Working Out Until You’re Exhausted Is a Bad Idea

Burnout can get the way of your gains. Here's how to find balance.

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Apr 30 2018, 9:28pm

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When I was 12, my mother bribed me with a purse to stick it out for an entire season of youth track. It worked, probably a little too well. Thirteen years later, I’m still a runner, though not as competitively as I once was. Save for the occasional half marathon or triathlon, most of my workouts provide mental health benefits instead of lactic acid buildup. This spring, however, I decided I wanted to get serious about training for a ten-miler—I upped my mileage and intensity, both in my runs and strength training. Over the weeks, I noticed my energy waning; every workout was a chore, and my motivation had taken a nosedive. It wasn't until my last long run before the race, where every step was a mental and physical battle, when it hit me: I'm burnt out.

“Burnout has a large motivational component,” says Daniel Madigan, a sports psychologist and professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University in the UK. “It can be described as motivation gone awry.”

What starts as a well-intentioned goal or activity can, over time, morph into both physical and mental fatigue. Burnout can consist of exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment, cynicism toward the activity, and a lack of progress due to a monotonous training schedule—and it isn’t reserved exclusively for professional athletes. “A lot of people use exercise as a mechanism to de-stress,” Madigan says, “but ironically, if you are overly committed to these activities, you'll start to experience stress. So that only compounds things for the rest of the domains of your life.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, regardless of how many IG posts about "going hard" try to convince you that working yourself to your breaking point is the most hardcore and rewarding way to get fit.

Mix it up

For most people with an active lifestyle, there is no off season, so it’s important to focus on other areas of fitness, for both your mental sanity and physical gain. “When I evaluate a patient [I look for] where there are imbalances in their wellness and training,” says Liz Poppert, a Santa Monica-based physical therapist and professor of clinical physical therapy at the University of Southern California. She’ll look at patient’s levels of cardio, agility, balance, and flexibility. Ideally, they should all be pretty balanced. “Usually what we’ll find is people are too unidimensional with their fitness. Naturally, that’s going to lead to some boredom and injury.” By working in a once-a-week yoga class or high intensity interval training circuit (both of which you can find videos for online) you’ll not only strengthen different muscles and increase mobility but give yourself new mental stimuli.


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"Research shows that variety in exercise boosts intrinsic motivation," says Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, and director of the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center."I can't speak to how it directly impacts long-term change because I don't know that this has been studied, but we do know that intrinsic motivation is one of the best predictors of long-term physical activity. In theory, if variety increases one's enjoyment of being active, than it might also boost their continuation."

Remember to rest

Getting your ass kicked every workout may seem effective, but progress comes with rest. Many athletes, Madigan says, don’t take full advantage of easy days—and therefore may contribute to burnout and fatigue—by assuming a workout’s success is equated with exhaustion. “If a coach prescribes a low training load to an athlete because they’re feeling fatigue, [the athlete] immediately increases that workload...because these individuals are aware of their own capacity,” Madigan says. “There’s definitely an element of not feeling like you’ve worked out unless you're dripping with sweat and out of breath.”

This overcompensatory thinking tends to pop up for people who got into fitness in adulthood, Poppert says. “They feel their dedication is almost like being on a diet and if you go off it at all you fall off it forever,” she continues. But, just like everything in life, moderation is necessary in exercise, too.

Ditch the perfectionism

In his research, Madigan has examined the way perfectionism impacts athletes. Often, he finds those with perfectionistic behaviors—usually solo athletes like runners instead of soccer players—tend to themselves to higher standards, which can lead to overtraining, injury, and burnout. “This isn't the be-all and end-all of something within your life,” he says of bad training sessions, since non-professional athletes usually have other things going on in their lives, too—like work and families. It’s important to shift your mindset away from needing to do things exactly by the book to giving yourself credit for actually getting to the gym. “Think about getting things done as opposed to getting things perfect,” Madigan says.

Have a plan

Whether it’s joining a running club or following a program you found online, you never want to feel like you’re tackling your training alone. “If they don’t have any athletic background and it’s a first venture, the socialization aspect of training with groups,” Poppert says, can add a layer of accountability and instruction for newbies.

Think of fitness as a long-term partnership

If you’re in it for the long haul, get ready to treat your sport of choice as if you’re married to it. “Consider that when we do everything the same in our long-term relationships, they can get stale and uninteresting,” Segar says. “New activities, even just spontaneity in our lives, in all areas can help keep us feeling alive and engaged. We can bring that same wisdom to our exercise.”

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