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Avoiding Athlete Burnout

Volume 3 in the Loving Your Sport Series

Athlete Burnout

With all the attention given to how athletes can optimize training schedules for performance, the Loving Your Sport series is instead meant to cover the topics that often stand in the way of athletes getting the most enjoyment, fulfillment, and satisfaction from their sports.

Volume 3: Athlete Burnout

In keeping with our mission, the topics discussed in the series are not unique to running or endurance sports. A lot of what we learn and do in sport stands to potentially improve many other parts of our lives. This week, we take a look at Athlete Burnout.

Anatomy of Athlete Burnout

As athletes, we’re driven in our pursuits by very personal reasons, and burnout occurs when the emotional significance fades from reasons and beliefs that we once cherished.  Our motivators for pursuing the things we do lose all meaning, leaving us asking ourselves why we’re putting our time and effort into the pursuits we’ve chosen.

Burnout is a highly emotional condition in athlete psychology. Any good goal has emotional weight to it; it’s that emotional weight that gives the goal a sense of purpose. When we choose a goal that doesn’t carry personal significance, it’s more of an academic concept– what we might perceive as objective achievement. If there’s no emotional weight behind that goal to provide the athlete with an internal sense of purpose, they’re unlikely to stay motivated to work towards it for very long. I wrote in detail about how to choose meaningful goals, and how to follow through on them, a few weeks ago.

Burnout is a result of simply overdoing it, no matter what “it” is. 

Athlete burnout is harder to reach if the athlete has a visceral connection to their goal, but even the strongest of purposes can be eroded. While it’s considered to be a psychological condition, burnout has a lot in common with physical injuries like those encountered due to overtraining. The similarity of greatest concern is that oftentimes we don’t notice when the first cracks start to appear. It’s only once the issue has progressed to problematic degrees that it starts to receive enough of our attention for us to intervene.

But what are the actions that lead an athlete from happily training to burnout? Generally it results from pushing too hard, too often, or a combination of the two. Burnout is a result of simply overdoing it, no matter what “it” is. 

If burnout is the result of doing too much, then shouldn’t it be a relatively easy condition to avoid? To answer that, consider for a minute that your brain has two decision-making systems. One is your logical, problem-solving brain that weights information to arrive at rational, well thought out conclusions. The other is your emotional brain, which couldn’t care less about logic or reason. The emotional brain pushes us to make decisions based on what will make us feel good.

Returning to the question, it should be easy (theoretically) to avoid overdoing things. After all, the key to not doing too much is just to do less. We should be able to moderate things, pushing to consistently challenge ourselves in training sessions, without taking it too far.

Chart showing how training too much can lead to burnout

But the logical brain and emotional brain are at war, and it’s by design. Remember, meaningful goals have a strong emotional weight to them, and that gives your emotional brain a lot of power to hold over your logical brain. When your logical brain is saying “I should stop now, that’s enough for today”, your emotional brain rages “one more rep”, “one more mile”, convincing you that the extra dedication to your goal will pay off in the long run. The devilish trap is that we need to work hard for peak performance, but burnout looms just on the other side of peak performance.

Avoiding Athlete Burnout

Success against burnout is best achieved through avoidance of it all together. Self discipline is essential. Giving in to the emotional brain’s plea for “one more” is a slippery slope that leads straight to burnout if left unchecked.

In training, there’s a few ways you as an athlete and I as a coach, can combat this:

  • First, we’re never building for a particular goal for too long. A building phase in training is, by definition, a period of higher total strain. The risk of crossing the line into too much (which leads to burnout and injury) is inevitably higher. For this reason, the longest that most of us should be in a highly focused Build Phase for is about 20 weeks.

Feeling good and pushing to 80% of maximum effort to avoid athlete burnout
  • In a training block, we’re rarely, if ever, maxing out in a single hard workout. Getting to 70-90% of maximum effort is hard enough to initiate positive training adaptation, without the super-sized psychological toll of going all the way to our limit. The common mentality of always trying to beat our last workout is actually detrimental.

  • Keeping easy days easy has a lot more significance to it than most realize. Recovering from the last hard session, or making sure an athlete is physically rested for their next one, are just a couple reasons for taking the easy runs easy. The bigger threat of overreaching on the easy days is that an athlete’s workload begins to “feel” unsustainable or insurmountable. Even if an athlete is physically capable of the training demand, they risk grinding themselves down mentally if the load of easier sessions is too great.

Something I’ve observed in athletes I’ve worked with is that if the easy aerobic days in an athlete’s calendar look familiar and easy to them, what they really see is the two or three workouts that are pushing them a bit further, and they can direct their focus and energy towards those two or three efforts really effectively. Even though they are really training 5-7 days per week, athletes don’t feel stressed or particularly challenged by the familiar and easy aerobic sessions. By contrast, if an athlete looks at their calendar and the aerobic sessions are going to time crunch their schedule, or they are just a lot more time and energy spent running than they’re used to, suddenly EVERY run is a conscious effort. There’s simply not enough rest, physically or mentally.

Prepare our bodies for the demands of an event, yes, but we need to protect the will to test our limits at all costs.

Burnout is a huge reason why it’s better to be a pound under-trained than an ounce overtrained. Even if the fitness is a little lower when we’re under-trained, the mind acts as the gatekeeper to our physical capabilities. Prepare our bodies for the demands of an event, yes, but we need to protect the will to test our limits at all costs.

Recovery from Burnout

Back on track- recovering from athlete burnout

The essential first step in burnout recovery is taking your foot off the gas. You need to stop “driving” in any particular training direction. Just like a physical injury, mental burnout requires time and rest to heal. The difference from some physical injuries is that, when we’re facing burnout. a lot of us can continue to keep movement in our day in ways we enjoy. But the path to recovery requires that we take the pressure off, clear the calendar of goals of any kind, and engage in physical activity that you enjoy without a training structure. Swim one day, hike the next, ski the next. Whatever works. Some days with total rest are great to include as well.

There is a lot of attention given to fitness decay, the loss of fitness we once had, in endurance sports . Coaches, bloggers, and scientists discuss how quickly physiology shifts and fitness is lost when we break from a training schedule. Now, there’s nuance to what it means to "take a break" from a structured training schedule, but the undertone to the discussion as a whole is that there are really large consequences to your fitness if you take breaks from structured training. I believe that this narrative is detrimental for many, pushing athletes closer to the burnout cliff for fear of losing something that they worked so hard for. Physiological fitness is worth nothing to us as athletes if we don’t retain the enjoyment of– and psychological motivation to– push our limits.

Taking breaks is a good thing; a worthwhile investment towards longevity in your sport.

When burnout appears to subside, I continue to look at it cautiously. Perhaps the unstructured variety of stress-free physical activity has given way to a routine of more structured sport-specific training once again (e.g. consistently running 5 days a week with a bout or two of intensity thrown in). Even once this starts, I’d urge athletes not to rush into setting a goal or signing up for a race. Let’s keep that routine fun and stress-free for a while longer and see where we end up. Burnout can take a long time to work our way back from, and the last thing we want is to over-commit and find ourselves in that same trap again a few months later.

My advice on burnout? Fun comes first almost always. We run into trouble when training becomes work. If you’re running consistently and having fun most of the days you go out, you’re already 90% of the way to your goals.

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