What does overtraining syndrome feel like?

What does overtraining syndrome feel like?

I’ve overtrained ever since my daughter was born in September 2010. When she was just 6 weeks old and I was given the all clear, I began training for my first full marathon. I had less than 6 months, and so I trained like hell. Since then, I haven’t stopped. Literally.

I went off like a rocket at the beginning of 2014 and literally propelled myself into another running dimension. I began seeing results and times that I hadn’t dared to believe we’re possible for me. So, I wanted more of the good stuff. Like Hank from Breaking Bad, I’d dipped in to another world I wanted – needed – more of. Look at the progression from my Power of Ten progress graph. It’s like I was plugged in. Then look at it now. And carry on reading.

I’ve been stopped in my tracks.


So, what is overtraining syndrome and how does it feel? Well, here’s the view from where I’m at right here, right now. essentials

Firstly, this doesn’t just happen overnight. I’ve been denying it, ignoring the signs, telling myself to ‘crack on’ just hoping (praying) that all the horrible little telltale symptoms would disappear.

They didn’t.

Legs. My legs stopped recovering. It started happening around early summer last year. I’d just got a PB at Edinburgh Half marathon (1:30) the day after a cracking Parkrun, and my legs were tired. I knew they were spent, but I went and raced again the following weekend, and the one after that. My ego couldn’t say no, and so my legs were dragged along for the ride. They hated me for it – I knew that, but I did it anyway.

Training runs. They gradually became harder and harder as my legs protested more and more. Each time was a little bit more painful, each ‘steady run’ was a punishment for their misbehaving, “You don’t want to play? You bloody well will do. I’ll show you.” I abused them and I steamrollered through silly, stupid, pointless battles that caused yet more untold damage, just because I could.

Aching. The aches in my legs began hanging around long after the party was over. I’m not talking about feeling “just a bit sore” either. I’m talking about “Shit I feel like I’ve just run a marathon and it hurts to bend down to fasten my shoes, or walk up 5 stairs” soreness. It’s not normal, and it’s never gone away. It’s here now, in fact. When did I last run? 2 days ago, for only 30 minutes, and yet my legs would have you believe I finished the marathon an hour ago. I’m having to adapt to this permanent unwelcome guest – turned squatter – and accept that he’s still here. I don’t know how to evict him.

Malaise. Something just feels wrong. I know it, and it’s hard to explain. It feels like being trapped in a corner of my head, with nowhere to go. I don’t know how I feel, or what to do about it. It’s confusing, like being stuck in a revolving door but there is no outside. I’ve suffered from bouts of depression before in my life. This is the closest I’ve come to being there again in six years, maybe more.

Viruses. I’ve had shit loads of them. One after the other. Chest infection, cold, flu (that was a nasty bastard), and each time I’ve found myself getting more frustrated at my body for letting me down. Perhaps I was letting it down all along.

Panic. I’m panicking more. About stupid stuff: about my running (or where it’s gone) and other trivial, peripheral non-events. The other night, I didn’t sleep with worry. What about? I hear you ask. Well, about the prospect of a speed session on the treadmill early the next morning. Yup, honestly. It felt like I was waiting to be shot, I kid you not. Everything panicked me. Getting to the gym for 6.55am, taking all my stuff for work, not forgetting something, how will I carry all my 17 bags to the car? Stupid stuff. Not to mention the session itself. I was overwhelmed with fear. What if I just can’t do it? What if my legs won’t join in? (They didn’t.) So my sleep was disturbed, as my body surged with adrenalin for what? Nothing really. Nothing at all, in fact. (…and the session was crap, as predicted, probably for all of the above reasons.)

Sleeping. My sleep has been disturbed for months. I’ve struggled to switch off my unsettled mind, almost in a constant state of being ‘on alert’ for absolutely nothing at all to happen. As I’ve identified what’s going on, and I’m now taking steps to recover, this is – thankfully – beginning to improve. A good night’s sleep is now a mini-victory. But they all add up.

Breathing. I’m having to learn how to just breathe. No more, no less than that. Just breathe deeply and calmly, and not in a shallow, panicked, hyperventilated state. At times it feels ridiculous; at other times, strangely hypnotic. However, I’m told that it is the first step to piecing myself back together.

