Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Avoid Burnout for the Overly Determined Runner

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of being at the first annual Front Range Fall Running Clinic put on by Integrative Healing Acupuncture and Wellness. While I learned a lot of great things, one thing that really struck me is something all the elite athletes there had in common. Of course everyone had insane passion and drive and that led each elite to not only prosper, but also to burnout. Moreover, they experienced the burnout that could lead to months or years of bad races.

Feeling burnt out?
Before I go on, to give this post a little more value, I’ll list the athletes who spoke on this (I’ll give a quick background but I’m not going to spend all the time I could typing out their ridiculous amount of achievements):

Sage Canaday: 2 time Olympic Trials Qualifier, 2:16 marathoner, 2012 USATF mountain runner of the year, and winner of A LOT of ultras.

Trent Briney: 4th at the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, 3 time Olympic Qualifier, 2:12 marathoner, 5:37:56 50 mile time at JFK 2012, etc, etc, etc.

Jimmy Archer: Professional Triathlete  for 12 years. (I’m sure he’s done awesome at plenty of triathlons, but I barely know anything about the triathlon scene and I won’t pretend to.) Coached by some of the best running coaches of all time: Dr. Joe Vigil and Mark Wetmore.

I’m also going to reference some women who weren’t at the clinic, but have openly talked about their burnout:

Nikki Kimball: Elite Ultra Runner for the North Face. Tons of competitive ultra wins including Western States in 2007.

In her irunfar pre-race interview before Western States she said:

“In hindsight, I should have taken 2009 completely off, and I didn’t have the guts to do it. I think I’d be racing a lot better now if I would have. If I could tell that to someone that was starting to experience that slow down after eight to ten years of racing ultras, I’d say take the year off and you’ll come back way, way stronger. We’re seeing that like Dave Mackey took a bunch of years off and came back strong. You usually just see people when they start to slow down if they’ve been on the top quit and not stay with it. But I love the sport, I love the people in it, I want to stay with it. But I should have taken the year off.”

Lynn BjorkLund: In 1981 she won the Pikes Peak Marathon in record time. Lynn also had some major track and cross country wins.

 “I trained too much. It made for one exceptional race, but I spiraled into years of chronic overuse injuries that took away my ability to run, as well as the joy of it.” What ailed her after the 1981 Pikes Peak Marathon? “My ankle, my foot, my knee, nothing singular or specific. If I could replay race day, I’d give that record back in exchange for a life of healthy running. It wasn’t worth it.””- Legends of the Trail by Meghan Hicks, Trail Running Magazine

Back to the Front Range Fall Running Clinic.  

One woman, after hearing each elite athlete talk about burnout, asked “How do you listen to your body? How do you know when you’re overdoing it.?” GREAT QUESTION!

Most top athletes can look back and admit they knew they were overdoing it and should have backed off. While there is certainly a fine line between pushing one’s limits and pushing too hard, athletes, when honest with themselves know where that line is. It’s just all too easy to get focused on goals and not back off. However, the elite athletes had some great advice, and hopefully by hearing their advice you’ll pay more attention to your body and have the mental strength to back off.

The signs of (being on the verge of) burnout from the elites:

·         Being constantly tired. If you’re training hard there will be plenty of days where you’ll be tired, but if you’re fatigued on a daily basis and you’re getting enough sleep, there’s a problem. It could be completely from training, or the heavy training might mean you’re not absorbing enough minerals and vitamins, so get a blood test.
·         Crankiness. This can very well be your mind sending you a message that your body is saying to slow down. Triathlete, Jimmy Archer, said that when he finally let his body recover after experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome that his family and friends told him he seemed like he was back to his old self because he was smiling and laughing more. So if you don’t have any serious reasons to be cranky, check in with your body and your training to see if you’re overdoing it.
·         Compare the times of your standard routes/ workouts. This is (in my opinion) a great reason to have a training log. If you have a standard route, and you know how long it normally takes you to complete it, and that time starts getting slower or you’re working extra hard to stay around that time, it’s a good sign you need a break. Same with workouts if your tempo runs or intervals getting are getting slower or your working really hard to keep the same pace. (Of course, weather conditions need to be considered.)
·         Constant injuries. Some people may just get injured easy or experience injuries due to bad form, but constant or chronic injuries may also be a sign to slow down. It’s your body saying “I just need a break!”  I’ve seen to many great runners have a small injury that turned into a an injury that required them to take the majority of a year off. Better to just listen to your body and take some time off or lessen the training load.
·         Sleep problems. Sage pointed out that a sign might not only be having trouble waking up, but trouble falling asleep. It doesn’t seem to make sense that falling asleep would be a problem, but your body is a little out of whack and that can lead to problems falling asleep.
·         Motivation. Are you running and pushing yourself because you love it, or are you doing it because you just feel like you’re supposed to be? If it’s the second reason on a daily basis, you’re not only on the road to physical burnout, but your mind is telling you that you need a break.

Other ways to avoid burnout from the elites:  

                As I mentioned above, sometimes you just need to listen to your body and back off training. However, the elite athletes mentioned ways to avoid even having to back off peak season training by doing a few other things.

·         Winter cross training: Snowshoeing and skiing are great ways to keep your endurance and work on a few other muscles in the off season, while having less impact force on your body. If you enjoy playing indoor sports like basketball, hockey, etc., go ahead and play. You’re still staying active while giving some of your running muscles a rest.

·         Plan rest weeks. Many top athletes use the 3 weeks on, 1 week off rule, or something similar. For the 3 weeks on, your miles might be high and speed workouts might be hard. Then you take an off week so your body absorbs the hard training. During this week you lessen your miles and you cut down the intensity of your speed work.
·         Rest (seriously) after races. This seems like common sense, yet runners tend to start thinking about another race and then push too hard to soon. Yes, your body might feel good a week after a 50 mile race, but get 20 miles in a long run and you might start feeling like crap. I know some runners like to race a lot, but is there a price to be paid in the results or months or years down the road? (Look back at Nikki Kimball’s comment above.)

So that’s the end of my summary of what the elite athletes had to say. There are of course other ways to listen to your body so you don’t burnout and other ways to avoid burnout. This is where I, and I’m sure many others, would love to hear from you. If you’re not used to commenting, think of it as helping someone else avoid the hardships of burnout.

Run Wild, Run Happy,


In case you missed it:
I wrote a book called Beautiful Girl that aims to spread the message of what real beauty is:

Sage and I made a running form video that will hopefully benefit your running:


  1. Great blog post. I think another sign of overtraining can be an elevated resting heart rate?

  2. great post sandi, I like to believe I would follow the "rest" after big races but I seem to never follow that advice and pay for it later which causes me valuable training time...

  3. Salomon put out a great trailer with Anna Frost and her burnout. Couldn't have said it better. As someone who is exactly there (burnt to the ground), I, too, am spreading the word. May be too late for me - but hopefully in time for few others.


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