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In a year of very few races, many last-minute cancellations, and constantly changing circumstances, one of the biggest impacts I’ve noticed has been on training periodization and preparation. Throughout the summer and fall, many athletes I know have put in the brunt of the training just to have the race canceled (rightfully so) just a few weeks before. With the hay already in the barn and the desire to cash in on all of those fitness points, many people decided to find another event and stretch training out for a few more weeks or months. Even others have decided not to race at all, but have committed to maintaining routine and consistency by continuing to throw down in training each week.
One of the often-overlooked aspects of this is the lack of built-in downtime or total time off. In a normal racing season, we naturally follow up a big race effort with rest. I’ve found that without the presence of said “big effort” many athletes are overlooking the need to still build in periods of longer recovery.
Eventually, cumulative periods of intense training can lead to cumulative fatigue at the physical level. When you also consider the general emotional and mental distress that many have suffered throughout 2020 and the compounding demands (even if they are from positive sources!) of the holidays and the end of the year, we are all entering a time when burnout is a real threat. I’m going to talk about some of the signs and symptoms that might suggest that you’re moving towards burnout, and offer some protective factors to prevent yourself from getting there.
What Is Burnout?
Common burnout symptoms are physical and mental exhaustion, decreased performance, low levels of motivation, sport devaluation, and sometimes in extreme cases even sport dropout. It’s important for athletes to understand that burnout can include both mental and physical exhaustion, but those symptoms can also exist independently. You could be mentally and emotionally dialed in, but your body could be begging for rest. On the other hand, you could physically be fine while feeling like your mental and emotional resources are depleted. I have found that athletes are much more hesitant to take some downtime to let their minds rest than they are their bodies. Mental and emotional burnout is just as real as physical burnout and should be treated with the same level of seriousness.
What Causes Burnout?
Often, people associate burnout with overtraining and that is certainly one of the most common causes, particularly when it comes to experiencing the physical symptoms. There are also many times in which the training load may be appropriate, but the athlete isn’t maximizing the recovery part of the equation. Whether that means poor nutrition habits, lack of quality sleep, or life stressors like a demanding job or family commitments, there may be too much demand and not enough recovery and replenishment. Remember – not all stressors are bad, but their impact should still be acknowledged.
While some of those sources of physical stress are some of the more commonly acknowledged, there are other factors that are worth discussing particularly in 2020. Feelings of autonomy have consistently been shown to be crucial in maintaining motivation and commitment to the sport. This year has invoked many feelings, but control is not one of them! Whether it’s from race cancellations or decreased access to training resources, many of us have experienced a decrease in the autonomy we feel as athletes which undoubtedly takes a toll on drive and mental energy.
Similarly, training environment is an important factor when it comes to sustaining and replenishing your mental and emotional resources. With group runs being canceled, gyms closing, and races not happening, many athletes have felt this impact the most. Social connection and shared goals are some of the most fulfilling aspects of our sport. Without the ability connect and share in the journey in the way that we are used to, mental and emotional burnout is a potential threat.
When it comes to training hard and working towards big goals on the trails, output tends to be the more obvious part for athletes. Things like weekly mileage and vert goals, workouts, and strength training are easy to buy into. But, it’s also crucial to maintain an input that makes the formula sustainable over the long term. More specifically, and perhaps most relevant to current circumstances, when your available resources for meaningful input have declined then you need to account for that change. If you continue to put the same demand on your body and mind without replenishing those resources, you can quickly find yourself on a path towards burnout or injury.
If you’re missing the social connection and sense of community from pandemic restrictions then find another way to fill that need. Whether it’s finding an accountability buddy or joining a virtual challenge, seek opportunities to keep your cup full. If current life circumstances, shut-downs, and working-from-home have made it easy to put in the miles, but harder to see your PT or massage therapist, get out the foam roller or commit to a stretching routine. Regardless of how you choose to do it, your input is critical when it comes to staying healthy, happy, and strong on the trails.
If you find yourself experiencing any signs of burnout, don’t ignore them. It’s not an indication that you did something wrong in your training approach and it’s most certainly not a sign of weakness. Anytime you’re trying to get the most out of yourself, you’re riding the line of “just the right amount” and “too much.” Acknowledge how your body and your mind are responding to what you’re doing and commit to maintaining a productive balance between your input and your output. Doing so will maximize your results, enjoyment, and overall longevity in the sport.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.