Updated: Jan 25
In the 14 years I’ve been involved in endurance sports there was one time I had the unpleasant experience of severe burnout. It happened a few years ago when I decided to dip into my bucket list and work to “Qualify for the Boston Marathon.” I knew that to qualify for such a prestigious event it would take a couple of years of very specific hard and disciplined training, as well as several race attempts to get that BQ.
For the next two years my running mileage ramped up to about 60+ miles per week and I completed three Marathons. My 3rd Boston qualifying attempt at the Phoenix Marathon was my best attempt, but my finish time fell short of my goal. As soon as that race was over I made the decision to keep trying. Upon my return home I knew would begin training for my next marathon.
At first, training was going well. I felt as if I was running better than I had since I was much younger. Cranking out 60 miles per week was no problem. But then the weather began to get change. It was June in Texas and it was getting hot. It seemed like overnight my run paces were slow and I felt tired all the time.
Luckily I had a week-long family vacation coming up that would give me a break and allow me to rest. As soon as we got back to Texas I hit the road. To my surprise my runs were still sluggish and slow. Maintaining my normal easy pace felt like I was racing a 5k! To make matters worse, my level of motivation had dropped to almost zero and I felt exhausted constantly.
I went through several emotional reactions. At first I thought to myself “suck it up! Push through it!” Then I thought I would take a few weeks off and all would be back to normal. Wrong again! Even though I had not trained in two weeks I lacked motivation and my workouts felt like a beating every day. At this point I realized I was in a complete state of burnout.
Ok, so was that’s it! Was my athletic career over and was I destined to become a couch potato? Was the only way I would ever experience the Boston marathon is from my couch while eating a bowl of ice-cream?
Obviously I needed to change something! But what? I still have the dream to one day qualify and run the Boston Marathon! But after two years of nothing but run training I was burned out, unmotivated and frankly tired of running. It was at that point I decided get back into triathlon training with the emphasis on having fun and enjoying being active again. My swim, bike and especially run training sessions would be short and my weekly training hours would drop. After a few months I felt like me again. Run paces were returning to normal and I was having fun!
I had to ask myself, why did this happen? How can I keep this from happening in the future? Burnout is something I never want to go through again. As I think back on how I got to the point of total burnout, I believe there several contributing factors.
First, two years of high-volume running without extended training breaks tore me down both physically and mentally. During the marathon training there were recovery weeks built in and two total rest weeks after each marathon event. It became apparent that by never taking more than two weeks easy, I got to the burnout stage. My body and my mind needed longer periods of time to recover. This does not mean an athlete should take an extended period of time totally off from training but rather, from time to time, take a month or two of easy, fun training. Just think….no pressure to perform!
Secondly, because my focus was on qualifying for Boston, I stopped almost all cross training. Bike, Swim and Strength training sessions were few and far between. I now know if I had continued cross training I would have enjoyed my run training and possibly avoided burn out. Cross training gives your body and mind a break from always concentrating on one discipline.
Thirdly, if I had thrown in a few short, just-for-fun type events, I would have staved off burnout and enjoyed myself with friends and teammates. When the possibility of a short race came up I chose to pass and not miss my long weekend runs. Short, Fun races during endurance training provides a much needed mental and physical break to remind you of the fun of racing.
Burnout is a real issue for a lot of athletes. It comes in all shapes and sizes and effects people differently. Some telltale signs of burnout include an increased resting heart rate or the inability to get to your heart rate into higher training zones, also some may experience disinterest in other hobbies and may have trouble sleeping.
I now use the Ithlete Heart Rate Variability monitor to determine my level of training stress and when additional rest is needed. By monitoring your heart rate variability you get an early warning of possible physical and psychological stress.
Whatever your major endurance goals are, I hope you can learn from my experience. Remember to take a longer recovery periods about once a year where you take the pressure off, cross train and enjoy! During your training, remember to have fun and do some races just for fun.Pay attention to your body, if you feel constantly tired, can’t seem to recover from your last training session or if things just don’t feel right… change things!