I'm An Outdoor Endurance Athlete With Adrenal Overdrive. Here's How I Recovered
As a long-distance backpacker (4,000-plus miles and counting), an ultra-runner, and a Type A endurance junkie, it's no surprise that I ended up sidelined with adrenal overdrive and Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune thyroid disease. Adrenal overdrive is exactly what it sounds like—when the adrenal glands have been working too hard for too long, it can cause imbalance in the body. Perhaps you're an athlete yourself and you understand that compulsion to push too hard.
Fortunately, I found the tools to recover, and through my slow journey back to health, I've learned a handful of key practices that keep me out of adrenal overdrive as an outdoor endurance athlete. If you've either experienced symptoms of adrenal overdrive yourself (mine are detailed below), or you know someone who has and you're seeking to avoid going down the same path, I hope my journey can help inspire yours.
I've observed that those who are drawn to endurance sports are often driven, ambitious people, and it's not just how they approach sport, it's how they approach life. At least that's the case for me. While drive, determination, and hard work have been invaluable to many of my achievements, these same tendencies have pushed me beyond what is reasonable and healthy.
This is how adrenal overdrive showed up in my body.
Though the imbalances in my body had likely existed in the background for quite some time, it was after returning from a 2,260-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail that my symptoms became so bad I could no longer ignore them. I was a trail runner before I was a long-distance hiker, so upon returning home from the trail, I jumped back into running where I had left off. Or at least I tried. Despite being at peak fitness from hiking more than marathon-distance per day for five months, I could barely run more than a mile without experiencing deep muscle fatigue in my legs. I also had stopped having my menstrual cycle, had lost my libido and my motivation, and frequently felt tired and depleted.
I became disinterested in work, even though I enjoyed my job. Getting out of bed in the mornings became a chore. I disengaged from friends and family and spent more time alone. Worst of all, I turned my frustrations inward and started blaming myself for my health issues. On top of that, my long-term partner and I had hit a rocky patch, even though we had just moved into a new home together. My sense of stability at home and at work was crumbling, and now it seemed like my body was failing me, too. My life felt like it was in shambles.
Because I trained as a certified herbal medicine educator and spent years studying holistic health, I had an idea of what might be going on in my body. But despite my knowledge, it took working with a functional medicine practitioner to get to the root of what was happening and to guide me back to health. As I had suspected, I was dealing with adrenal and thyroid issues. I had put myself into adrenal overdrive and triggered Hashimoto's.
These are the strategies I used to get my health back.
Once I finally pinned down the cause of my symptoms through lab testing, I began the journey back to health. At the time, the thought that I may have to give up my endurance endeavors felt excruciating. It was part of my identity. But I had no choice. My body was speaking to me loud and clear, and I had ignored the messages for too long. It'd been five months since I'd had my cycle, my hair was falling out, and my muscles were constantly sore. I had ignored the messages for too long. It was time to listen and to trust.
Here are the seven practices that have been most effective for me in recovering from adrenal overdrive. I've continued these practices as I've moved back into endurance athletics; this time in a healthier, more easeful way. Of course, if you're experiencing any concerning symptoms or dealing with adrenal overdrive and/or Hashimoto's, it's important to work with your doctor to figure out what's best for you, specifically.
1. Finding the right diet.
Through an elimination diet, I found hidden food intolerances—specifically gluten and dairy—and removed them from my diet permanently. My previous diet would have been considered "healthy" by most, but eating right for my body is what made the difference. Food is our best medicine, and this step alone began to quell inflammation and heal my gut lining, reducing the overall stress load on my body.
2. Integrating targeted supplementation.
I addressed nutritional deficiencies and took thyroid-supportive supplements, such as zinc, selenium, and ashwagandha.
3. Making sleep my best friend.
Getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep nightly is one of my nonnegotiables.
4. Listening to my body.
I no longer ignore tiredness, fatigue, or soreness while training. Where I used to push harder, I now rest when my body needs rest. Tuning in to my body and hearing the message to slow down has enabled me to train smarter and stay healthier.
5. Finding the correct amount of the right exercises.
In line with the last step, I not only started taking more rest days, I also gave up doing hours of cardio per day. I still do long runs and hikes, but they are interspersed with strength days and rest days. Not only do I feel better now, I perform better.
6. Saying no more often.
I evaluated my priorities and cut out the nonessential. I began turning down or outsourcing anything that didn't truly excite me. Learning to say no actually created more space for relaxation and activities that fill me up rather than drain me.
7. Giving up perfectionism.
I realized that, over the past couple of years, I had slowly moved into a mindset where I was constantly striving to be more, to get it all done, to train harder. There was always something to improve, always something I "should" be doing. This perfectionist tendency has always been there but never in such a powerful way. Simply recognizing what was happening and having a daily practice to remind myself that I am enough right now enables me to let go of perfectionism. Each morning, as part of my daily gratitude practice, I inhale deeply and say to myself, "I am enough and I am worthy, just for being me."
There are still times when I train too hard, sleep too little, take on too many obligations, and allow the stress to pile up.
If that happens for too long, the feelings of fatigue and burnout creep back in. However, I'm quicker to realize it's happening now, before the symptoms become extreme. I'm more compassionate with myself, and when I realize I've gotten off track, I return to these core principles of self-care. I'm also more compassionate with myself if I have days when I'm particularly tired or run-down.
It's so easy to get swept up in doing more and being more, but with intention and awareness, I've been able to stay balanced, centered, and healthy.
Katie Gerber is a holistic nutrition coach and herbalist who helps wilderness lovers optimize their health for increased energy, so they can feel great doing what they love. She has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Colorado Trail in addition to several shorter routes. She's passionate about using her own struggles with autoimmunity and fatigue to share what she's learned and to help others experience vibrant health. Katie helps outdoor enthusiasts create strength, resilience, and endurance by taking a whole-body approach and getting to the root of imbalances. When she’s not out playing in the mountains, Katie can be found digging in the garden, experimenting in the kitchen, or devouring the latest health and wellness research while snuggling with her cat. Download her free Eat for Endurance eBook and connect with her on Instagram.