Where I go from here and how long my recovery will take – I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m currently in a little boat far out at sea, and I desperately need to find my way back to shore. Rather than battle against the tide, this time perhaps I’m best learning to let the ocean waves take me where they will. That way, I should at least have some energy left when I do finally get there.

Bon Voyage!


The story (and irony) of a ‘Good For Age’ Virgin London Marathon place

The story (and irony) of a ‘Good For Age’ VLM place… 24th March 2016

It arrived through the post this morning: my Virgin London Marathon ‘Good for Age’ entry pack. It’s my third time securing a place by virtue of achieving a ‘qualifying time’, and – dare I say it – I’ve become a bit blasé about it.

But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s my story.


My first ever London Marathon was when Tilly was 7 months old. It was my post-pregnancy goal – my reason to come back fighting. This diary entry was written when Tilly was just 11 weeks old:

“Getting through the pregnancy seemed a long haul – especially in this job – but we got there, and on 22 September at 9.10pm Tilly Cullen Hanson was born. This whole journey has given me a brand new perspective on the pressures of being a new mum, having expectations of my own body that are unrealistic, and adapting to a totally new way of life. Experiencing new responsibilities, having a new focus and a (very) high mountain to climb to get myself back from a walking incubator to being ‘me’ again all seems like a daunting task. My little girl is now only 11 weeks old, and my challenge has just started. Only this time I want to be fitter, stronger, and faster than before. Why should being a mum mean that I have to compromise my fitness, my running (which I love), my body and my confidence? I refuse to accept that it does. Watch this space for proof of that.”

And so I completed the 2011 VLM in a time of 4:25. I was ecstatic at having completed my own, very personal goal. However, I wanted to do better: I knew I could do better. Given more time to train, to allow my body longer to recover from being wrecked by forceps and episiotomies – I would be back, and I would break 4 hours. That was my goal.


My first Marathon: VLM 2011 in 4:25

So, in 2012 I returned – having managed to bag another ballot place – and I crossed the finish line in 3:50 and a few seconds (the few seconds are important. You’ll see why.) Back then, the Good for Age qualifying time for me was 3:50. I had no idea it existed. I’d never heard it, let alone allowed myself the self-indulgent fantasy of believing I was capable of achieving it. But shit! When I found out about it, I looked again at my time. Bloody hell! I’m only a few seconds off it! Just as before, I wanted to do better. I KNEW I could do better. With even more training, more discipline & more dedication, I believed I could achieve that standard.


VLM 2012: 3:50 and a few seconds…

So, I wrote to the VLM Race Director, My Hugh Brasher. I explained to him that I fully believed I could smash the 3:50 GFA qualifying time right out of town, if he gave me the chance – I mitigated that had I not stopped on route several times to arse about and take selfies of Will Young and Iwan Thomas (both of whom I passed) then I would have – without question – qualified automatically for 2013 VLM entry.

One of his minions wrote back to me. Unfortunately, those ‘and a few seconds’ were a few seconds too many. She explained to me that if they were to nudge the cut-off qualifying time for me, it would open the floodgates to an endless number of other just a few second-ers and erode their management of the GFA application process. Disappointed, I understood and accepted their stance. It was – and still is – arguably a far more achievable qualifying time for females than it is for males, and I respected the floodgates argument. I would have to try again, and do better.

Unfortunately, in 2013 I didn’t secure a VLM place: the Ballot Gods weren’t shining down on me, and so I entered the Edinburgh Marathon instead. It was still possible for me to prove to Hugh and his Minion that I was true to my word, and that I COULD do better. That year, I’d battled with glandular fever, dramatic (unhealthy) weight loss, and it was touch & go as to whether I’d be fit enough to run the marathon at all, let alone go for a GFA qualifying time. The Leeds Half marathon in early May was my test: if I could do that in reasonable time and feel OK, I was still running Edinburgh. And so I did. My health having been hit and miss for the entire build-up, I struggled most of the way round, and crawled over the finishing line in 3:45 and a few seconds (these few seconds are now important too. You’ll see why.)

Edinburgh Marathon Photo

THIRD marathon… Edinburgh 2013…the few seconds really matter. Again.

Dear Mr Brasher,

I’m writing to let you know that I have just completed the Edinburgh Marathon in a time of 3:45 and a few seconds. You may recall that I wrote to you last year after completing the Virgin London Marathon in a time of 3:50 and a few seconds.

