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the severe adrenal fatigue that reduced me to an exhausted, sobbing mess hiding under the bed sheets. The smallest issues elicited huge anxiety. I was overwhelmed all the time. At my lowest point, running, which had always been my stress-reliever, was impossible. I lacked the energy to pull myself out of bed, let alone run. A positive outcome from that health crisis, however, was that it prompted me to undertake an intense period of study and re-education that changed how I understand the effects of stress on the body and mind.
I gradually rebuilt my health through some major lifestyle changes including a plant-based diet, more yoga, more sleep, and proactive stress management including mindful running. I learned what “sustainable” running looks like and experienced the rewards of proper self-care.
Today, I continue to live a delicate balance between working as hard as I want (being an entrepreneur is a guaranteed emotional roller coaster) and running to the level that I enjoyed during the previous 25 years. Last February, I was reminded of just how delicate that balance can be when I found myself slipping back into a severely depleted state. It reminded me of how I had felt, years before, when on my way to developing adrenal fatigue.
Stress hormones coursed through my body, keeping me wired at night and tired all day. Fueling the insomnia was the a big decision I needed to make about whether to stay in my corporate public relations job or to strike out on my own as a running and wellness coach. The longer I agonized over the decision, the more my health deteriorated.
Running lacked appeal, and besides, I had no energy for it. I depended on strong coffee to get me going in the morning, sugar to get me through the afternoon, and alcohol to unwind at night. The less I exercised the more lethargic I felt, and more I struggled to focus at work, and remember even the simplest things; like why I walked into a room. I was too discouraged to run, so I lost fitness fast. But once I made the career move that got me to where I am today, which is helping runners live their healthiest lives (while avoiding the problems I encountered with chronic injury and adrenal fatigue), all my symptoms cleared up within a few weeks.
The feelings that I had struggled with are common among runners I’ve since coached who describe being “burned out,” “too overwhelmed to run” or just plain “unmotivated.”
They don’t know why they feel that way, but are frustrated that no amount of will power can get them back to a joyful relationship with running. The thing is these feelings are not just psychological, but reflect the very real effects of stress hormones like cortisol on the body.
These effects start off feeling like a lack of motivation, lethargy, and chronic soreness. But if left unchecked, can develop into adrenal fatigue.
“When confronted with increased fatigue, slower times and worse performances, your first instinct as an athlete might be to push yourself harder,” says Fawne Hanson, co-author of The Adrenal Fatigue Solution. “This might mean increasing your training or consuming more stimulants like coffee in the morning or before workouts. However, if weakened adrenals are the underlying reason for your slower times, these solutions will likely be counterproductive.
"When you run, your brain releases a hormone that tells your adrenals to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. If your adrenals are in good shape they will respond immediately, creating the familiar “fight or flight” response of increased heart rate, dilated pupils, greater muscle strength and higher alertness. However, if you subject your body to these stressors for long periods, the adrenal glands become less able to produce the stress hormones that you need. A run used to make you feel energized, but now it just makes you feel heavier and more tired.”
No wonder runners with adrenal fatigue find it especially difficult to manage their condition! That leaves runners wondering: should I keep running or will it make my fatigue worse?
The Runner's Relationship to Stress
Unless your health is severely compromised, running can be part of the adrenal fatigue recovery process. They key is to pay attention to how your body is responding to stress. I had to learn to recognize just much running intensity (in terms of speed, duration, mileage, etc.), I could handle from day to day, week to week.. Some days I knew that running would feel awesome and energize me, while other days I wasn't up for it and would do more harm than good.
By listening more closely to my body, I always knew how much rest I needed in order to run sustainably. In short, I planned training around recovery instead of the reverse.
For an article I wrote in Trail Runner magazine back in July 2015, I interviewed a couple of top endurance runners who had overcome adrenal fatigue and are now back doing the sports they love.
Jen Segger of British Columbia, Canada, is a Run Wild Retreats running guide and endurance athlete who regularly competes in ultramarathons, trail races and adventures races around the world.
And Duncan Callahan, of Gunnison, Colorado, is a champion ultrarunner, sponsored athlete and dad who works full time at Western State University.
In that article, I share the strategies that helped them (the same things that healed my adrenal fatigue).
Elinor's Tips for Recovering From Adrenal Fatigue
1. Nourish yourself with sleep
In 1900, Americans slept an average of nine hours a night. But in this artificially lit, productivity-obsessed era, Americans sleep an average of 6.1 hours, which was Duncan’s typical shuteye at the time of his diagnosis. The value of sleep for runners can’t be understated, as this is when the majority of post-exercise repair processes take place at the cellular level. It’s during sleep that hormones are rebalanced and healing mechanisms begin repairing exercise-damaged muscles, inflamed joints, and the cardiovascular system. Skimping on sleep is probably the most detrimental thing any runner can do for his or her health. If you decide to make one change, make getting a solid 8 hours a night your top priority.
