Have you felt more tired than usual lately? Maybe found it a little hard to concentrate on tasks? Have you noticed a drop in motivation to get your workouts (or other things) done? Or maybe when you laced up your running shoes or jumped on the trainer, you noticed a drop in pace or watts. If you wear a smartwatch with a heart rate monitor, you may have even seen a slight rise in your resting heart rate!
You’re probably not being dramatic. These are all common symptoms of emotional exhaustion! Emotional exhaustion comes when we’re drained and just worn out from accumulated stress. We’re all susceptible to it in “normal” times... but we aren’t living in “normal” times right now. We are living through an unprecedented season of stress, uncertainty, and drastic changes in life rhythms.
You’re likely juggling a lot of extra stressors: new work routines, being at home for weeks on end, learning how to homeschool children, canceled races, and the list goes on. Even going to the grocery store feels utterly exhausting right now because of all the extra precautions (if you live in an area that requires masks and other personal protection). All of these stressors add up quickly and lead to emotional exhaustion.
(Of course, if you aren’t experiencing any of these symptoms, that’s ok, too! Everyone responds to stressors differently, and we’re all dealing with different circumstances.)
Common symptoms of emotional exhaustion
We athletes aren’t immune to emotional exhaustion, but we have a greater tendency to try to “just push through” instead of pausing to recognize and address what’s going on.
Some common symptoms of emotional exhaustion include:
Greater physical fatigue
Lack of ability to concentrate
Change in appetite
Loss of motivation to do things you enjoy
Athletes often use exercise as an outlet for stress in everyday life. During this season of dealing with COVID-19, training can be a double-edged sword. You want the stress relief and feeling of accomplishment that comes from a great workout, but you feel too exhausted to exercise or struggle to perform at your usual level. It becomes a vicious cycle… which actually can add MORE frustration and emotional exhaustion. You get the idea.
How athletes can address and manage emotional exhaustion
As in any situation, the first step is to name the problem. Honesty with yourself is always the best policy.
The next step is to address some of the symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Often we can’t eliminate the sources of stress (especially these days), but we can treat symptoms and make adjustments to improve things.
Healthy eating: This one might be a no-brainer, but hear me out. Most of us probably eat pretty healthily (we are fueling our bodies for great athletic feats, after all). But it’s tempting to do a little extra pandemic baking or indulge in some sugary, carb-loaded snacks. If you’re not used to working from home, maybe you’re making a few extra trips to the snack room… err kitchen… throughout the day.
Avoiding sugary snacks and processed or fried foods is difficult but will help you manage stress and exhaustion. Choosing fruits, veggies, and lean meats will help keep your immune system in prime working order, too!
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet improves digestion and sleep and helps keep your energy levels up. Sugar or caffeine crashes throughout the day can contribute to emotional exhaustion.
Keep a routine: You’re probably not waking up at 5 am for morning swims before work right now, so it’s tempting to have a “go with the flow” mentality. If you’re not going into the office, it’s tempting to work in fits and spurts throughout the day.
We all might say we would enjoy a break from any sort of routine, and that’s true (even healthy) for very short periods! But extended times without structure can lead to a decline in mental health. Our bodies and minds are wired for rhythms. Humans tend to thrive when they have predictable, healthy routines.
So, create a pandemic routine. Sure, it can be flexible, but your mind and body need to settle into a predictable daily rhythm of when you get up, eat your meals, work out, do your work, and anything else important to you. This is especially helpful if you have children in the home.
Add some extra breaks and self-care practices throughout the day. Remember, these are not normal times, so your mind and body probably need consistent stress relievers.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule: You may have noticed that you’re more tired lately. That’s perfectly normal! Emotional exhaustion and stress can lead to poorer sleep quality. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is critical because your body repairs itself while you sleep.
We athletes are usually pretty conscious of our “sleep hygiene.” Still, it’s probably a little extra tempting to stay up later and watch another episode of Tiger King instead of hitting the sack at your usual bedtime.
Avoid the late-night Netflix binges and continue to aim for a healthy amount of sleep. Don’t be afraid to squeeze a nap into your day. If you find yourself struggling to sleep at night, consider adding some relaxation techniques in the evening. Sip herbal tea, do some relaxing yoga and stretching, and avoid consuming alcohol, caffeine, or sugar too close to bedtime.
Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness isn’t just a fad. Many mindfulness techniques are centuries old and are proven strategies to help people reduce stress, process emotions, and become aware of your mind and body.
Yoga, breathing exercises, and going for walks are excellent ways to engage your mind and body at the same time. Many people benefit from journaling their feelings and thoughts.
Don’t be afraid to do a little research and try a variety of mindfulness techniques to find the ones that work best for you.
Find the balance of grace and grit
Your energy levels and motivation will probably wax and wane during this season of uncertainty. That’s normal! Give yourself grace and don’t beat yourself up when you just can’t do it some days. But, there’s also great value in holding yourself accountable and digging deep.
Choosing to get the workout done when it’s mentally hard (even if you have to reduce the intensity or make adjustments) develops grit and tenacity. Learning to manage and overcome stress in this season will pay dividends when you’re back to racing. You’ll be able to draw on those new levels of grit when you’re deep in the hurt locker, or the race just isn’t going to plan.
Through all of this, work closely with your coach! Be honest with yourself and your coach about how you’re doing mentally, emotionally, and physically. If necessary, work together to create contingency workout plans for the days when you are overwhelmed, exhausted, and can’t do the assigned workout.
Your coach is one of your biggest fans--in sport and in life. They want to help you use this season to grow as an athlete and become a healthier, more balanced person. So, don’t be afraid to be honest with them about how you’re really doing so you can work together. These are the athletes that will emerge from this pandemic stronger, healthier, wiser, and more prepared to line up on the start line.