As endurance athletes, we are used to pushing ourselves through long training blocks with challenging goals on the horizon. We have trained our bodies and our minds to be in peak condition to hit our goals and to build ourselves up for strong performances. In most cases, athletes accomplish this successfully by following a periodized training plan which allows for ample rest and recovery to absorb the training adaptations needed to become stronger and faster and to go for longer periods of time. Theoretically, we train “easy” when we need to go easy so that we are ready to go HARD when it is time. We understand the importance of “downtime” and off season mental recovery. We embrace that so we can hit that reset button and be prepared mentally to come into new seasons with the motivation and focus it takes to hit our goals.
You’ll take note that I said “Theoretically”. Yes, ideally, as a coach, this is what I want for my athletes. This is what I build within their individual training plans so that they can reach their goals feeling good not only physically but also emotionally. Realistically, this is not always the case. The majority of athletes participating in endurance sports are amatuer, age group participants who have a variety of reasons for which they train and race. Most of us do not do it to earn a living. We do it for the love of the sport, the self-confidence it brings, the friendships it allows us, the strength it builds, the success we feel. But, what happens when we lose our life balance? What happens when training becomes the overwhelming focus and we struggle to redefine our life through other lenses? Sometimes, this can lead to decreased performance and burn out. So, if you are at this juncture of redefining what your endurance sport means to you and whether or not your body is ready to continue on for another season, then this article is for you. And, it most likely means that it is time for you to back off a bit from the intensity of your sport specific training and time to add some variety to your off season athletic emphasis.
Endurance training burn out is very real and it certainly is not fun. The good news is that it can often be avoided with the help of a structured training program written by a coach who has the experience to recognize the signs of extreme physical and mental fatigue in an athlete. Often, I rewrite an athlete’s weekly schedule if I notice that they are overly fatigued and not recovering well. We back off the intensity for a few days and make sure to focus on easy efforts to allow the body and mind to recalibrate to where it needs to be to hit the high intensity intervals again. In more exaggerated cases, I may suggest that an athlete takes a few days off completely and REST. It often depends on where you are in your training cycle and what events you have on the horizon. But, what if you hit burn out and it is unavoidable? You have definitely reached that point and you have lost the motivation to maintain a regular training schedule? Here are some suggestions I give athletes who are struggling with this reality.
- Revisit your WHY- It’s time to revisit the reason why you are training for a specific event and why you signed up for it! Perhaps you have lost sight of the intrinsic reason you have decided to train and what your hopes are for this experience. Often, once you take a step back and evaluate for yourself where you are and where you need to be to accomplish your goal, you may regain perspective and motivation.
- Take Time Off- Maybe revisiting your WHY is not enough and you are just in need of some good old rest time and a change in routine. Often this means that you need to find the passion again in movement and I always encourage athletes to shake up their routine and find some new activities for a period of time. Instead of swimming, cycling or running maybe you take group cycling classes, participate in a yoga retreat or hike with friends. Move for the joy of it and not because it is written in a plan for you. Take the stress and pressure off yourself.
- Check your diet and sleep habits. It goes without saying that if you are not taking care of yourself with adequate sleep and nutritional meals, then your body and mind will not be capable of sustaining you through training and racing. A lack of sleep- less than 8 quality hours a night- can throw you into a sleep deficit causing you to feel tired and emotional. It will also compromise your body’s ability to recover and perform. A chronic calorie deficit will add to the problem by creating a compounded problem increasing that feeling of sluggishness, moodiness and lack of motivation. Get on top of that sleep. And, if needed, see a certified sport nutritionist who can help you dial in your meal planning and training fuel to make sure that you are hitting your caloric needs.
- Check in with a friend and make some plans! Take the time to reconnect with some friends who might not be in your training circle. Seeing fresh faces and reestablishing those connections can be a great recipe for renewed inspiration. Instead of suggesting that you meet up for one of your workouts, let them choose what activity to do! Try something new and have fun making a social connection. Sharing thoughts as well as movement will be refreshing. Sometimes, we just need someone with whom to talk it out.
Contrary to what many athletes think, sometimes less is more. The recipe for success includes slowing down when needed and making sure you can focus on family, friends and fun as well. The more well rounded we are as people, the better we feel about ourselves. If we place all of our self-worth into our sports performance, then this is certain to lead to burn out and a feeling of failure if/when we do not hit those big results. I am a strong believer that if your training and racing is well designed, balanced and FUN, then the motivation will come naturally.