It’s not uncommon for an athlete to achieve a goal and then have difficulty staying motivated. The predicament is one variety of athlete burnout, and it doesn’t discriminate whether you thrive on walking, swimming, cycling or running marathons.
Athlete burnout can also occur as a result of stale training habits, overracing and overtraining as well as a mental letdown. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior.
In her 1993 book, “How To Train For and Run Your Best Marathon,” author and three-time women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials competitor Gordon Bakoulis offered a succinct description and burnout warning.
“Don’t race too frequently,” Bakoulis wrote. “Just like running too much mileage or doing too many speed workouts, overracing can lead to excessive fatigue, burnout, and it may contribute to injury.
“A good test of whether you’re race too frequently is your mindset as you approach a race. You should have a feeling of eager anticipation and excitement. If you approach a race with a sense of listlessness or boredom – or worse, dread – you have probably been overracing.”
Another sure sign of overracing or athlete burnout, Bakoulis suggests, is a sudden, otherwise unexplained dip in race performances.
But a “burned out,” runner can also use the problem as a blessing in disguise. In fact, if an athlete recognizes the symptoms, they can refocus their training and even improve their running.
Shawn McDonald knows the burnout phenomenon as well as anyone. The 44-year-old cancer researcher in La Jolla, Calif., has completed dozen of marathons and ultramarathons, including several 100 mile races. But even an athlete of McDonald’s caliber knows the value of an relaxed mileage week. As a result, he reduces his running mileage and incorporates other forms of exercise after important competitions.
“If one has a cutback week every fourth or fifth week, then in the long run they will be a stronger and faster runner, have fewer injuries and be much more likely to avoid burnout,” said McDonald. “It takes some planning and motivation to put these changes into your running program, but it is the smartest thing to do.”
McDonald’s suggestions were offered as advice to an unmotivated ultramarathon runner who sought advice on an Internet running forum. But his thoughts are relevant to athletes in all sports and of varying abilities.
Therefore, consider McDonald’s guidelines for combating a lack of motivation or burnout:
1). Take a cutback week. Reduce your mileage by at least 50 percent for a week or two. Take at least two days of during the reduced scheduled week, and maybe try some cross training, cycling, swimming or hiking, as examples. Other sports can revive your mental outlook.
2). Change your exercise routine. Train on different routes than you usually do. If you don’t train on trails, head to a local park or drive out of the city to run. Run with new friends or with a group you haven’t run with for a while. Try a group that trains faster or slower than you usually do. Enter a local event and do it as a pace workout, instead of an all-out race.
3). If you’re an long-distance athlete, take at least the week following your last event to train a lot less than normal. Don’t worry about your mileage. You won’t lose your fitness level and you’ll be less susceptible to injury.
4). Be careful of long-lasting conditions such as dehydration and lack of sleep. Overtraining and burnout is a downward spiral that requires some changes in your training routine and mental outlook. Chronic dehydration is more likely in the hot summer months.
Also, slow down the pace of your workouts in hot weather, and make certain to drink more fluids before, during and after training runs.
McDonald’s advice and Bakoulis’ offerings are, of course, the opinions of elite and highly accomplished athletes.
But their suggestions are based on years of experience. And their common sense practices could mean the difference between an athlete giving up a sport or returning to a healthy and enjoyable fitness-oriented lifestyle.