This is part 1 of a two- part series on my health. (Read part 2 here.) In the two years since I developed Over-Training Syndrome, those symptoms have given way to a series of confusing, and at times alarming, new set of symptoms. This is the beginning of the story of listening to my body, and, hopefully, healing. This post contains affiliate links.
When I was first “diagnosed” with Over-Training Syndrome (OTS) in the fall of 2018, friends and fellow athletes asked me if I was sure nothing else was wrong with me. Many advised “blood work,” that vague catch-all of medical diagnostic searches. My coaches and I were reluctant to pursue further testing, since my symptoms fit OTS perfectly, the cause of the syndrome was obvious, and I had no outlying symptoms unexplained by OTS. Furthermore, I was relying on my intuition: I would know if something else was wrong with me.
As an athlete, my whole job is to get to know my body really well. I got myself into OTS in part because of what I didn’t know, and what signs from my body I wasn’t listening to. In the summer of 2019, I awoke to clue I knew I shouldn’t ignore: my body was covered in hives.
This reaction, though alarming, didn’t lead to any other symptoms, and I struggled to pinpoint a cause. My body is reactive; I know this. When my first outbreak was followed by occasional small outbreaks that came and went with no discernible rhyme or reason, I took it to mean my body was stressed.
Well, that wasn’t a surprise. Trying to recover from two years of chronic overtraining, capped with acute emotional strain, could hardly be a picnic. I doubled down on my self-care habits and learned to deal with the itchy outbreaks.
In the winter or 2020 I was finally ready to return to regular physical activity, after 18 months of rest. I onboarded a new device, my Whoop strap, to help me track heart rate variability (HRV), a metric that stands as a proxy for autonomic nervous system stress (that’s a fancy way of saying it helps me monitor how well I’m recovering from training, and higher numbers are better). I was excited and curious to see how this new, wildly out of shape Carly was going to respond to training.
The results were mixed. I noticed rapid fitness gains for the first 3-4 months, accompanied by semi-regular bouts of fatigue that sidelined me from every activity, and…
…Canker sores. Oh man, so many canker sores, all the time. Upsettingly, they were usually accompanied by swollen lymph nodes, the pressure of which made me feel like I had constant toothaches. To cap it all, I developed bouts of glossitis, a condition in which the tongue looses its texture and becomes smooth and slimy. It was not a fun time in my mouth.
I looked for patterns in the data: were outbreaks correlated with low HRV? It was hard to tell, as my HRV was almost always low. I looked at my training: was I adapting? Sort of, but by mid spring my progress had really trailed off. I wasn’t getting any stronger, but I couldn’t tolerate an increased training load without experiencing fatigue.
I was torn. On the one hand, I told myself I needed to be patient. I wasn’t going to overnight go back to being the elite level athlete I had once been. I told myself OTS clearly still had a grip on me, and that I needed to be careful. Yet I couldn’t suppress the increasing sense that this was no longer OTS.
My intuition was that these symptoms were a signal that something internal was reacting to my external world and the stresses therein. My usual panel of recovery exercises, meditation, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, and sleep hygiene clearly was not keeping my hyper-active body calm. I wondered if the stress of OTS had triggered a long-dormant autoimmune issue. It was time to call in the medical team. My coaches and doctors weighed in and we got started with an initial panel of blood work.
Then something really bizarre happened.
It began like a normal outbreak, but quickly escalated: I had rashes on my elbows and knees, a mouth full of canker sores, and my scalp began producing a thick and sticky oil that I could not wash out. I got the worst brain fog. My HRV tanked and Whoop recorded my recovery at an all time (and shocking) low of 5%.
No amount of sleep made me feel rested. It felt like my body was just shutting down, turning off. There were days I couldn’t drive. I started writing words with their letters out of order, and saying the wrong words when I spoke. This went on for weeks while my doctor referred me to every specialist in the house and tested for every rare disease, every internal organ function, and every vitamin deficiency.
To me, the biggest clue wasn’t coming from all the tests and doctors appointments. It appeared to be coming from what happened when I tried to exercise. That story will be posted next week.
1If you are curious about Whoop, you can try it out with a free strap and free first month of your membership by clicking here