When I passed the finishing line in Edinburgh and I looked at the clock, I couldn’t believe I’d qualified for a VLM Good for Age place for 2014. And then I looked at the website, and noticed that the goal posts had been changed whilst I wasn’t looking.

I understand that the qualifying time has been reduced for my age category from 3:50 to 3:45. I am devastated, as I’m sure that had I known this was the case, I could have dug deeper and shaved off those few seconds.

As it stands, I’m writing to you again to ask you for a chance to prove that I can meet this standard.

With kind regards,

Rachel Cullen

So, TWICE I was the ‘almost’ girl. TWICE I was seconds away from the cut-off ‘Good for Age’ qualifying time. TWICE I wrote to Hugh Brasher – VLM Race Director, asking him to allow me to squeeze through the turnstiles and give me a chance.

He wrote back to me: personally, this time. His reply said:

“Dear Miss Cullen

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to be able to offer you a place in the 2014 Virgin London Marathon. My assistant will be in touch with you regarding this.

Good Luck


And that was it: I was in.

I came back in 2014, and I ran hard. I was hoping for somewhere around 3:30, and set of at that pace. But I knew I could do more. I knew I could do better. I crossed the line in 3:22 and I’d smashed through all of those barriers that had kept me hovering around the GFA qualifying time – and writing begging letters to Mr Brashner – for the previous two years.

I didn’t need to write to him again, but I did anyway. Just to say thank you for giving me the chance to prove that I could earn myself a Virgin London Marathon Good for Age place in my own right.

I’ve had one ever since.

*the irony lies in the fact that I’ve had to defer from this year’s VLM due to overtraining! Who’d have thought?! I may write to Hugh instead…

The Homeless Man in the Coffee Shop


I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing my book – well, editing it if truth be told (I may well be some time…)

I’m upstairs: there are plenty of indulgent, polished, leather sofas up here. The girl to my right is in her early 20s. She’s reading a book on ‘Corporate Strategy’ as the classical symphonies playing on auto-repeat reach their crescendo. Her navy blue suit jacket remains firmly in place whilst she brushes up on her Marketing Mantra and breaks chunks off a double-chocolate muffin.

The lady ahead of me has gone for the understated, intellectual look: expensive cashmere cardigan thrown over her Laura Ashley number, topped off with modern, dark-rimmed glasses which perch delicately at the end of her nose. She checks her Iphone: no call from Obama as yet this morning, but SHIT! She’s forgotten to ask the Nanny to take some corn-fed chicken out of the freezer for later. Oh well, another stop off at Waitrose it is then…

Two Corporate Suits are exchanging mind-boggling ideologies at a table nearby:

“So, what do you make of this new American strategy then?” the older one throws into the mix. The younger one looks perplexed, and shuffles his double-shot Americano around uncomfortably. He looks over at me, and I smile.

An older gentleman is settled over in the corner. I’d guess his was a grande full-fat mocha with all the trimmings, but the shovel of a spoon emerging from his bucket-size ceramic mug kind of gives that away. Maybe he missed breakfast.

I glance over towards the stairs and a man is on his way up. He’s walking towards me, and he’s clearly homeless. He stands out in here. There are plenty of chairs – loads of tables available too. It’s my idea of perfection in terms of bodies-to-tables ratio, in fact. I’m happy with my choice. He keeps walking towards my table. His skinny legs are drowning in filthy, sad jogging bottoms. His cheeks are utterly hollow and look to have literally caved in around the toothless cavity in his face. His skin is weathered, and the yellow stains on his fingers look like dip-dye.

I’m at a small, round table with two other empty chairs. He comes and sits in the chair opposite me, at my table. He’s gone for some high-calorie concoction with a shit load of cream dumped on the top, and chocolate sprinkles. I wonder how much it’s cost.

As he moves to sit down, the faces look over. Corporate Suits break off from their conversation about American Policy; Cashmere Knit interrupts her text to the Nanny and peers up over her half-glasses; the older man in the corner fleetingly breaks eye contact with his bowl and spoon. They all look as if to say, “Look at that! The homeless man is going to go and sit with that lady over there on her Macbook Pro”

I look at them all, and I wonder to myself “What do you expect me to do now? Get up and move tables? Extract myself from the ludicrous possibility of sharing a table with a homeless man? Guffaw and huff as I’m ‘inconvenienced’ into moving half a metre to another, more suitable place to sit?” I wonder what they would do, and I see the answer in all of their faces.

