Running Burnout not Merely Overtraining or “Down”

Have you ever been passionate about something only to see your passion fizzle? Have you ever wondered where your passion went? Have you wondered if there is something wrong with you? Perhaps, you might be burned out.

[I have to be clear here, if you never had a passion for running – or whatever your activity – then you do not fit a key criteria for burn-out. If you only have done it because you know it’s good for you or because someone else does it, or your parents are making you do it – and now you want to quit – that is not burn-out. A key prerequisite is that you had a passion for the activity and it is now gone.]

Burnout, overtraining, stressed out, “down”, out of sorts, depressed, plateaued, decreased motivation, blue,  can’t get with it: a lot of terms and phrases get tossed around and used interchangeably. Yet, each of these terms are different. The focus of this post specifically is burnout. Though there can be an overlap  and people can certainly feel several of the emotional conditions listed, burnout itself is described in a number of ways. Strictly speaking, it is actually poorly defined, yet many elements that make up this “syndrome” can be agreed upon.

Here are a couple definitions: “psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals” (C. Maslach and S.E. Jackson)

“psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals. A syndrome of physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment” (Thomas Raedeke)

Burnout is not something that lasts just a few days or couple weeks. One key differentiator between burn out and some of those other terms listed previously is that burnout is prolonged and often leads to completely dropping out of the activity. So, the term “burned out” is far overused by athletes, parents and coaches alike. To clarify once again, burnout is also not synonymous with dropping out of sports. Though being burned out may lead to dropping out. People drop out of sports for many reasons. The number one reason youth athletes drop out of sports is not burnout but because “it’s not fun any more”.

Other elements can include a sense of just not improving any more in your sport; going through the motions in practices/training runs, physical exhaustion, everything is a chore, what used to be easy or manageable is no longer; there is not sense of pleasure/relief/escape from the activity; unceasing pressure to perform; demands from coaches and parents; lack of balance in life. Pretty wide ranging huh?

What can be done? Is all lost?

Not all is lost. But, the red flag is waving… so listen! No single action will overcome this. As you can see from the symptoms of this syndrome it is broad and deep.

1.Get a comprehensive physical evaluation. It could be something physical causing all this! Chemistry imbalance, low-level infection, undiagnosed disease, poor diet, etc.

2. Reduce workout schedule.

3. Do cross-training (or increase and substitute for running).

4. Get with a group and make it social.

5. Get away from a group and have “alone” time without peer pressure.

6. Set daily workout focus goals. Focus on the process not the outcome.

7. Change your running focus. Go shorter. Go longer. Go novel. Go faster. Go slower.

8. Change your venue. Travel for runs. Take day trips.

9. Add fun. Do not do the same old thing. Add running games.

10. Change terrain. Go up. Go down. Go over. Go under. Go outside. Go inside.

11. Set process goals. Perhaps don’t set any goals whatsoever other than to enjoy the freedom of the motion!

12.Reduce life stress. Learn new coping skills – especially if you have used running as your primary coping mechanism. Use imagery. hypnosis, counseling etc.

13. Take time away from the sport. Sometimes you need to walk away for awhile. It’s OK. It is just for “now”. You can come back when you are ready. No decision is forever.

14. Get a new perspective on why you do what you do.

15. Confide in an objective close friend. Share what’s going on. Other people’s perspectives sometimes help us find our own perspectives again.

Mostly, you have to be patient. Burnout is not turned around in a day or week. You got this way over time. It will take time to dig out of it.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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8 Responses to Running Burnout not Merely Overtraining or “Down”

  1. I now do think what I’ve experienced for the last four weeks is “burnout.” I ran my first full marathon on 2/14/11 and since that time, I haven’t wanted to do ANYTHING at all, including running or weightlifting. I just hope this lifts soon so that I can get back to my running enjoyment. It’s pretty overwhelming when you don’t have any motivation at all to do any physical exercise. I trained for over six months, so I figured that’s got a lot to do with it too.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Congratulations on your first marathon. That big accomplishment is both a time to rejoice and relax. Instead of burnout I think you are suffering from a different syndrome which is a psychological let down after a big accomplishment… you might think of it like the “runner’s blues”. It’s like something that is anticlimactic. After all that work… it’s suddenly done in the blink of an eye. Now what? Is that all there is? The key is to get started on new goals.. smaller interim goals to get you refocused. Try shorter distances at faster paces. Try novel races (mountains, trails, tracks).
      The good news is that you are normal. Many runners experience this all the way through elite runners~! And it’s temporary. You’ll be back. Don’t get too balled up in it and make it more or worse than it really is.
      It’s goal setting time.

