I've always lived in excess — it's actually how I find my balance. Instead of doing something consistently over time, I do way too much and then not at all. I try not to look at it as a character flaw. I just can't help it, I love to be obsessed with things. And my exercise routine is no exception.
As a former high school and collegiate runner, endurance training has always been a big passion of mine. After college, I spent a few years hyper-focused on strength training, which I adore, too. In that time, I'd experience exercise ruts, sure, but it wasn't until I started triathlon-style training that I really felt burnout.
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To clarify, burnout is kind of like a level of overtraining, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Usually symptoms can include a loss of motivation, joint pain, difficulty sleeping and seemingly never-ending muscle soreness (all of which I experienced).
And after a few months of high-volume running, swimming, biking and strength training, I'm not surprised I fizzled. My anxiety spiked, I couldn't sleep — it's as if my body betrayed me. And no matter how many times I clipped into my pedals or jumped into the pool, I didn't want to be there. My performance suffered.
The hardest part was the emotional downswing. Being an athlete is a part of my identity (my favorite part) and it was just — *poof * — gone.
Recovering from burnout can take time and requires patience and grace with your body and brain. If I'm being perfectly honest, it took me about 2 months to fully get back to my old self. But as athletes, giving ourselves some TLC comes with the craft (or at least it should). Here's how I helped overcome burnout and how I've worked to prevent it ever since.
1. Take an Exercise Break
From a physiological standpoint, exercise is a stressor on your body. Each time you train, you create microscopic damage to your muscle tissues, according to Erin Oprea, CPT, founder of Oprea Personal Fitness. And rest is when your body takes the time to repair, regrow and strengthen.
But that's the tricky part about overtraining: You never really give your body that recovery — and no, sometimes one or two rest days just isn't enough. When your body doesn't get that recovery time, you become more susceptible to overuse injuries like tendinitis (guilty) or stress fractures, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And recovery isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I wish there was an exact amount of time we could measure to know our bodies are recharged and ready to go. But there's not. Learning your body's warning signs takes time (cue the patience and grace I mentioned before) but it's a must for preventing burnout.
Of course, if you're experiencing an injury, talk to a medical professional ASAP. But otherwise, give yourself a little time away from your usual activities to properly rest and recover. And then, when you feel up for it, ease back into your workout routine with baby steps.
2. Fuel Your Body Properly
Just like a car, if you don't give your body good fuel, it won't run well and will eventually break down, Oprea says. Proper nutrition is key if you want to stay energized and stave off burnout.
Unfortunately, I have this tendency to eat non-nutritious foods when I'm burned out and not training. And if you're like me, it's OK to let yourself wallow a bit — a salad or protein/rice dish just isn't appetizing when I'm sad (sorry not sorry).
But eating whole food–based meals was my first step to recovering from burnout. And I started with just one meal a day: breakfast. As I began my burnout recovery journey, I started eating my favorite breakfast (protein oatmeal with berries, granola and peanut butter) every single morning. Slowly, I added more nutrient-dense meals into my day and my body began to regain some energy.
Your ideal diet or eating pattern may not (and probably doesn't) necessarily look like mine. But prioritizing a variety of fruits and veggies, lean protein sources and whole grains is a good framework to get the most nutrition out of your meals and keep burnout at bay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
3. Set Small Goals
Lack of motivation is a common and frustrating sign of burnout. But as with your meals, starting with small, bite-size goals is one way you can motivate yourself, Oprea says. Also known as the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals model, you can set a specific, attainable goal for yourself and track your progress over time.
A big part of setting small goals? Be patient with yourself (that's a theme here). I went from running double-digit miles each day to prioritizing a daily walk around the block. But that walk around the block was all my body and mind could handle.
"Try not to focus on numbers too much and just focus on showing up every day," Carolina Araujo, CPT, a New York–based strength coach, says. Araujo supported me while I overcame my burnout. "Over time, chances are, you'll be able to expand your goals and take more on."
4. Switch Up Your Activities
Over time, your daily exercise routine can become repetitive and can even cause overuse injury, per the Mayo Clinic. One positive thing about burnout? It's an opportunity to try new things. "By switching up your workout, you engage different muscle groups in different ways," Oprea says.
Even more than that, it's an opportunity to engage your brain a new way. Which is what brought me to my very first ballet class in my mid-twenties. And don't get me wrong, I absolutely sucked. Even my instructor said, "you have the strength but not the grace."
I'm not a ballerina (and never plan to be), and that made this activity feel low stakes and purely fun. There was no time to measure, miles to count, heart rate to track. I just fumbled along to classical music and muscled my way into balanced poses.
After a little while, I decided to skip class for a jog. And then before long, I started enjoying morning bike rides again. I liked ballet, but more than anything, it allowed me to get back to the forms of movement that make me feel my best.
5. Exercise With a Friend
I don't love the term "accountability buddy:" It sounds as if I'm not disciplined enough to do things on my own. But you can still be a disciplined person and look to friends and family for extra support when you're going through a tough time (and if you're like me, repeat that sentence).
"I get bored of doing the same old thing with my friends all the time," Araujo says. "But planning activities or workout dates with friends can be one way to ease back into exercise. Go for a hike, try a dance workout class or try a new hobby together."
Don't forget to make it fun! Every so often, a friend and I do bike days. We spend the entire day together but only travel by bike. We'll ride to the beach, a cafe for lunch and a bar for happy hour (safely, of course). Our priority is to spend time together, but exercise — that's not focused on performance — is baked right in.
6. Think in the Long Term
Just like most relationships, your relationship with exercise and your body won't always be linear (and that's OK). It can be helpful to think about about exercise as a lifelong partnership. Sometimes my favorite modalities change, sometimes I hate exercise altogether and sometimes, I train twice a day for weeks on end.
"That's the best part about movement and exercise," Araujo says. "It's not permanent. Inevitably, there will be a day when you can't move like you can now. So, enjoy it, try new things and don't let yourself get away from the fun part of exercise."
Right now, you may be feeling burned out and perhaps a little guilty you're not at your best. But I'm big on avoiding long-term consequences with short-term decisions, which is why I completely stopped training when I got burned out. If I'd kept at the pace I was going, I'd probably start resenting my workouts and may have done long-term damage to my body.
As someone who loves to live in excess, I have to constantly, intentionally remind myself that I want to enjoy exercise for a long, long time. We all deserve to give ourselves (and our bodies) a little grace.
- Mayo Clinic: Overuse injury: How to prevent training injuries
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight"
- ACE: "6 Ways to Avoid Burnout"
- American Council on Exercise: “How Hydration Affects Performance”
- Mayo Clinic: “Overuse injury: How to prevent training injuries”
- Science Translational Medicine: “Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage”
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing”
- Journal of Physical Activity and Health: “Predicting adherence of adults to a 12-month exercise intervention”
- Kansas State University: “Motivational losing: Being the weak link in team activities may lead to longer, more intense workouts”
- Biology Letters: ‘Rowers' high: Behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds”
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