Beating Burnout

02/11/2011 - 13:22

By Richard Ferguson

As an avid runner, Susan is a longtime member of the local running club. For the past five years she has been one of the most active members, participating in almost every club race or activity. Susan hasn’t missed a day of training for years and she races whenever the opportunity presents itself. If there is a race nearby and she doesn’t participate, she feels guilty. Every Tuesday you can find Susan at the track for interval training and Sunday mornings you are certain to find her out on a long run with other club members. Susan is a real inspiration for other runners. Everyone in the club wishes they had the motivation and love for running like Susan does.

Susan, however, is beginning to experience some emotions about running that she has never experienced before. To put it simply, Susan is tired of running. She just doesn’t feel the excitement for running that she once felt. Just going out to run each day is a real struggle. More often than not, she doesn’t want to run, but feels incredibly guilty if she doesn’t. Susan even misses most of the running club meetings and she doesn’t even like to talk about running. People constantly ask her why she isn’t running as much and why her race times have fallen off drastically. Susan feels tired, both physically and mentally, even though she recently had a physical and was deemed to be in great health. Susan just can’t come to grips with how she now dislikes running when it was once the joy of her life.

It would appear that Susan is suffering from a classic case of burnout. Just what is burnout? The word burnout is thrown around everyday, but it’s really difficult to define. Burnout is basically becoming exhausted as a result of making unrealistic, excessive demands on your energy or resources. Burnout is a condition that has physical, emotional, and psychological aspects. Burnout is real and it leads to fatigue, loss of motivation, depression, and even anger.

It would appear that there might be a certain “profile” for those runners most susceptible to burnout. Runners who are extremely dedicated, have high achievement motivation and a high degree of perfectionism tend to suffer more often from burnout. Usually they lean towards a type-A personality, have high cognitive anxiety (worry), and have a difficult time relaxing. Many of the traits that may predispose runners to burnout are positive and required to reach one’s potential. Certainly being dedicated, motivated, and high achieving are admirable traits and don’t necessarily lead to burnout. But there is a fine line between being dedicated and running yourself into the ground.
How can we avoid burnout? The best way is to recognize burnout’s early symptoms, because once burnout takes hold, the recovery process can be lengthy. Burnout actually occurs in stages of increasing severity. The difference in the stages is based upon the duration of the symptoms, since each stage of burnout is evidenced by the same symptoms. For runners the symptoms of burnout may be:

*Chronic fatigue. Feelings on not recovering, even with extended rest.
*Disturbed sleep. Fatigue, but difficulty falling asleep or you waking in the morning hours and can’t fall back asleep.
*Weight loss, lack of appetite, or unusual overeating.
*Feelings of depression.
*Mood swings and increased irritability.
*Lower tolerance for frustration.
*Basic lack of motivation to run or exercise.
*Feelings of helplessness over the situation.

When runners exhibit a constellation of these symptoms and they last more than a couple weeks, it may be time to take a very close look at their schedules and themselves to determine if the symptoms warrant some corrective action before they become signs of chronic, late stage burnout. By recognizing the early burnout symptoms runners can take action before they lose total interest in the activity they once enjoyed so much.

If the symptoms of burnout do present themselves, there are strategies that can be implemented to ameliorate the problem. First, set some small, realistic goals for managing time. Evaluate the activities in your life and determine if you really have the time and energy to do them all. There may be a need to set some priorities and not over-extend time and energy resources. It really is okay to say no to some things.
Try to focus on the process of running and not the product. Focus on enjoying the actual act of running and not just the performance aspects. The pressure of meeting high performance goals can wear on you mentally. Back away from the racing for a while and just run for pure enjoyment. Remember to also be patient. Symptoms of burnout don’t go away overnight. Give your recovery some time. Burnout doesn’t occur in a day and it’s not going to go away in a day.

When feeling the effects of burnout, don’t be hard on yourself mentally. That’s a contributing factor to burnout in the first place. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. Burnout is not a sign of weakness. Humans are not machines and all runners go through periods of ups and downs. Having feelings of guilt will only make the burnout last longer.

When all else fails, the only true remedy for burnout is to simply take some time totally away from running. Do some other things you enjoy that you may have neglected. Spend time with family and friends, read, take walks, fish, play golf, or do some things that you normally don’t have time for. In time your motivation and excitement for running will return. It may be a few days, a week or a few months, but the burnout will subside. Again, the key is to recognize the early warning signs of burnout and take action, because the longer burnout goes on the longer the recovery process. Burnout is not unusual for motivated people. Be good to yourself and be patient and you will be back to your old running self, maybe even better!

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