The Risk of Faster, Higher, Stronger

Olympic Medals Tokyo 2020

As the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 draw to a belated close, athletes around the world are being inspired to redouble their efforts to reach an elite level. They hear the exhortations to “dig deep” and “fight through the pain.” “Mental toughness” is lauded over and over again.

But where is the line between applying stress to achieve new heights and overriding signals intended to keep your body safe? As Paul Suter relates in his memoir, Flat Out in Pieces, “Endurance athletes are a different breed – machines with no off button . . . I trained harder and harder, pushing my body to the limit of what it could tolerate because I wanted to beat that guy who sometimes beat me to the finish line . . . My mind, my arrogance and my desire to be the best clouded my judgment.”

When he suffered a serious concussion, Paul shrugged it off and continued his training, this time under the guidance of three-time Ironman World Champion Peter Reid. Then, one morning shortly after completing a 50-kilometre ultra-marathon, he could not get out of bed. Sleeping became nearly impossible and any physical activity made it worse. Within months, he could no longer take his dog for a five-minute walk. Paul, the driven athlete, was gone.

For the next seven years, he searched for both a cause and a cure. A naturopath diagnosed an adrenal crash but he couldn’t get anyone to take that diagnosis seriously. He consulted family doctors, sports medicine specialists, a sleep specialist, a psychologist, a chiropractor and a Chinese medical practitioner. He tried acupuncture, ultrasound, biofeedback, neurotherapy, hormone creams and yoga. It wasn’t until he read a magazine article about Overtraining Syndrome that he discovered he wasn’t alone.

In the years since Paul’s collapse, much has been written about concussions and Overtraining Syndrome. Trainers and other sports professionals now monitor athletes more closely and build sufficient recovery time into training regimens. But most athletes don’t have access to such an integrated support system and must continue to oversee their own training. Like Paul Suter, they run the risk of pushing too hard and incurring permanent disability.