It seems like it comes out of nowhere and yet when you look back you can see the warning signs. You remember the days that you felt invincible, crushing your workouts, enjoying the daily grind, and feeling like you had endless potential. Slowly you started to notice that getting up to workout was more of a chore than an excitement, you began to dread workouts, and even skip them. You felt zapped of energy but rationalized that those extra cups of coffee you needed to get out the door were normal even though your training felt stale and sluggish.
Your thoughts changed from thinking about your endless potential and goals for future adventures to negative chatter and dread at the thought of signing up for, much less competing at a race. You feel the weight of your physical and mental exhaustion and acknowledge you are burnt out.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is common among endurance athletes. By nature, endurance sports call for athletes to ride the red line of overreaching and overtraining. In order to be prepared for endurance events one must push their body and mind past the point of comfort, yet not to the point of breakdown. Finding this delicate balance is difficult, throw in that most of us are not professional athletes and have other life responsibilities, then sprinkle in that we are imperfect people who sometimes have an ego about resting, and it is not a surprise that we may cross the redline. Crossing the that line into burnout doesn’t happen instantaneously, it is the gradual and consistent pushing of our physical and mental limits without rest and recovery that digs the dark hole of burnout. Exhaustion and feeling burned out is complex because it can be physical, mental, or both. Usually, the vicious cycle starts at either one or the other then gradually infects the other creating exhaustion upon exhaustion. The double team of physical and mental exhaustion is what can make the burnout hole so deep and tough to climb out of.
When thinking about preventing burnout or assessing for burnout it is important to take into account both the physical and mental aspects that may be contributing to the lack-luster sense of enjoyment. My coach always says that we have one stress bucket and all our stresses go into that bucket. These stresses include training stress, life stress, and even things that you enjoy that take physical and emotional energy. Knowing what you’re putting into your stress bucket and the impact it is having on you is the key to avoiding burnout.
Physical things that go into our stress bucket can be training load, excessive time commitments, frequent racing, life, and injury. Mental aspects that add to our stress bucket can be perfectionism, high expectations, fearing rest/recovery, low self-esteem, managing mental health concerns outside of sport, and relationships. Self-awareness, honesty (with yourself and a coach!), and knowing the signs of burnout are the best insurance policies to not flooding your stress bucket. Like I said before, burnout doesn’t happen in a single day or after a single workout, many people feel like it does but that is because they ignore or miss the signs until it stops them dead in their tracks. So, let’s talk about some potential signs of burnout to be aware of:
- Delayed recovery/excessive soreness
- Easy efforts seem or feel hard
- Physically unable to complete workouts
- Decreased performance
- Disrupted sleep
- Loss of enthusiasm or desire
- Emotional changes: anxiety, depression, irritability, apathy
- Fear or anxiety about workouts or competing
- Guilt about missing out
- Increased negative thoughts about self and performance
- Feeling like training is a chore or pointless
- Skipping workouts
- Decreased confidence
The hard thing about burnout is that everyone’s tipping point is different and it often takes crossing it to find it. This is where the self-awareness and honesty pieces come into play. Knowing your tipping point and setting aside your ego can allow you to honestly assess your stressors and signs for burnout and begin to make adjustments. If you are experiencing burnout or see that you are on your way there do not panic or get down on yourself, burnout is reversible and with a little time, love, rest, and tweaks you can be stronger than before!
Preventing and treating burnout can look very similar in practice. The first thing I always tell athletes is to schedule a visit with their doctor, as we want to be sure we are understanding the physical aspects of what is occurring, which is best done through blood work. Your doctor and coach can then make the physical recommendations that can help such as taking off, eating more, or adding supplements. Once the physical is assessed and being taken care of then we can begin to implement mental training skills that can help you gain back your excitement.
Mental skills to treat and prevent burnout
- Find a way to add joy to the process. This could be exploring a new place, meeting a friend, dancing for a warm-up, listening to a podcast during training, or maybe a mid-run jump. Personally, I am a fan of the triple spin mid-run.
- Make your training log about the physical, mental, and LIFE. Record your training, work/life events, and how you are feeling physically and mentally. Bonus if you add a place to develop positive mental skills like listing your intentions and wins for the workout.
- Revisit your “Why” and evaluate why you participate in sport in the first place.
- List the reasons you enjoy training
- Embrace rest and recovery!
- Change things up! Maybe you need a new routine. Add something different like a pair of fun socks, a new gel flavor, try a different warm up, leave your watch at home, or train for a new event like a trail race.
- Reassess and adjust your goals
- Work with a sports psychologist to develop self-awareness, coping skills, and to address perfectionism and self-criticism.
- Figure out a life/sport balance that allows YOU to thrive! Stop comparing to others and embrace what works for you.
Regardless of if you are recovering from burnout or preventing it the best things you can do are approach yourself and training with lots of grace, patience, and rest!