I ease back in my comfy, polished brown leather chair, and I begin to write. The homeless man sits quietly opposite me and slowly begins to sip his small mug of whipped cream. The glaring eyes look away: Nothing to see here – move on.

He gets out his baccy and prepares a roll-up. After a few minutes, the whipped-cream drink has gone, and he’s on his way. He’s shortly followed by the Corporate Suits.

I wonder where he’s going. I wonder what the others thought when I stayed in my seat.

As the classical symphonies continue to play, I take another swig of my grande, skinny, extra-hot cappuccino.

I’m glad I stayed in my seat.

The emotional tumble-dryer of running: The end of my Virgin London Marathon 2016

I’m emotionally spent. This weekend has pulled me through the mire, chewed me up, and spat me back out again the other side. I’m still feeling dizzy from the rollercoaster ride. Here’s why:

Virgin London Marathon 2016

It’s been on the cards ever since Dubai marathon (lets put things into perspective, that was still only 7 weeks ago – although it feels like a lifetime) – Do I race VLM 2016, or is it just one marathon too far?

Straight after Dubai, I confidently announced: “I can do it Gav – I know I can. I can recover, and pick my training back up in time to do London. I’ve got 12 weeks, and I’m still up for it. Honestly, I’ll even have a full 3 days off running after Dubai. NO RUNNING AT ALL! Surely THAT shows my level of commitment to running London. I’m still in.”

And as sure as eggs is eggs, I WAS still committed to running London. Fully committed. I willed my body to be with me on this: I needed it to be with me.

If truth be told, it was a long shot. The number of races I’ve done over the past couple of years – including:


2 x full marathons (Virgin London Marathon 3:22; Yorkshire Marathon PB 3:16)

1 x 20 miler: Trimpell (PB 2:29)

8 x half marathons: Silverstone, Liverpool, Trailblazer Clumber Park, Cross Bay, Run Wales Hilly Half, Robin Hood Half, Worksop,

4 x 10 milers: Snake lane, Bluebell, Marsden, Eccup

6 x 10ks: Meltham, Sowerby Scorcher, Downhill 10k, Spen Greenway, Abbey Dash, Barnsley,

Other races: Calderdale Way Relay, Goole Riverbank Challenge, Full Bronte, Joe Percy, Bank of England Inter Financial Services Cross Country, Travellers 6; Littlebrough 5k series, John Carr 5k series, Parkruns


1 x full marathon: Virgin London Marathon (3:17)

1 x 20 miler: Trimpell,

5 x half marathons: Village Bakery Half, Haweswater, Edinburgh (PB 1:30), Halifax half, Worksop,

4 x 10 milers: Ripon, Marsden, Yorkshire 10 mile, Guy Fawkes,

3 x 10ks: Dewsbury, Sowerby Scorcher, Abbey Dash,

Other races: Dentdale 14 miler; Boxing Day 2 x local 5k races; VO2 Fitness Test at Loughbrough; Goole Riverbank Challenge (1st female), John Carr 5k series, Kilburn Feast 7, James Herriot Trail Race (an unmitigated disaster), 1 week altitude training in Font Romeu, Parkruns.

… Not to mention the ‘regular training’ in between races.

So, I am spent. It’s as simple as that. I’ve felt it in my legs, in my form and – even worse – systemically. It’s as if my entire being is, quite literally ‘run out’ – it’s had enough. I’ve looked into ‘overtraining syndrome’ and that’s basically where I’m at.



My level of absolute denial being what it is, I’ve tried to ignore the signs, and work through it, ‘listen to my body’ (only half-arsed if truth be told), eat right, sleep well, minimise stress, and a million other things in order to turn this around. We did the Village Bakery half marathon just 3 weeks after Dubai, and I felt it then. My time down 6 minutes on last year’s race – from 1:31 to 1:37. I rationalised that it was too soon after Dubai, which it was. And yet, I STILL believed I could recover and spring back into form.

