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Using science to cope with fatigue, discomfort and low motivation on the run

Ever felt like this on a run? Here are some strategies to overcome burnout. Photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto

A runner’s psychological state has a profound effect on his or her physiological response to running. Emotions and thoughts can influence a runner’s physiological state rather dramatically during workouts and competitions—and runners should develop mental strategies that decrease the energy cost of running at specific velocities as well as coping strategies for dealing with the fatigue and discomfort of strenuous effort.

Read on for an excerpt about the various forms of burnout and suggestions on how to prevent them comes from Running Science by Owen Anderson …


Preventing Burnout

Sports psychologists have begun to explore the overall background psychological characteristics that permit some runners to excel while others fail. This research reveals that the very factors that help some endurance athletes persevere through challenging workouts, rugged training, and competitive conditions may also increase the risk of burnout. Researchers from the Norwegian School of Sport Science in Oslo and the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom have been able to show, in a study carried out with 141 high-performing athletes, that specific motivational profiles may produce early successes in athletic endeavors but may ultimately raise the likelihood of frustration, poor competitive performances, and even withdrawal from sport. In effect, the desire to achieve great things may eventually lead to very poor training responses and competitions that are less than optimal if the underlying psychological mechanisms and motivational constructs are faulty.

Exercise scientists have defined burnout as a state of mental, emotional, and physical fatigue produced during the pursuit of challenging goals. Burnout is usually characterized by disillusionment with one’s sporting activity and by the appearance of psychological and physical symptoms associated with reduced self-esteem. True burnout is thought to be accompanied by three key indicators:

1. Lack of emotional and physical energy

2. Reduced sense of accomplishment and a feeling that desired goals are very unlikely to be attained

3. Devaluation of one’s sport and a decreased interest in performing at a high level

The possible mechanisms by which burnout appears in athletes have been hotly debated. In a benchmark study of burnout, researchers proposed that athletes with high initial levels of motivation tend to make significant investments in training; these investments then lead to early competitive success and thus intense enjoyment, which in turn produce further commitments in training. A key factor involved in this process for many athletes appears to be that successes enhance feelings of self-worth. While this would appear to be a healthy response, it can lead to a situation in which self-esteem gradually becomes more and more dependent on athletic success. Consequently, the inevitable athletic disappointments and failures that occur as competition becomes more rigorous produce threats to self-worth, which can lead to a motivational shift in which an intense desire to train hard and to succeed begins to wane and is replaced by a kind of protective physical and psychological disengagement from the sport.

This groundbreaking research suggests that when an athlete takes a view of athletic achievement that fails to protect him or her from the psychological stresses associated with sustained difficulties and unavoidable failures to reach important goals, it is almost inevitable that some degree of burnout will occur. The resulting psychological, emotional, and behavioral withdrawals make the ultimate attainment of goals more unlikely.

Task Goals Versus Ego Goals

To prevent burnout and maximize the opportunity for goal attainment, an athlete needs to create proper goals and develop an optimal motivational climate. Scientific research has identified two types of goals that are present to greater or lesser degrees in athletic-achievement contexts: task goals and ego goals. When a task goal is adopted by an athlete, achievement is assessed in self-referent terms, rather than in relation to how others have fared in comparison, and success and failure are determined according to whether one has mastered an activity, improved a performance time, or reached a self-imposed marker. For example, when a runner says, “I want to run a 2:59 at Boston,” he or she is setting a task goal. Similarly, when a runner proclaims, “I want to train in a way that will keep me injury free this year,” he or she is also setting a task goal.

In contrast, the adoption of an ego goal means that achievement will be evaluated in comparative rather than self-referent terms, and a runner will strive to demonstrate performance prowess—or to avoid displaying a lack of performance capability—in comparison with other runners. For example, a runner adopting an ego goal might decide that “The key thing is to beat Paul in the upcoming race” or “I have to finish in the top three in this competition” or “I have to show everyone that I am the best runner in my age group.” The adoption of an ego goal might also mean attempting to win the approval or change the mind of a significant other—perhaps a coach or another athlete. A runner who has received a negative comment from an another person in the running community might decide that he or she must win a race to prove the person wrong, for example.

Scientific research has supported the idea that runners fare better when they adopt task rather than ego goals. For example, some studies have shown that athletes using task goals tend to seek out challenges, put forth high levels of effort, display persistence, sustain interest in training, and maintain mammoth motivational levels, trends that are inconsistent with burnout and consistent with the development of a high degree of fitness.

In contrast, using ego goals seems to leave athletes more vulnerable to burnout, perhaps in part because it is impossible to control the performances and opinions of others, which makes the attainment of ego goals more uncertain. A runner might achieve an excellent performance time, perhaps even a personal record, but could still view overall performance as a failure if certain competitors finished with even-faster times. Furthermore, achieving a very creditable time might nonetheless produce a disparaging comment from a hypercritical coach or fellow athlete (e.g., “You went out too fast,” “You finished too slowly,” “You seemed to struggle on the hills”), producing frustration and disappointment in an athlete oriented toward the achievement of an ego goal, in this case, the winning over of another person.