  2. Casey Kreger says:

    Hey Dean, well I graduated in May and was a collegiate runner in college. I took some months off and weeks where I only ran 2 days a week. I picked training back up in december to gradually build back up my miles for a spring marathon but I wanted to win and so I kept adding on the mile of course in small increments and usually 3 to 5 miles every week or 2 week. I got up to 115 and things were going great, I was in the best shape of my life. I backed off some the weeks after to about 100-105. For the last three weeks I have just felt run down, fatigued. Easy 4 to 6 mile morning runs and 8 to 10 mile afternoon runs I struggle. My form is all over the place, just feels like I am going through the motion. I have tried to race some to work through it but I had a really slow race and the other I dropped out. I have not finished my last two workouts with my team because I am an asst collegiate coach now. I have to tried to conquer this and plan my training accurately but I don’t know. Some thing fell apart somewhere. My marathon is in 3 weeks and i feel obligated by my team because they no i’m in shape and to go after it and win it. But I feel like I’m totally out of shape. I just tell myself keep running and you will feel better. Im getting sore from workouts and even easy runs. I feel like Im burnt out and need to take time off. What do you think?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      First off your training was way over the top. You do not mention your actual paces or what time you are looking for to “win”. Unless you are a sub-2:20s marathoner there is no way you should be running over 100 miles per week. You are way over trained and beat up. You may or may not be “burned out”. Why do I say that? Because burn-out is a syndrome that is NOT just physical it has a strong mental component also.

      So if you are training correctly and scientifically and let’s say you run about a 2:30 marathon – your weekly mileage might occasionally max out around 70-80 but your bread and butter weeks should be about 60. That’s it IF you are doing the “right” training.

      Now, if you also feel depressed, can’t sleep, don’t look forward to workouts, loathe running and even being around it, get stressed thinking about your next workout.. THEN combined with your physical symptoms you may indeed be burned out. In which case a couple weeks will NOT cure it. You need to close it down for a couple months and recuperate mentally and physically. Do cross training and get away from running.

      On the other hand if you are just over trained… take a month of 20-30 miles per week with a huge portion run at mile and 5k race paces and the rest easy along with lots of days off (run3-4 days a week max).

      Intermediate plan – your taper should start now for your marathon. Drop immediately to about 30 miles per week. Do 3 quality SHORT repeat workouts on the track (i.e. 24×200 @ mile pace with walking 100 between or 12×400 @ 5k pace with 30-45 sec rest). This will allow your body to recover while NOT losing conditioning. You do NOT need more long runs. Your last long run should be 3-4 weeks out from a marathon.

      Good luck.. drop me a line on how it all goes.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      In re-reading your rate of increase in mileage I have to also mention that your increases were way over the top. To give you an idea… for Coach Vigil to get Deena Kastor from 80 mpw to 120 mpw took over 3 years. And that was done scientifically incorporating aqua running to build up strength before ever running those miles on the roads. The bottom line is that more is not better. Train smarter not longer …. even for marathons there is a balance and more miles do not equate to faster marathons. In fact the research on this shows that those who have the fastest average overall training paces run faster marathons NOT the ones who ran more miles.

  3. Casey Kreger says:

    Thanks for the input yea I was shooting for around 2:25 to 2:30. Yea I did long runs that ranging from 16 to 22 miles as progressive run usually start out at high 7s and got done to 5:50s towards the end. But this was my weekly schedule monday- easy day (morning run usually 6 miles 7:25 to 8:00min pace), tuesday interval day ( either 3x2mile 3 min rest, 6xmile 2 to 2:20 rest, 12×800 2 min rest, or 25×400- a 400 a 400 every 2 mins so if I ran 70 I get 50 secs) wens- morning run usually 8 min pace and afternoon is medium long run ranging from early season from 13 to late season 16, thursday- easy recovery day 6 in morning and 10 in the evening, friday- 6 mile morning run and then tempo run that afternoon usually 3 mile warm up then 6 or 10 mile uptempo, saturday- easy day just get in what miles I need to hit the weekly goal usually 3 to 8 mile in one a day and sunday long. Usually easy days are run at how my body feels from 7:10s to 8mins. A lot of my stuff came from my college coaches I had. I trained under USA Coach Scott Simmons who coach Fasil Bizuneh and fernando cabada when he set the USA 25k record. So I took a lot of his training methods but what I did wrong was push to hard and since a lot of it was on my own it wore me down mentally. I am thinking about jumping in a 5k and not trying to kill myself and run low to mid 15s but just cruise at like 16:30 just to build some confidence. What do you think?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Casey,
      Well, yup, that is why you are pretty beat up right now. I could give you a list of issues with this that if corrected would greatly decrease your over-training opportunities (as well as injuries by the way) and increase your chances to run sub 2:30. I won’t go on a soap box but many runners do similar things – “if ‘X’ training works for so-and-so then it must be right for me.” That simply does not work. Another reality check is that if your paces had only got down to about 5:50s then you are only preparing for a 2:33+ marathon or thereabouts [a sub-2:30 is possible only if you could reel off at least a 16-18 mile training run 5:45 and faster].

      To answer your question on racing a 5k – given your capabilities – if your training were right on then you should be able to run 15 flat or faster, therefore it would be reasonable to “cruise” a 5k in the high 15s and not sweat it much. 16:30 should in fact be far slower than even your 10K pace and nearing your 15k race pace. That means only a true tempo run and not a race at all.

      It is a reasonable thing to run a race just to change up from doing so much training. A short race is always a good part of any marathon prep. The question is really how beat up you are. If you are truly burned out the answer is – no way – do not race. You need time off. If you are solely over trained then to integrate a 5k into 2-4 weeks of very easy training (quality only and no long runs or garbage miles).

  4. Casey Kreger says:

    I always did 2 a days mon thru fri and usually easy days were 6 in the morning and 10 in the evening

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