How Overexertion Almost Cost Me My Life
Overexertion means to strain or put too much pressure on one’s self. It can lead to higher risk of injury or in some conditions, can even prove fatal. Below I share a personal account of how a simple workout became life threatening in just a few minutes due to overexertion. Although this was a workout, it could have been any outing. Please take a few minutes to read and learn from my mistakes. I know I did.
Time for a Run
A few years ago, I was doing a 5K run workout in Amarillo, TX. It was a warm early afternoon, in the upper 90’s, and extremely low humidity. I had done many hikes and runs at higher altitudes in the past, without any issues. I was planning to do a quick run and make it back to get ready for another event. Nothing new, so I didn’t bring any water on the route (yes, I know, a number of mistakes here already).
I was in an unfamiliar area but knew the route, I just hadn’t run it before. It was a route with an elevation profile, a good gradual climb to the top, and declination for the return route. I started the run uphill. On the way up, no problems, just heavier breathing than normal. Once at the top it was hot and I was exposed to the sun the majority of the route upto that point. I pushed through and started the downward route.
Symptoms Set In
Soon after starting the downward route, I started feeling tingling in my fingers and lower portions of my arms. This was not out of the ordinary on my longer runs in my home town, as dealing with heat was a common issue. What was a new development however, is that it also started getting a little hard to concentrate. I was in a residential area and had homes around me to stop if needed, so I kept pushing through to the end goal; making it home.
About a quarter mile further, I started seeing tiny black spots. The tingling did not go away as usual, unfortunately, it got worse. I started getting a little “wabbly” and finding it hard to stay on my running line. I also realized that I was sweating but my clothes were mostly dry. It was at this point that I knew it was facing a major problem. Overexposure to the heat, and overexertion.
Houston, We Have a Problem
I found the nearest house with a car in the driveway and a garden hose on the side of the house.
By this point the black spots were getting larger and larger and my lightheadedness was getting worse. I had to stop immediately if I wanted to self-correct the problem. I was extremely close to passing out in the street where I would then be completely dependent on someone else to take care of me, in a life-threatening situation, while still being exposed to the heat and sun.
I immediately went to the garden hose (in the shade thankfully), turned it on, then and started running the cool water over my neck, chest, and back. I was sitting on my knees, head facing down, quite “out of it”, trying not to lose consciousness before my body cooled. I took a few sips from the hose every now and then, but the high priority issue was immediate cooling. Hydration a close second.
At some point during this process, the homeowner had heard the water running and came out to see what was going on. I remember trying to explain what happened, however I don’t quite recall the words that actually came out of my mouth. I also recall trying to apologize for using their hose and water without permission (not to mention the trespassing that went with it).
After 10-15 minutes of this of continued cooling, I had vastly improved. It was at about this point that the homeowner came out and offered me a large glass of ice water. The spots had gone away, I was no longer light headed, and was able to concentrate. I took the water to hydrate while still cooling.
Soon after, I turned off the water hose, thanked the homeowner again and had a brief conversation while finishing the glass of water. I concluded our conversation with another thank you and apology.
I then left to finish my run home carrying a little bit of a scarred ego along the way. I soon made it home safely and proceeded to stretch and cool down before following it up with a nap. As by this point I was spent, both physically and mentally. But I was back safe.
What Was Done Wrong?
This is a perfect example of overexertion. So what did I do wrong?
Over Estimated What My Body Could Handle
Because I had done it elsewhere many times before, I thought of it as “just another run”.
Did Not Conduct Any Planning or Research
I didn’t research the area, elevation profile details, or the weather properly before leaving for the excursion. Reviewing the heat index, actual temperature, or doing a little research on running in that climate would have served me well. I probably would have taken water on the route.
Did Not Take Time to Acclimate to the New Environment
While full acclimation can take up to a few weeks, I could have structured my outings such that I started at a lighter exertion rate than usual and built up to my normal. This could have included a shorter distance or lighter pace, then build up the exertion in the new environment over time.
What Was Done Right?
While there were a number of things that I did incorrectly, there were a few things I did right.
Listened to the Body
I chose to carry on based on my past experiences with exercise exertion. I was constantly re-evaluating what my body was telling me and comparing to past experiences.
For example, the tingling in my fingers was nothing new, I had experienced these multiple times in the final stretch of a run. Especially when running in the heat. It was nothing new, however, I did not dismiss it. I continued to monitor the feelings. When it got worse, it was one of the cues to stop.
Aware of the Signs of Overexertion and Hyperthermia
I stopped when I knew I was overexerted. While I did wait a little too long, I knew I had water close by. I wouldn’t have pushed it this far if in a less populated desert or canyon environment as quick cooling would not be close by.
If I was in another location outside of the neighborhood and pushed it that far, it could have been a completely different and possibly fatal outcome.
The Bottom Line
Pay attention to the factors in this article on any outing. Whether, exercise, hiking, or emergency evacuation on foot, the risks are similar. Pay attention how they are affecting you and what you feel you can continue to handle.
If you don’t feel you can make it, turn back. It is better than pushing on and risking injury or requiring a rescue. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you can’t take care of yourself. If it reaches the point where others have to step in to help you, you have pushed it too far.
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