How Do You Avoid Burnout? Simple: Rest.

Many endurance athletes become so regimented that they forget to listen to their bodies. Here’s how you can get back in touch with your body.

Photo: Courtesy of Reese Ruland

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Rest isn’t sexy. We don’t get kudos for it or see stats about our weekly non-mileage. It’s in the shadows, being quiet. But resting and fueling after activity is the only way to get stronger. 

When we run or workout we create tiny tears in our muscles. It’s only with rest and fuel that those muscles repair and become stronger, making the next time up the mountain a little easier. Rest is the only way for training adaptations to actually take place as the body recovers on a cellular level. A rejuvenated body can then train from a stronger, more balanced point of view, both in an acute, short-term way (take a rest day after doing a track workout) or a long-term way (cumulative rest to balance cumulative training) to avoid long-term fatigue and burnout.

Somewhere along the way, though, rest equalling strength and being necessary to push on with training was forgotten. Instead, we became obsessed with hitting specific numbers every single week.

But the outward facing focus is shifting. More and more athletes are being vocal on social media about making rest cool. Overtraining and over-racing can lead to serious burnout, not to mention a whole society of pros and amateurs alike being hyper-competitive through apps that let us know what everyone is doing all the time. Strava alone has 95 million active users who upload about a billion activities each year. Trying to keep up is taking its toll. People are cutting back and finding results. They’re realizing that their bodies are telling them what they need. And if they listen, they’re almost definitely stronger, healthier, and happier, regardless of weekly numbers. 

RELATED: Why You May Be Hungrier on Your Rest Days than Your Hardest Workout Days

So How Did We Get Here?

If you participated in sports as a kid, you can probably remember various versions of a coach—sometimes a parent or a volunteer—needing to encourage teammates to practice. Assigning sprints or laps or drills. Some kids would drag their feet or moan about the unfun parts of it all. 

But some kids, often the ones who went on to find success in sport, would do those things on their own. When told that practicing some activity on repeat would make one stronger and better, they’d go off and do those things without fail, over and over. 

For those kids, sometimes a vital part of coaching was missed. Telling the impressionable young person not to overdo it was forgotten. While certain activities help athletes become stronger and more technically sound—such as swinging a golf club or repetitious swimming drills—sometimes what athletes actually need to be told is to stop. To rest. For kids and athletes of any age who learn that activity is productive, rest can automatically feel unproductive. 

RELATED: I Know My Body Needs Rest, but I’m Having Trouble Slowing Down

Focused Training Means Adding Rest

Red Bull ultrarunner Dylan Bowman has experienced burnout and overtraining, but he said the most dangerous situation for him is over-racing. 

In 2013, after he had been taking ultrarunning seriously for about five years, Bowman decided to get a coach. When he trained himself, all of his days sort of blended together—it was a lot of going out and running a lot of miles alone without much variety. But when he got a coach, things got more focused, and he was assigned one day a week—Monday—to be a rest day. Bowman’s mileage dropped and his performance improved. But a coach didn’t eliminate the possibility of burnout, or mean that he was suddenly perfect at rest and recovery. 


I used to look at resting like it was not productive, when actually it’s the most productive thing you can do.


In 2014, Bowman took third place at Western States, and fifth at the North Face 50 Mile Championship. In 2015, he won the Tarawera 100K and the TNF 100K Australia. On paper, things were going incredibly well. Bowman wanted another crack at winning Western States, and this felt like the year to do it. But he was experiencing serious burnout, and ignoring it. 

“Right after [the 100K in] Australia, I dove straight back into really high-volume training leading into Western States, without allowing true recovery from a really deep race effort. I arrived at Western States not only flat physically—my body was tapped because I hadn’t allowed for recovery—but also mentally. I was zapped. I was not ready to go to the well again to compete and go to the places that I know you need to in order to win or finish on the podium at one of the world’s biggest races.” 

Bowman dropped out of Western States, the first time in his career that he had done so in any race. “Seven years and probably 35 or 40 ultramarathons without ever dropping out. I had a smug arrogance about that—I’d always find a way to finish. So it was a big learning experience, a big disappointment, and a major episode of burnout.”

RELATED: How Long Should You Rest After a Marathon or Ultra?

Ignoring the Body Never Works

Looking back, the early signs were there, but Bowman just ignored them. “I had every indication that I needed to back off. My training was not going well. I was struggling to get out the door. I wasn’t motivated. And I think those are important telltale signs that you need to take a bit of a rest.” 

Coaches, athletes, and experts agree that the classic signs that you’re overtraining include: trouble sleeping, frequent sickness or injury, chronic soreness, low energy, mood swings, decreased performance, and lack of motivation. Bowman was experiencing most of those symptoms, but excused it away as tough training symptoms. “In retrospect, it was pretty obvious [that I was burned out] but I had Western States in my crosshairs, and I had been on the podium the year before. I desperately wanted to have a shot at winning the race, so I ignored those signals.”

Bowman took the rest of the summer off, resting both physically and mentally more than he ever had. “I was then able to come back and finish second at the North Face 50 mile Championship at the end of the year.” 

Listen to the Signals

One of the biggest takeaways for Bowman was the need to communicate how his body was feeling to his coach. “There were no blaring signs in my data to indicate to my coach that I was struggling. It was more an emotional, psychological thing. I would grit my teeth and get through it. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s Western States training. You can’t give up.” Until you have to. 

