What is Running Burnout?Sep 06, 2021
Running is an exercise in balance. It’s knowing when to push yourself to go faster and when to back off a certain pace, when to ignore that niggle in your ankle and when to pay attention to it, and when to prioritize running and when to prioritize sleep.
Balance is also knowing when to take an extra rest day, or when to back off a training plan for an entire week — or longer.
That last one can be an especially tough pill to swallow for many runners, but it also may be the most important way to find true balance in running. Why? Because of the risk of burnout.
Maybe two weeks ago you could hit a certain pace and feel like you were at a three-out-of-10 effort level, but today that same pace feels like a seven or an eight. While everyone has a bad run from time to time, if a pace that used to feel easy feels hard for a few workouts in a row, or you lose the motivation to even attempt it, you could be dealing with overtraining.
Overtraining, often referred to as burnout, is when the amount of training you do exceeds your recovery time, or when you push the body more than it can take with the amount of rest it’s given.
Symptoms can be physical or psychological and include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor or worsening performance
- Lack of motivation/desire to run
- Decreased self-confidence
- A rundown feeling
- Increased susceptibility to colds or other illnesses
Another key symptom of overtraining is an increased resting heart rate. Since we know that a lower heart rate typically indicates a stronger and more efficient heart — and, therefore, a higher fitness level — it makes sense than an increase in resting heart rate in someone who regularly exercises can be a red flag.
Causes of overtraining are often chalked up to a lack of proper recovery between workouts, monotony in training or a long training cycle, but they can include factors outside running, too, like insufficient sleep, a busy schedule or a stressful job.
Breaking out of burnout
One of the biggest problems with burnout is the reaction its symptoms generally trigger: Instead of backing off and taking a break, runners tend to push even harder, more determined than ever to hit that pace or overcome that feeling of malaise — which, of course, can make the symptoms even worse.
To help avoid that reaction, it’s important to remember that burnout doesn’t mean you have to quit running altogether. It may be as simple as understanding that some weeks you’re going to be able to run more miles or harder paces than others. Or it may be adjusting your plan for a bit to incorporate different types of workouts or races. (Maybe it’s time to swap out your tried-and-true fall half marathon for that trail run or Spartan race you’ve been thinking about, for example.)
Another problem with burnout is that everyone has a different threshold for reaching it. It’s a very individualized condition — the amount of training one person can tolerate can be completely different from someone else’s limit.
The trick is to find your threshold by getting familiar with the warning signs and heeding them before burnout becomes an issue. Be honest with yourself (and with your coach if you have one) about how you’re feeling, and adjust accordingly. Also, be aware that the body responds to life stresses the same way it does running stresses, so if one is particularly heavy on a given week, cut yourself some slack with the other.
And, always, always recover well.
Now get out there and run your life.