Not content with ignoring all the other signs, I’ve also suffered from a full week of the flu. Proper, full mashings. Missing work, unable to get out of bed. Feeling as poorly as I have for a long, long time. And STILL I didn’t get it.

Yesterday morning was the final test: I hoped to run 15 miles from Tilly’s gymnastics class. If all went well, I would still be up for Trimpell 20 – my annual pre-VLM pacing race – next Sunday. I set off, and I knew. Each step was a laborious, pained effort. In truth, I just didn’t want to run another bloody step. Not one. I eked out 4 miles, and from underneath a bridge along a silent canal, I sent Gav a text. It said: “I’m out of both Trimpell and London Gav. It’s over. I can’t do it.” That was shortly followed by another message, which simply read: “I’m gutted.”

I was. I am.

My hopes for running London this year are over. Of course I know why – and I know what I need to do to get over this and return to form: TRAIN SMARTER, NOT HARDER.

It’s easier said than done, believe me. Wish me luck – I may require an entire personality transplant in the process…

I can write! Belief in a box…thanks to Pip the Three-Legged Dog

I can write. I know I can write – and I know I’m good at it. Ever since I won a school writing competition when I was 9 for my story about Pip the three-legged dog who lived down my road, I’ve known I can write. I felt like a bit of a fraud at the time – there actually WAS a three-legged dog called Pip who lived down our road. All I did was write about her – I didn’t make it up or anything. In my mind, where was the talent in that? I was simply telling the story of a dog who lived down our street.

I was well aware that my story of Pip the three-legged dog wasn’t some work of imaginative literary genius. I didn’t even have to use my imagination! The story was there – right in front of me. I thought that REAL stories were made up, coming from a place that doesn’t really exist. One of my absolute favourites being Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Now THAT was a real story…


The original story of Pip, the three-legged dog

I wondered if my teachers had misunderstood, and given me credit for creating something I didn’t even conceive. Anyway, I sheepishly took their kind, encouraging comments and I held on to them. I filed them away in my box labelled ‘Self-Belief: Proof that I Can Write.’

Even now, I have to force myself to commit to such a brazenly confident, self-assured statement, but I keep winning that arm-wrestle with my nemesis, Self-Belief.

I’ve been writing a book over the past year. Just like my story of Pip the three-legged dog, it is based on my reality. It proverbially comes from ‘down my street’ and not some far-off, distant imaginary land. And just like my thoughts when I was 9 – how is that a real story? Is it even worth telling? It’s hardly Harry Potter and the Stones of Azerbaijan (apologies – I’m not fully up to speed with all the Potter works – it’s not my genre.)

Regardless, I rifled through my box of Proof that I Can Write, and I found my evidence. And so I kept on writing my story.

I gained a bit of momentum, and eventually began putting out some tentative feelers on my work. Armed with my weighty doorstop copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2016’, and fully geared up for the ego-bashing of endless visits to the Slush Pile, I braced myself for the ride: I’m told the Channel can be choppy at this time of year.

Hours of composing synopses, covering letters, market research on potential readers.

Endless hours.

“What did you do on Saturday night, Rach?”

“Oh, erm, I spent the best part of 3 hours completing one submission to a single publisher, in the knowledge that I can most likely expect a one-liner email in response titled ‘Thanks but No Thanks’… Yeah it was ace. You?”

“Right. Yeah… Is Gav ok? What did he get up to?”

“Yeah, he’s good thanks. I didn’t see much of him to be honest, although he was sitting right next to me…”

Hmmm. Sorry Gav.

It felt like I’d personally dredged the bottom of the canal by the time I ticked off my first five hand-picked publishers. Each submission had taken hours – no – days of my life, and also a little bit of me thrown into the mix.

Monday came, and as I stood in our kitchen, the first one-liner Slush Pile email response came through. It was softened by the inclusion of some genuinely helpful feedback, and kind, encouraging comments, but I was in the Slush Pile nevertheless. I’d braced myself for this, so I knew to prepare for the blow. Within the space of a few hours, four of my first five submissions had replied: they seemed to appreciate the thorough, extensive and considered nature of my proposal, and my writing style, but it wasn’t for them.

“Jesus. I may have to wade through hundreds of these, Gav. Even then, I might have to consider self-publishing. This is the hardest thing in the world.” (The Dubai marathon came a close second.)