Moving forward, Bowman has worked hard to listen to early signals that something is off or that he needs more rest. And one huge change that he’s made since his burnout has been to space out competition. “​​Sometimes we underestimate just how physically taxing and stressful these events are on our bodies. Especially when they go well. You have a propensity to recover quickly, and then you’re like, let’s do it again. Some people can sustain [lots of races in a row] for a while before they crack.” Now Bowman avoids the cracking by choosing races carefully, and never too many in one year. 

Psychology 101: Validation

Marisa Asplund is a therapist who specializes in endurance athletes at every level. She was also a high-level professional cyclist and triathlete for many years. Asplund uses a therapy model called Post Traumatic Growth for athletes, which combines traditional models of therapy with body-awareness techniques specifically targeting nervous system regulation.

There are two approaches to understanding what motivates overtraining or too much activity. “I call it the top-down, bottom-up approach. It’s really just the principle of validation,” Asplund said. “We identify that when we do something like run fast, we get validation. And if there’s been any sort of developmental trauma or developmental wounding early on, where there may be some deficits in self worth or validation, which, frankly, a lot of us have, it becomes the perfect storm. Running fast becomes our only version of validation so we do it over and over.” 

On the other hand, the bottom-up version of this is when there’s an overly activated sympathetic nervous system. Like the very driven kids at practice who would do sprints until they couldn’t walk—the ones who needed a coach to tell them to stop. “It’s not a bad thing, it’s just in your biology, something you need to learn about,” Asplund said. “When I was racing in the pro women’s peloton, it was astounding how many women in the group were doctors, lawyers, and Ph.D students. Because we’re so driven.” 

Bottom-up, highly motivated folks who feel normal with a lot of activity end up having the same results as the top-down folks. “It feels good to have high levels of drive and motivation,” Asplund said. “And then you get that external validation; you’re just going to keep doing what you do.” 

For both groups, the validation can end up leading to too much activity, but the truly dangerous part is when the body’s cry for help is ignored.

RELATED: The Psychology Of Setting Motivating And Satisfying Goals

When Mimicking Others Turns Bad 

Elite ultrarunner and coach Reese Ruland noticed early on in her running career a pattern, especially among women. Athletes would be in the spotlight for a short time and then disappear. They’d have great success and seemingly enter every race, win, and then not long after they’d be gone. 

“They’d be on the scene for two years at most,” Ruland said. “Then they’d vanish. I was like, what’s happening to these women?” As a young ultrarunner, she looked up to the athletes who were doing big weekly mileage as she was training for the 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100-miler.

(Photo: Courtesy of Reese Ruland)

“I was doing insane volume,” she said.“My shortest run was 10 miles. I ran every single day and then would often bike after my run for two hours. I thought I was fine. I never felt really bad, but looking back, I realize I was chronically fatigued.” 

Ruland got sick right before the 100-miler and couldn’t start. “I spent the next two or three years trying to heal my body,” she said. “It just totally shut down. It collapsed. I gained a bunch of weight. I had so much anxiety. Everything started falling apart. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t eating well. I had weird cravings. I couldn’t manage my emotions.”

Eventually Ruland figured out what was happening to many of the highly competitive women she was mimicking—they too were often experiencing disordered eating, overtraining, and burnout. Ruland got to the point that she completely stopped running.

“It wasn’t until the fall of 2021 that I was finally able to say, ‘I think I’m missing [running],’” she said. She had started working with young athletes, coaching them not only in running, but also in resting. “What I realized when I started to work with other athletes is that there are two types of people in athletics, for the most part,” she said. “There is the person you need to motivate to do the workout and there’s the person you need to motivate to do the resting. I’m definitely that person—I used to look at resting like it was not productive, when actually it’s the most productive thing you can do.” 

How Do You Reconnect to Your Body?

For many endurance athletes, the training calendar rules their lives more than their bodies do. Nothing prevents them from going to the church of the long-run, even when everything hurts and there’s no motivation. Ruland doesn’t necessarily recommend throwing out the training calendar, but she does suggest checking in with yourself before each workout. “There have been days that I’ve kitted up to go ride or run, and I’m like, ‘why?’ I just go put my normal clothes back on and walk my dogs. The best thing you can do for your body is the thing that it’s craving, and that’s just not always going to be running 10 miles.”

Often, endurance athletes are so conditioned to get the workout in or to perform in the race that they’ve gone numb to what their bodies really need. “I didn’t realize how tired I was until my body broke,” Ruland said. “And once I started taking time off, I was like, ‘Oh, now I know what feeling good is like, and now I know what feeling bad is like.’”

Ruland often assigns her clients to seek out a new experience to shake things up. We become so obsessed with always setting a PR or seeing the numbers at the end of a workout that we aren’t able to be in the moment. “Sometimes I tell them to go find an adventure with a friend and make something up, or go get coffee and just enjoy it.” 

Asplund also recommends finding other forms of validation. We all need it, but it’s unhealthy when your only validation in life is in the form of kudos for climbing a mountain or running your fastest splits at the track. For someone coming back from burnout, she also recommends activities without a device, as a way to listen to your body. If you’re used to staring at a watch or distracting yourself with loud music, no-device activities let you really be in touch with the experience and your body.  

Everyone who has experienced burnout, and the recovery that comes with rest after it, can tell you that we don’t get stronger from training alone, we get stronger from resting, fueling, and repairing.



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