At some point, all runners will face the inevitable fact that continuous training and competing in races can take a significant toll on the mind and body.
Sometimes it feels like a lack of motivation or depression, other times it feels like lingering physical and mental fatigue. Running burnout is a real threat to performance and can lead to prolonged lethargy, serious injury, extreme frustration, and perhaps much worse—a permanent exit from the sport.
Symptoms of Burnout
So what can runners do to battle a case of the burnout blues? First, they need to understand the telltale signs that they may be headed down a dangerous path. According to Jeff Gaudette, head coach of Runners Connect, there are three symptoms of running burnout:
1. An elevated heart rate
Gaudette points out that one telltale sign of overtraining is if you experience periods of higher-than-normal heart rate when you are either resting or sleeping. He says that you can determine this by recording your heart rate each morning as soon as you wake-up and before you get out of bed. “Keep a small notebook by your nightstand where you can record the data each day,” he says. “If you find an extended period of time where your heart rate increases in the morning, you could be suffering the effects of overtraining.”
2. A lack of sleep
Working too hard—running too many miles during the week or doing too much speed work with minimal recovery between workouts—interferes with the body’s circadian rhythms. In the same manner as Gaudette suggests with your heart-rate monitoring, do the same with logging how you are sleeping. If you experience periods of intense insomnia, cross reference them with your training. Lack of sleep combined with an elevated heart-rate during an intense period of training is a good indicator that you pushing the body to its limits.
3. A bad mood
“Overtraining can also lead to a decrease in hormone production, specifically the hormone catecholamine, which can influence the sympathetic nervous system,” Gaudette says. “This can lead to increased feelings of stress and moodiness.” If you feel unmotivated, sluggish, irritable or despondent, then you may be on the road to burnout. Check in with your loved ones. Ask them if you are grumpy or despondent during the weeks of intense training.
READ MORE: 5 Habits of Successful Runners
Getting over the Blues
If these warning signs are registering with you, then try out the following three suggestions:
1. Listen to your body, not your mind
Elevated heart rate, insomnia, and overall grouchiness or ambivalence should be taken seriously for what they are—loud cries of help. Your body is trying to tell you something important. Just because you are following a certain plan that prescribes certain mileage or paces on a specific day doesn’t mean that you are obligated to follow that exact formula. Take some much-needed rest. Gaudette doesn’t mince words when it comes to how much rest a burned-out athlete may actually need. “To improve long-term, it is absolutely critical that you give your body a substantial rest period after long training segments and big races,” he says. “I suggest one week off for a 5K training cycle, 1 to 2 weeks off for a 10K or half marathon, and a full two weeks off after a marathon. It might sound like you would be holding yourself back by being so cautious, but your long-term progression will actually benefit.”
2. Consider adjusting your goals
“If you’re always training for marathons and feel like you’re burning out, I suggest training seriously for a 5K,” says Stacy Creamer, the record-holder for the women’s 50-59 age group at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. “If you’ve been training only for 5Ks and shorter distances, then train for a marathon. She points out that it may seem counter-intuitive to apply yourself to something else, but sometimes you just may need a different goal. What is important is not the short-term PR or age-group win, but rather being able to stick with the sport and make running a fulfilling lifetime activity.
3. Mix it up, try something new
After a period of rest, there is no harm in taking a break from running altogether. There are many other cardiovascular options available to you, such as pool running, swimming or other cross-training options like running on an elliptical or stationary-bike cycling. “The freshness of that new approach may be enough to ward off burn-out,” Creamer says. “You might even consider a more radical change.” Creamer notes that she didn’t become serious about triathlon until she was in her late forties. “I ran my last running PR at the age of 47. A year or so after that I started to focus on triathlons. As I like to say, in triathlon you can at least entertain the illusion that you may get faster in cycling or swimming,” she says. “When you start from scratch you’re bound to see improvement. And just trying a completely new endeavor certainly wards off burn out.” Another way to mix things up is to find a training partner who can help motivate you. This also helped Creamer. “For years I met my friend Randy at 6 a.m. to run in Central Park,” she says. “We both frequently confessed that many days the only reason we ran was because we didn’t want to call the other to cancel.”
READ MORE: Why You Should Train for a Triathlon