Research suggests that when athletes become dominated by ego goals, they tend to feel that they must repeatedly display their superior competitive ability with respect to others, and their sense of self-worth may become tightly connected with their capacity to do so. Rather than inching their way forward with gradually better times and feeling satisfied with doing so, ego-goal runners constantly need to out-do others, an impossible task for all but the Paul Tergats and Catherine Nderebas of the world. The failures that inevitably occur, which are typically viewed as inadequacies, are then remedied with the application of more training effort; however, physical and emotional stresses tend to increase as competitive situations are increasingly viewed as being personally threatening and potentially damaging to self esteem. In theory, burnout can then occur much more easily compared with a situation in which a runner is merely trying to gain greater mastery of an event without his or her worth being tied to the time on the clock, relative finishing position in a race, or the opinion of another person.

Performance Climate Versus Mastery Climate

In addition to goal characteristics (task vs. ego), motivational climate may have a strong impact on the possibility of burnout. Two key motivational climates have been identified by sport psychologists: a performance climate and a mastery climate. When a runner’s day-to-day life is characterized by a significant focus on interrunner competitions, comparisons with other runners, the presence of a coach who emphasizes winning at all costs, and public recognition of comparative ability, then a performance climate is said to prevail. Performance climates are believed to foster ego involvement and the setting of ego goals rather than the establishment of task goals perhaps because the underlying schema is “I can only be good if I am better than you,” rather than “I’m good if I make steady progress with my performance times.” A significant number of sport psychologists believe that performance climates can increase the risk of burnout compared with mastery climates.

A mastery climate prevails in a runner’s life when an emphasis is placed on the learning and mastery of skills (e.g., when a runner learns to carry out running-specific strength training, when a runner develops the ability to maintain stride rate on tough hills), effort is valued as an end in itself rather than as a way of establishing self-worth, and there is a private, personal recognition of effort rather than a public comparison with other runners. The presence of a mastery climate increases the likelihood that a runner will be task-involved rather than ego-involved in his or her training and competitions because the pursuits and practices of other runners are irrelevant to whether the runner can master a specific running task.


One last motivational factor—in addition to goal orientation and motivational climate—that can have a large impact on running performance is the character trait of perfectionism. Some studies have suggested that perfectionism is a key characteristic displayed by high-achieving athletes. This seems reasonable enough since perfectionism is often linked with an intense pursuit of extremely high performance standards, a pursuit that can lead to outstanding competitive outcomes.

However, a key problem is that perfection is unattainable. The perfect race is unachievable, and in fact a perfect race may be especially unachievable to a perfectionist runner, who is likely to be predisposed to picking apart his or her performance even when it is outstanding. Thus, perfectionism may in fact leave an athlete constantly vulnerable to failure, which can then lead to psychological distress and—ultimately—to an impairment of athletic ability. Various lines of research suggest that when perfectionist athletes inevitably fail to live up to their extremely lofty performance expectations, shame, anger, and anxiety may result, and the risk of burnout can be increased. In addition, there is evidence that perfectionist runners tend to set very lofty task and ego goals simultaneously, in effect giving themselves too much to do and achieve. They eventually become overburdened with all of the goals that must be met—after all, they have to be perfect.

Research on Burnout

One of the take-home lessons for runners appears to be that cognitive, emotional, and psychological approaches to running can have a profound impact on performances and risk of burnout. When competitions become threats to self-worth, the risks of excessive stress and burnout increase. When races are viewed as exciting challenges and opportunities for time improvements and mastery, the risk of burnout is reduced, and the chance of performing at a higher level is increased.

When runners believe that their actions such as training sessions will lead to desired outcomes such as reasonable and specific performance times, their motivation increases, and they have the best chance of performing at a top level. In contrast, striving constantly to achieve perfection and belittling small improvements increases the likelihood of developing debilitating burnout.

The ultimate bottom line is that motivational profile matters a great deal, and in some cases it may matter more than the training carried out, the recovery between workouts, and the manner in which a runner eats. Poor motivational profiles can make a fit runner feel unfit and can wrap a runner in a coat of lethargy and withdrawal that makes quality training and the attainment of goals impossible. A bad motivational setup makes decently conducted workouts seem like failures and lets self-worth depend on every vagary of training and performance. Runners seem to operate best when they use a motivational profile that includes task-goal orientation, a mastery climate, and a break from perfectionism. This profile is forward seeking and lets runners take satisfaction in even small gains in workout quality and competitive performance. It also gives an individual runner a break, letting him or her have enough pressure-free time to achieve long term goals. It never, ever links self-worth with the time on the race clock or relative finishing position in a competition.

Find more information about preventing burnout and other strategies to run your best in Running Science, available in bookstores everywhere or online at www.HumanKinetics.com.

Owen Anderson, PhD, has been a regular contributor to Runner’s World, Shape, Men’s Health, Peak Performance, National Geographic Adventure, and Sports Injury Bulletin. He is also a race and running camp director, CEO of Lansing Moves the World and founder of Lansing Sports Management.

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