All athletes face days when they just don’t feel like training. That’s normal. Figuring out what to do about it can be trickier. Should you ‘suck it up’ and force yourself out the door? Should you acknowledge the feeling and take a day off? Or is what you’re feeling a sign of something more serious, like training burnout?
What is training burnout?
Training burnout is a serious problem that affects athletes all ability levels. It is not limited to competitors or to athletes who have been training for many years.
Burnout is characterized by:
- Stalling: Finding reasons to delay the start of your workout. If you stop to organize your sock drawer instead of putting on a pair and going, you’re stalling.
- Obsessing over the weather and route: This is an extension of stalling. It’s important to be prepared for the weather and have a suitable route, but overthinking these things is a sign you don’t really want to go out anyway.
- Dreading your workout: It’s one thing to be nervous about the difficulty of an upcoming workout. It’s a problem when the very thought of a workout fills you with dread.
- Feeling a constant urge to quit: When you have a temporary lack of motivation, it typically fades once you’re out the door. If you must repeatedly talk yourself into continuing, that’s a sign of training burnout.
- Giving up early: You may reach the point of failure when workouts, group rides, or races are appropriately difficult. You might quit partway through the last interval, drop off the group ride on the final hill, or fail to make the front group in the race. That’s part of pushing yourself. When you preemptively throw in the towel and give up just because you don’t want to try, that’s burnout.
Training burnout vs. overtraining
Training burnout looks a lot like overtraining, but there are some important differences. For an in-depth look at overtraining, read “Overtraining: 10 Warning Signs and How to Fix It”.
Briefly, the 10 warning signs described in that article are:
- Diminished acute performance
- Stalled training progress
- Erratic waking heart rate
- Low heart rate variability
- Emotional volatility
- Diminished sex drive
- High perceived exertion relative to actual power or pace
- Trouble sleeping
- Prone to illness and/or injury
Notice that none of the characteristics of training burnout deal directly with physiology. That’s not to say that burnout is all in your head. Rather, it means an athlete can suffer from training burnout without being overtrained. Put another way, training burnout may not show up in power or heart rate data. You may be able to train well, you just don’t want to.
In contrast, athletes struggling with overtraining very frequently show signs of burnout. The exhaustion and imbalance between work and recovery affect performance, mood, and enthusiasm for training.
Another difference between training burnout and overtraining is how quickly each can be reversed. Rest is an important component in overcoming both, but recovery from overtraining can take weeks or even months. Reversing training burnout can happen more quickly, although not overnight.
Who is most susceptible to training burnout?
Any athlete can develop training burnout. For instance, Time-Crunched Athletes are typically at low risk for overtraining. They don’t have the time to accumulate the training stress necessary to overwhelm their ability to recover. But weekly hours and Training Stress Score (TSS) – whether high or low – don’t necessarily correlate with burnout. You can train 20 hours a week and not suffer burnout, or you can be burned out training just three times a week.
In our experience working with athletes for more than 20 years, CTS Coaches have observed that the following athletes seem to be more vulnerable to training burnout:
- Athletes with unclear goals: If you don’t know why you’re training or what you’re training for, it’s difficult to remain enthusiastic about all that hard work.
- Athletes focused on extrinsic outcomes: Intrinsic goals and a love for the process of training offer some protection against training burnout. Enthusiasm for training may be hard to sustain when your goals are limited to belt buckles, a number on the scale, or winning a specific race.
- Athletes who only train alone: Although there’s nothing wrong with training solo, training partners provide social connections as well as an accountability buddies.
- Self-coached athletes: I’m certainly biased toward working with a professional coach. However, many athletes working with CTS Coaches tried self-coaching first. Burnout resulted from training hard with no one to discuss ideas with and no one to talk to when things went wrong.
- Athletes who resist change: Variety is important for staying engaged with training. Adaptability is necessary so you can respond to challenges and capitalize on opportunities. Some athletes find comfort in sticking to familiar routes, at the same times of day, on the same days of the week. Eventually, though, the routine can become its own prison.
- Athletes exercising to avoid negative consequences: Training to achieve personally valuable goals is inspiring. Exercising to avoid losing fitness or gaining weight – or because your cardiologist told you to – becomes a Sisyphean task.
How to prevent or overcome training burnout
The ways to overcome training burnout are very similar to the ways you prevent it in the first place.
- Understand your ‘Why’: Athletes who are less susceptible to burnout have reasons to train that go beyond events and outcomes. Your Why is how you connect the process and effects of training to the other areas of your life. To learn more about reconnecting, reinforcing, or discover your personal Why, read this from Coach Jason Koop.
- Make sure your goals are meaningful and within your control: The best goals are the ones you have a deep personal connection with. When training gets difficult and motivation lags, the depth of that connection is critical. Your goals should also be achievable through factors you can control. If success is arbitrary or up to fate, it’s hard to stay focused on improving specific aspects of performance.
- Incorporate “play days”: Burnout is the absence of joy. You initially fell in love with your sport because it was fun, even if it was difficult. Or perhaps it was fun to be part of the community. Staying connected to joy is key for avoiding or overcoming burnout. We schedule “play days” for athletes where having a blast is the only objective for a ride, run, or other activity. Training data is sometimes recorded, but we recommend ignoring it (even hiding it) during play days.
- Learn to love rest. Stop taking rest days begrudgingly. Stop filling rest and recovery days with all sorts of chores and activities. If you are training with purpose and at the appropriate workload, you should be tired enough to look forward to rest days. Revel in being as lazy and indulgent as you can be.
- Incorporate variety: There’s always a push-and-pull between the principle of specificity and the benefits of variety in training. All exercise counts, so hiking instead of riding sometimes is great. Riding a bike instead of running. Or incorporating rowing, kayaking, rock climbing, basketball, whatever you enjoy. There are times during the year when specificity will be important, but it’s not critical all year long.
Raise your hand and ask for help
One of the most insidious things about training burnout is that by the time you’re burned out you may also be incapable of finding your way out the maze you’ve made. When you’ve reached this state of mind, it is difficult to think your way out of it on your own. Your best options are to recognize the signs of training burnout, acknowledge that your feelings are valid and normal (skip the vicious self-criticism), and ask for help. It should come as no surprise that I believe coaches are great resources for navigating the journey back from burnout to joyful training.
By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
If you are experiencing training burnout or just need to make a change, schedule a Free Coaching Consult. Talk with a CTS Coach to learn how we can help you get your training on track.