Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor — mental health or otherwise. Proceed with caution, but this is very sound advice as I’ve experienced this myself…
One of my athletes recently approached me and told me she’s got a lot of anxiety when it comes to her planned runs as of late. I asked her a few questions and after a few back and forth emails, we got to the crux of the situation. I believe she is suffering from a phenomenon aptly called runner’s burnout. It happens to the best of us. We’re tired, unmotivated, anxious-ridden. Completely dreading the next day’s planned workout. We train long and hard to achieve optimal results. But our motivation dwindles. We just don’t want to.
Runner’s Burnout: Are You Running on Empty?
Runner’s burnout is a real phenomenon and it can affect many different people at varying stages of training, and at different times of their lives. It can happen more than once in a lifetime — even in a training cycle at its worst — and if not recognized and addressed early, can develop into a much more difficult condition to correct. Runner’s burnout can affect a seasoned marathoner just before their “A” race, or it can rear it’s ugly head with a new runner just looking to improve their overall running. It can even creep up after a phenomenal running season has already ended.
Let’s talk symptoms. A general blanket for things a runner may feel when they begin to burn out includes:
1. Anxiety about upcoming workouts or training runs
2. Physical fatigue and possible problems sleeping
3. Mental fatigue and the feeling of just being drained
4. Increased perception of difficulty of training
5. Mood swings
6. Lack of motivation to workout or exercise
One of the telltale signs of burnout is the lack of motivation. This is one of the most universal characteristics of burnout as most runners suffering from it have no desire to go out for a run, no matter their goals or targets. One of my jobs as a coach is to help my athletes rise up from the fatigue and anxiety and to find the joy in running again.
So you suspect you may be suffering from runner’s burnout. How do you deal?
The first, and most obvious, suggestion is to dial it back. Remind yourself what you love about running. Instead of running your prescribed workout, go out for a fun run. How does one make running fun again? Listen to music if you normally run sans tunes. Run on the treadmill and watch a movie on Netflix if you normally run outside. Plan a group run with some friends. Travel to a new, or infrequently visited, destination for a change of scenery.
If changing up your runs doesn’t work, you may have a more intense case of burnout. Some suggestions here would be to do more, shorter runs. For example, if you’re used to running 4-5 days a week, 4-8 miles per day, you could run 2 miles 6 days a week for a week or two. Just to change it up and keep things fresh. If running more frequently for a shorter distance doesn’t appeal to you, drop a workout here or there if you need to take a mental health day. Another suggestion for beating burnout is to sign up for less races. Having a full race calendar can be somewhat overwhelming at times. (Been there, done that!) Racing week after week can start to take a toll both mentally and physically. You can (and should) still race, but maybe pick 2-3 quality races that you really want to run instead of 10-15 races that you think you should run.
Take a break!
Worst case scenario and your burnout is severe and unrelenting: a running break may be in order. It’s sad, but true. Sometimes we need to take something away to remember what we loved about it in the first place. Take a week off. Or a month! Find a new activity to love — yoga, cycling, elliptical, swimming — and when you’re ready to get back to running, you’ll be refreshed and recharged and ready to go.
After some training and scheduling adjustments, battery recharge, and perhaps a brief running hiatus, your running burnout should dissipate. How long it takes to right your ship will vary from person to person and depends on the severity of burnout. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your coach (if you have one). She/he can only be so effective if you’re not letting her/him know what’s going on.
Talk to your doctor.
It’s important to note that for those of us living in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, where sunlight is fleeting at best during winter, other factors may contribute to possible feelings of burnout. It’s important to talk with your coach and your doctor to determine the cause of potential anxiety and loss of motivation, particularly if it’s fall/winter where you live and the sunshine isn’t as abundant as it is during the summer months.
I wish you continued luck and success in your running endeavors, and may you never experience runner’s burnout! But if you do, now you know what it is and how you can reverse it.
Have you suffered from runner’s burnout?
How did you cope with it?