Can we talk a little about burnout?
You know what I mean, that feeling that comes when the thing that used to excite you most just makes you a little angry. When the activity that used to make you get up in the morning is the same one that makes you want to stay in bed.
It’s not just physical. In fact, it’s not really that physical at all. You might think that your body hurts and that everything feels heavy and you feel slow—but burnout is emotional. Emotionally, you just can’t feel the way you need to feel in order to perform.
Some folks know it in terms of their jobs. They’re stressed. There’s too much going on. They don’t like being there. They don’t want to be there.
It’s the same way with athletic work. Whether you do powerlifting, Olympic weights, running, or Crossfit, and especially if you’re good at it, there comes the moment where your dedication to excellence, your commitment to training, runs smack against the body’s desire and the mind’s limit.
You are burned out.
Because I compete in two disciplines, and because their training schedules sometimes (ok, most times) overlap, you could argue that my training is so varied that there is no way I could burn out.
Not true. Sometimes you get so tired of being tired that all you want is to sleep. Sometimes you lose sight of your goals because you can’t get to them. Sometimes, you’d just rather do something else.
So here, in no particular order, are some things you can do to avoid burnout.
1. Remember how to have fun. This should not be as hard as it is, but listen, when you are serious about something, you tend to lose your sense of humor about it. Introduce a little chaos into your training. Like what? Try acting like you did when you were a little kid. Roll on the ground. Duck walk. Swing on a rope. Jump in puddles. You’d be surprised how easily a “training” session can become the kind of activities that 7 year olds do naturally. And those activities are fun even when you’re older.
2. Scale it back. In powerlifting we call it “deloading,” and it is absolutely essential. You can’t do a linear program that has you eventually lifting a grown bull in each hand. Undulating periodization means that you are ebbing and flowing constantly, never working at max effort unless you are peaking for a meet. Same with training for all sorts of activities and sports. Work yourself, sure, but work at less than maximum most days. Unless you sprint. Then you need to sprint all out, but only for a short time. (That is a whole ‘nother post.)
3. Write things down. I don’t mean this just in terms of making your plans, though that is important. I also mean write down what just happened today in your session. Look for patterns. I can honestly say that I can tell from observing my log when I am about to get sick. Or when I am about to need to sleep in. Or when I am dogging it a little too, in all honesty. You cannot analyze what you don’t record. And you can’t change what you don’t meansure.
4. Eat and sleep. And track that too. Most of us don’t come anywhere near the level of awareness we need regarding what we put in our body, and regarding what happens when we put certain things in our body. As for sleep: most of us don’t get anywhere near enough, and we lie to ourselves that it’s ok. It’s not.
5. Be comfortable with being a work in progress. Yes, have goals. But learn to embrace a process that will get you to a goal in due course. Fall in love with the process, not with the goal. It’s harder to burn out if you are loving the mundane parts of life.
So that’s what I know. I’ve been training hard, one way or another, for the past twenty years, after a hiatus of ten years, which you could call a case of straight-up, severe burnout. For the past twenty years, I’ve found a healthy balance following the principles above. I’ve won some championships, set some records, and made some really neat friends.
But mostly what I’ve done is that I’ve managed to stay in love with training, in love with the idea of getting better, and in love with the process.
And I’ve avoided being burned out.