Many athletes fear “burning out” of sport partway through the season or even altogether. It’s scary to hear your friends and competitors throw in the towel and stop showing up to group rides and practices. From the outside looking in, it can seem like burnout happens overnight, but that’s not the whole story. Most of the time, burnout happens over an extended period of time and has lots of symptoms and warning signals before you hit the point of no return.
The National Athletic Trainer’s Association defines burnout as, “a response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery.”
I think it’s very important to highlight the mental aspect of burnout. While burnout can also be physical, usually an athlete who is mentally and emotionally excited and carefree will not experience burnout. That athlete would be more likely to experience overtraining due to too high of a physical load. Burnout, on the other hand, can occur as a result of over-training or being independent of it. Burnout usually entails an emotional component and therefore is often best mitigated by keeping an athlete emotionally satisfied.
Here are my best tips for avoiding burnout:
1. Mix it up
One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to mix it up. If you often ride indoors on the trainer, then make sure to ride outside every now and then. If you always ride in the morning before work, get some lights and try a night ride. If you always do the same route, look at some maps and try something new. Changing up the way that you train will often keep you more stimulated and will help avoid the boredom and drudgery that can come with monotony.
2. Go on group rides
If you often find yourself training solo, try to seek out some group rides or even reach out to a couple of friends to ride with, occasionally. Even if you’re a dedicated introvert who enjoys riding alone, riding with other people every now and then can help you view the bike differently and allow the hours and minutes to pass by in a new way.
3. Ride just For fun
Make sure that there are days or times that you ride your bike entirely for fun. As a coach, I’m the first person to advocate for structured, interval workouts, but it’s also important that we love what we do outside of all of the numbers and goals. Make sure that you spend some time riding detached from any sort of numerical values or goals. This could be in the form of a dedicated “fun ride” or just a few moments at the end of a workout where you put everything else aside, turn over the pedals, and just look around.
4. Take time off
Take time off, even if you don’t want to. You take time off of the bike, not because you are unable to continue to train, but because taking time off will make you better and fresher both mentally and physically. Make sure that you are taking a day or two off consistently in your training plan and make sure to take a minimum of two weeks off of the bike every year. This is time to remember and miss your training. Absence (of saddle time) truly does make the heart grow fonder.
5. Race … or don’t
I’ve often heard of athletes being afraid to race because they are afraid that racing will burn them out. The truth is, I’ve seen more athletes suffer burnout from just training all of the time. Training can become monotonous without a goal and races to test out your hard work. If you enjoy racing, and want to stand on the start line, then I don’t think that will put you at any higher risk of burning out than just training all of the time. On the other hand, if racing is indeed stressful for you and you would prefer not to, listen to those emotions and keep it to a minimum.
6. Have selective memory
As athletes, we must practice selective memory. One challenging workout often seems to overshadow weeks of exceptional performances. Practice the opposite. Move on quickly from perceived failures and fixate on successes.
If you begin to dread getting on the bike, if you are emotionally and physically drained, and if you need some time off, make sure that you communicate that with your coach or even your loved ones. Often times we are the hardest on ourselves and we’ll continue to push ourselves to the breaking point. A coach or a friend can bring you encouragement and help you take the time off that you need without losing all of your hard-earned fitness gains.
8. Don’t bite off more Than you can chew
Before you begin a training program, look at your lifestyle and decide how much time you can dedicate to cycling each week. That doesn’t mean that you should spend every available minute turning over the pedals. It actually means quite the opposite. Unless you are a professional athlete, your training will — and should — revolve around your life, instead of your life centering around your training. Make sure that you account for time to rest, time to enjoy with family and friends, and time to dedicate to any other hobbies that you have, then make the assessment for how much time you can allocate to training.
9. Build Into the Season
The cycling season is a long one. Most people want to feel their strongest sometime in the middle of summer when the weather is the best. If you spend too much time pounding out the miles in January then you may feel tired and stale by the time the summer rolls around. Make sure you start conservatively and build into your training so that you feel motivated and excited when your goals surface.
Be aware, but not afraid
There’s no need to be afraid of burning out. It won’t happen overnight. Just based on the fact that you feel nervous about it, means that you are aware that it’s a possibility. Listen to your thoughts and emotions and make sure that you’re having fun. If you’re having fun, everything else will fall into place.