How to Treat Adrenal Fatigue: The Hidden Cause of Over-Training

In 2004, my wife Meaghan was having a terrible cross country season. No matter what she tried, her running performances kept getting worse.

Running Fatigue

Workout splits got slower. She felt exhausted, stressed, and couldn’t sleep. The muscle aches she thought were from training kept her up at night.

After talking with her coach, seeing the Athletic Trainer, and finally discussing her symptoms with a doctor she found out she likely had adrenal fatigue. 

Adrenal fatigue is different from classic over-training (which is typically caused by running too hard, too often and not allowing enough recovery) as it’s a collection of non-specific issues. While it’s not a proven medical condition, Web MD defines it as:

Fatigue and other symptoms are caused by a poorly working adrenal gland in people who are under mental, emotional, or physical stress.

Your adrenal glands make hormones. One of these is cortisol, which helps your body deal with stress. According to the adrenal fatigue theory, if your life is too stressful, your adrenal glands may not pump out enough hormones, leading to a wide variety of symptoms.

Those symptoms can include:

  • chronic fatigue, making it difficult to get out of bed in the morning (but sudden alertness in the evening)
  • trouble concentrating, poor motivation, and a feeling of overwhelm
  • higher susceptibility to colds and infections
  • cravings for salty and sweet foods

Adrenal fatigue is often compared to fibromyalgia because there’s no proven cause or cure. Frustrating, isn’t it?

But for runners, it’s imperative to examine lesser known causes of chronic fatigue if your running has stagnated and for some reason, you’re slowing down.

As long as you don’t have a history of depression, are trying to get better sleep, and eating a healthy diet, you may consider adrenal fatigue as a possibility.


How Do I Know if I Have Adrenal Fatigue?

First, it’s important to rule out other options first:

  • Are you sleeping enough? (under-rested)
  • Are you running too fast, too often? (over-trained)
  • Are you eating enough? (under-fueling)

Many runners who are experiencing fatigue or symptoms of over-training simply need to rest. Studies indicate that excessive exercise (like running a marathon), can suppress the immune system, making infections more common.

My college coach liked to say that you “can’t burn the candle at both ends,” meaning that you can’t stay up late chasing girls and then get up in the morning for a tough workout (hey, we were in college!).

In this case, it’s important that runners prioritize recovery, a healthy lifestyle, and a high-quality diet. If not, Adrenal Fatigue becomes a likely ailment.

If you’re not training vigorously but still experience fatigue, a lack of motivation, and seem to get sick easily – you may have Adrenal Fatigue, which affects up to 60% of the US population.

Adrenal Fatigue is a condition largely related to stress. The more stresses you experience – and if you don’t allow yourself proper recovery – the more likely you are to suffer from the disease. These include:

  • Long-term stressful situations like a poor relationship
  • Poor diet
  • Substance abuse
  • Stressful work environment (too many pressures or responsibilities, long hours, terrible commute, etc.)
  • Chronic illness

Runners who have experienced one or more of these stressors, while training seriously, are at a higher risk of Adrenal Fatigue and should take immediate action steps to recover.

And unfortunately, rest alone rarely cures the problem, so taking time off from running is only part of the solution.

The Dangers of Not Treating Adrenal Fatigue

Adrenal Fatigue doesn’t just cause fatigue, poor motivation, and sub-par running performances. If left untreated, it can manifest into a wide variety of other health concerns that can negatively impact your training.

Common health problems among those with untreated Adrenal Fatigue include:

  • Low HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol)
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Insulin resistance (possibly leading to Type 2 Diabetes)

Yowzers. Not something I want to experience!

In runners, the continued, repeated stress of running combined with outside pressures like illness, a bad relationship, work challenges, and personal issues (like the death of a loved one) combine to have a cumulative effect that exacerbates Adrenal Fatigue.

What is the Best Adrenal Fatigue Treatment?

Adrenal Fatigue is a common contributor to over-training in runners. It’s the result of chronic stress from running, work, family life, and lifestyle. Everything is connected.

Treating Adrenal Fatigue therefore takes a multi-pronged, comprehensive approach that focuses on diet, recovery, lifestyle, and exercise.

A complete, step-by-step treatment is included in the Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue Guide, but let’s talk about two important actions you can take today to begin treating this condition.

Reduce stress levels! This is the most critical lifestyle change to make that will not only help you effectively treat Adrenal Fatigue, but improve your running.

The body can only handle so much stress. With too much, it can’t properly adapt to the stress of training (meaning you won’t get faster!).

Eliminating stressors from your life can help reduce the demand on your adrenal glands, making recovery happen more quickly.

Eat clean! A healthy diet that nourishes the body, provides the building blocks necessary for tissue repair, and fuels your body will help restore adrenal function.

Poor dietary choices – like excess sugar, processed foods, and not enough nutrients – exacerbate Adrenal Fatigue and lead to chronic inflammation (both lead to sub-par recovery from running).

Long-term recovery requires a well-rounded treatment – one that I’m not qualified to provide – which is why you should always talk to your doctor about this type of medical condition.

You may want to ask about:

  • How to self-diagnose Adrenal Fatigue and understand each stage of the condition
  • Hidden food sensitivities and allergies that contribute to Adrenal Fatigue
  • What foods help – and what foods are working against you
  • Day to day factors that affect the adrenal glands

More importantly, your doctor can give you a step-by-step recovery program that will help you reclaim your health and energy.

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