Best get settled for a long old ride, then…

I jumped off the treadmill on Tuesday morning, after a particularly successful speed session. Back in the changing room, I did my usual brief iPhone email scan. Like Charlie Bucket slowly peeling the corner of his very last Wonka Bar, this was my fifth – and only – remaining submission. And there it was.

Hi Rachel

We are attracted to this submission…”

To be continued…


The original box – Belief in a box

When things aren’t going quite so well, it helps to remember the WHY…

It’s Thursday 3rd March. I’ve been out of action for a whole week (A whole bloody WEEK!!) with horrible disgusting flu. The full mashings, too – not just a bit of a sniffle. It’s been rough, and it’s made me reflect on a few things. I went through a similar bleak spell of illness and frustrated, kiboshed training right at the start of the New Year. Here’s my diary entry from exactly 2 months ago today… I read it again, and it helped me to remember.

Diary extract from 3rd Jan 2016:

Remembering the ‘why’…

There has to be a ‘why’ for anything. Why do any of us shop in supermarkets on Saturday mornings? (God knows the answer to that one – foul places.) Why do we queue up to park virtually in the entrance when there are bag loads of spaces only another ten feet away? (lazy bastards, you say?)

Why do we run? 

When I look back over the past few months and my own internal warfare, battling on, trudging through run after disastrous run, it dawned on me. I could do with asking myself this very question: why do I run? If it’s so damned arduous and heavy-going, eating me up and turning into a stick with which to beat myself, then why on earth do I do it in the first place? Granted – those sublime, life-affirming moments (when they do arise) are incredible: there is nothing like it. And God knows, I’ve been lucky enough to experience more than my fair share of those – but that’s not reality. It just isn’t possible most of the time. In fact, the hard runs far outnumber the life-affirming ones. They can be hard for any number of reasons: tired legs, negative outlook, emotional weariness, time restraints, stress, poor nutrition, disappointing route, bad conditions, illness, getting out of bed on the wrong side… need I go on?

The juxtaposition is this: as running becomes more and more about the successes – as we feed off our own PBs, our ever-increasing collection of lifetime achievements, Strava crowns (really?) the easier it is for us to become blinded to our own reasons for running in the first place. It’s a cruel kind of dichotomy. The Ego swells with every race conquered, every step taken towards achieving ‘personal running greatness’, every medal won. It thrives on victory – of course, our own personal mini-victories the may only be – but they are victories nevertheless to The Ego. And so arrives bravado and along with it – pressure.

Self-induced, man-made, egotistical pressure. All of a sudden, we are no longer running for the beauty, or the freedom, or the simplicity of the act itself, but instead we are consumed with EGO. The need to go faster, run further, race harder, train smarter, increase mileage, drink coconut water, eat beetroots. It soon eclipses the whole essence of the very reason WHY we began to run in the first place. And then the Self-Critic climbs on board and has his two-penneth. He admonishes any ‘substandard’ performances, berating poor times or dismal training sessions. Already half dead by virtue of the kickings received courtesy of The Ego, he delivers the final deathly blow to the WHY.

And it’s been happening to me. I ‘should’ be faster going up this hill; my mile splits ‘should’ be better for this section of flat; my overall pace ‘should’ be more impressive than the stats reveal. And why? Because The Ego demands it. It needs to be fed – to satisfy it’s insatiable appetite for glory. The WHY is now David to The Ego’s Goliath. With only a lowly pebble available as weaponry to slay Goliath, the WHY has only one place to go to win the battle. It’s a battle worth having because it brings us back to the heart beating at the centre of it all. Without the WHY, we have nothing. Without the heart and the soul and the love and joy of running, we are on an endless carousel of egotistical disappointments. What’s the pebble we can use to slay Goliath? It’s gratitude..

I was reminded of this just yesterday. One of my runs I’d recorded on strava and called it “Missing my Mojo”. Out of nowhere and exactly at the time I needed to see it, a strava buddy wrote “Form is temporary – just smile and remember how far you have come and how lucky you are to be as fit as you are. The rest will then click into place I’m sure.” It was like a message from above, reminding me to find – and fight for – the WHY.

That was my pebble, and I intend on using it. Goliath will fall, and David will live to run another day, and will enjoy every second of it (well, almost…)