Melbourne massage therapist Peta Glaister had been training for months in an attempt to break the 500m indoor rowing record for her age group. Frustrated with the times she was getting, she decided to take a break and signed up with a friend for a weekend fitness competition.
“After four attempts [at the record], I was pretty much basically cooked, but at a peak of fitness,” she tells Insight, as part of the show’s look at pushing the body’s physical limits.
While the 32 year-old was feeling fit and strong, the kinds of movements she was doing in the competition were very different to those of her rowing training regime. Competitive in nature, she pushed herself hard.
“It was a kind of a perfect storm,” she says.
It led to rhabdomyolysis, a condition often caused by over-exertion, where muscle begins to break down and die, leaking its contents into the bloodstream.
Within those contents the protein, myoglobin, can be particularly damaging to kidney cells. The kidneys in distress turn urine a dark, tea colour – a symptom Peta noticed a couple of days after the competition wrapped up. Other common symptoms include severe muscle pain and stiffness.
Rhabdo, as it is colloquially known, can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. Four days after the competition, Peta made it to the emergency department and was diagnosed based on the level of creatine kinase (CK) in her blood – an enzyme released when cells are damaged.
It turned out to be a relatively mild case. She was given two bags of IV fluid to flush out her kidneys, and was out of action for weeks afterwards.
“There’s been a period of a few months, of a certain amount of fear and aversion because you know … I really, really ballsed it up,” she says.
It was a concern for Peta’s twin sister, Kellie, who does not do the same intensity of exercise.
“It seems to me that to get that far, you have to ignore any number of signals that your body's giving you that you should be stopping, that you should be minimising that damage,” she says. “But in the end I trust Peta … I know she's got very high goals for herself and unfortunately sometimes people do tip over the edge.”
Researchers at the University of Queensland have found that increasing numbers of people with rhabdomyolysis are presenting at hospital emergency departments. Since 2012, there has been a 20-fold increase in cases compared to the previous five years.
In their review of a decade’s worth of exertional rhabdomyolysis cases at a Brisbane emergency department, they also found the top three activities causing the condition were gym workouts, long distance running, and manual labour.
When removing manual labourers from the equation, the numbers of female and male cases were almost equal.
In an Instagram post after being treated for rhabdomyolysis, Peta acknowledged the need for balance in pursuing her goals.
“I pride myself on caring for others and keeping them safe, so it's absolutely not OK to be such an arsehole to myself,” she wrote.
“Pain is a lot of things but first and foremost it's a message and I should know to listen up.”
Since the experience, Peta says it’s been difficult to find advice on how to continue exercising safely in recovery. She has ramped up training again, but is being vigilant in avoiding the circumstances that led her to rhabdomyolysis.
On the 11th November, she broke the indoor rowing world record for age group: 1000m in 3.19.2 minutes.