2. Eat to heal
Muscles and other tissues depend on energy from the food you eat to recover well. Restricting calories can actually cause weight gain when you’re running regularly because a low-carb diet puts the body into starvation mode. That means it stores what food you do eat.
It’s tempting to not eat much after a run, since the appetite is naturally suppressed for some time after exercising. However, this is when the body is most in need of nourishment. “Energy is stored as glycogen in the muscles and during exercise that glycogen is used up,” says Marcey Robinson, R.D., exercise and sport nutritionist. “But your body also needs glycogen during recovery to rebuild muscles. So if you don’t eat enough calories, especially after training, these repair processes are severely compromised. It's like revving the engine but there's no fuel for it to draw from,” says Robinson.
Without proper nourishment the body becomes metabolically stressed, which fuels chronic inflammation and disrupts organ function. Eating real foods is more effective than processed, packaged foods, formulated sports drinks, sugary energy foods, or supplements for recovery. “There’s nothing like real, unprocessed foods for providing everything the body needs to easily digest and absorb the nutrients you need,” says Marcey. “Fruits and vegetables in particular contain the water, fiber, macronutrients and micronutrients you need all in one package.”
3. Get a handle on your stress
Because the body responds to all stressors the same way, actively managing your emotional stress is just as important as managing training stress. The tipping point came for Jen when she agreed to one project too many and her mental stress reached an all-time high. “I had a full calendar of events, lots of travel and goals to reach,” she says. “Every day I went hard from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
Reducing one’s workload, obligations, and setting boundaries can ease the situation. However, the most effective solution involves changing your emotional reactions. This can be done by regularly engaging in activities that elicit the relaxation response. The opposite of the stress response, the relaxation response changes brain chemistry in a way that makes you feel good and think clearly and calmly, even in difficult situations. Activities like meditating, playing music, journaling, reading an entertaining story, enjoying a hobby or game and spending time with close friends are a few of the ways to elicit the relaxation response.
4. Say no to stimulants
As if coffee, sugar and cola weren’t addictive enough, adrenal fatigue makes you crave stimulants even more, though with little or no ergogenic effect. “When you’re healthy, caffeine can boost your short-term performance,” says Fawne. “But when you have adrenal fatigue, that effect is diminished. A cup of coffee or soda that used to make you feel energized now it just makes you feel heavier and more tired.”
And since more sleep is essential to overcoming adrenal fatigue, cutting out excess sugar and all caffeine is necessary to establishing healthy sleep patterns. Duncan kicked his long-time habit of drinking up to 80 oz of coffee every day, a step he believes was critical to his recovery.
5. Train smarter, not harder
Most runners train too hard too often. Even if you don’t do speed work or hill repeats, it is possible for your everyday training pace to be counter-productive. Without sufficient recovery, the body is unable to make the physiological adaptations necessary to build fitness. Instead, fatigue accumulates.
Therefore, 80 percent of your total mileage should be at an “easy” pace. The best way to stay within that “easy” effort level is to regulate your pace by perceived exertion. Rating your perceived exertion level on a scale of 1 (easiest) to 10 (hardest) allows you to go as slow as you need to recover well. This subjective rating system makes heart-rate training zones and pace-per-mile irrelevant. What feels “easy” one day can feel “hard” the next, depending on the cumulative effect of all everything else going on in your life.
Sleep quality, emotional stress, relationship problems, job crises, and financial strain all influence your perceived exertion level. Knowing how to regulate your pace by feel makes your training more instinctual, and ultimately, more effective because your output level aligns better with the resources (energy) available to you on any given day.
6. Use biofeedback to run better
Injuries, low motivation, disrupted sleep and cumulative fatigue are early warning signs that a runner is at the very least overtraining, and may be at risk for a stress-related condition like adrenal fatigue.
By viewing these signs as part of their biofeedback system, runners can better manage their training and life stressors, adjusting training volume and recovery on the fly. “My condition started improving when I stopped listening to other people’s advice and started listening to myself,” says Ashley Alex of Scranton, Pennsylvania. “Now, when I feel fatigued or too sore to run, I ask myself ‘will this run benefit me or work against me?’ As it turns out, the more rest and recovery I get, the more miles I can run.”
When running reaches a point at which it feels unsustainable or overwhelming, then it’s time to back off and consider all you have going on. Before adding anything new (in terms of intensity, mileage, more races or anything), what can be removed to make space, time and energy for it? This approach requires putting ego aside and listening to your biofeedback about when your body is tired and needs rest or primed for increased training effort.
“Running mileage used to be my primary training metric,” says Duncan. “Now it’s how many hours I sleep.”
“Things turned around really quickly once I gave myself the time required to fully recover instead of trying to train half-time and rest half-time,” says Jen.
The Owner of No Limits Fitness Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Kathleen Stabler says it takes practice for athletes to tune out how their ego is telling them train and tune in to what their instincts tell them. “As this becomes habit, training plans become guidelines rather than an inflexible prescription,” she says.