All serious athletes are warned about the risks and dangers of overtraining. By pushing themselves too hard for too long, their training regimens can actually backfire and cause underperformance, burnout, and muscle failure.
Competitive athletes are told to be on the lookout for mild symptoms of , like headaches, moodiness, and pain. But what several athletes don’t know is that, in some cases, overtraining can do real harm to the body and can even be life-threatening.
Former competitive bodybuilder Dana Linn Bailey learned this the hard way. The athlete was recently hospitalized after overextending herself during a workout and giving herself rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo) — a rare, but very serious condition that can result in kidney failure.
The complications began after her first day of CrossFit following a set of glute-ham developer (GHD) sit-ups, an intense workout designed to build core, back, and hip-flexor strength. However, it wasn’t until five days later that the athlete realized something was wrong.
“To me it just felt like a really good cardio workout. I think I even trained legs after that workout, and I also trained the rest of the week. I thought I was just really sore and just had really bad DOMS [delayed onset muscle soreness],” Bailey posted on her Instagram page.
“I just want to warn people that rhabdo is actually a real thing. And even though you might be the strongest and fittest person in the world, it can happen,” she added.
Rhabdo occurs when the muscle cells break down and burst causing their contents to leak into the bloodstream, according to Harvard Medical School.
When this leaked protein — known as myoglobin — reaches the kidneys through the bloodstream, it can clog the tiny tubes in the organ that are responsible for filtering our blood and removing waste.
This damage can cause weakness, muscle aches, dark urine, and in extreme cases, kidney failure and death.
While the condition is most common in highly competitive athletes — like weight lifters or marathon runners — it may also occur in response to certain medications, including dietary supplements and cholesterol-lowering statin medications, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition, rhabdo can develop from car accidents or other types of trauma that may cause muscle injury, heatstroke, and bites from certain snakes whose venom causes muscle damage.
“Excessive alcohol use and drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines can cause severe muscle damage that can lead to rhabdomyolysis,” says Dr. Joseph Bax, a pain management and rehabilitation specialist at The Mount Sinai Health System.
Diagnosing rhabdo can be tricky since some patients won’t experience any symptoms — at least at first.
If you suspect you may have rhabdo, go to the emergency room immediately. A doctor will perform urine and blood tests to evaluate muscle and kidney health and determine if you have rhabdo.
If it’s detected early enough, rhabdo can be treated successfully with fluid recovery, medications, or dialysis.
In most cases, it won’t cause long-term health issues. However, the kidneys could become permanently damaged if the condition is left untreated and major kidney damage occurs.
“The good news is that rhabdo is fairly rare,” Dr. Joshua Scott, a primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, told Healthline. “Even if you develop rhabdomyolysis, less than half the time will you develop kidney failure, which is the major complication.”
“Unless you have been in a car accident with severe muscle trauma or are trying for the push-up world record, people shouldn’t worry about rhabdomyolysis,” he added.
Fortunately, exertional rhabdomyolysis is a very preventable condition, according to Shannon Meggs, a certified athletic trainer and doctor of physical therapy at Saint John’s Health Center Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California.
“Individuals should avoid strenuous workouts in hot and humid environments unless they are acclimated to this weather. Hydration and frequent rest breaks during exercise are important to assist in preventing this condition,” says Meggs.
If you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes, be sure to drink plenty of electrolytes to re-hydrate and replenish the body’s key minerals, Meggs noted.
Most sports-medicine practitioners see this condition frequently at the beginning of a sports season, when unconditioned muscles are taking on too much, according to Scott.
If you’re participating in strenuous exercise for the first time or training for your first marathon or triathlon, consult your physician or a sports trainer, Bax advised.
In general, it’s best to gradually increase workouts over time by about 10 percent a week. Keep in mind that while the average workout may cause some degree of muscle soreness, it likely won’t lead to rhabdo.
“If trying a new workout or sport, go slow and be humble at first,” says Scott. “This will prevent injuries and the likelihood of severe muscle breakdown.”
Former competitive bodybuilder Dana Linn Bailey shared that she recently suffered from rhabdomyolysis — a serious condition that can cause kidney failure. Though it’s rare, rhabdo is most common in highly competitive athletes. The best way to prevent it is to drink plenty of water and electrolytes and to take frequent rest breaks between exercises.