The scenario is common: you sign up for a race, get a big PR or have an amazing experience, and so you sign up for another soon. This cycle repeats until one day, the idea of running just a few miles sounds dreadful. Somehow, you went from loving the grind of training to simply not wanting to run at all. The culprit: you have running burnout.
Running burnout is simultaneously physical and mental. Too much training without adequate recovery strains you emotionally, mentally, and physically. This article will guide you through how to structure your training to prevent and recover from running burnout.
Signs and Symptoms of Running Burnout
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes.” Running burnout can present similarly, with a strong component of emotional exhaustion and negative attitudes towards a once enjoyable hobby.
The signs and symptoms of running burnout can be similar to those of overtraining. However, overtraining is more serious than running burnout. While burnout is mostly mental, overtraining affects the nervous system, endocrine system, and other bodily systems.
Signs of running burnout include:
- low motivation to run on a regular basis
- loss of interest in running or other activities
- you often shorten, quit, or skip runs
- feeling tired or sluggish
- relying more heavily on pre-workout or caffeine to get through training
- brain fog or forgetfulness
- cynicism about your training
- irritability or depression
Overtraining symptoms include:
- declined performance
- frequent soreness and injury
- lack of concentration
- poor sleep, appetite, and libido
- frequent illness
Common Causes of Running Burnout
Like burnout from work or life stressors, running burnout occurs when stress is too high for too long. While many runners perceive running as a stress reliever, high volumes and intensity of training act as physical and mental stressors.
To understand the causes of running burnout, you first must understand the concept of allostatic load. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative burden of stressors: work stress, life stress, sleep deficits, inadequate nutrition, and training stress. When too many accumulate for too long, burnout can occur. Likewise, if a singular stressor is too intense for too long, burnout can also happen.
Common causes of running burnout include:
- training for races without ever taking a recovery season
- inadequate recovery (rest days, sleep, post-race recovery, etc.)
- high training loads during stressful times
- lack of variety in training, especially when training load is high
- running easy runs and workouts too hard
The role of external stress is significant. You may be able to complete two marathons a year normally without burnout. However, if work stress is suddenly much higher, even a single marathon cycle may leave you feeling burnt out.
How to Recover from Running Burnout
Because the causes of running burnout can vary so much, the recovery from burnout will look different. If you have short-term burnout after a race, a deliberate four to six week off-season may be the solution. Running for a few weeks without a structured plan or worrying about heart rate or pace can often be refreshing for many runners.
If you have felt burnt out for a long time, you may need to take a longer term approach to address it. For example, if you have done multiple marathons and feel burnt out, you may need to take a season or two break from the distance. In this scenario, the plan for how to recover from running burnout would include a post-race recovery phase or off-season, followed by six to twelve months training for shorter distances. Some runners may need one or two weeks off of running to help resolve long-term burnout.
How to Prevent Running Burnout
1. Build Adequate Recovery into Your Training
You will physically and mentally burn out without adequate recovery built into your training and racing schedule. Even when you are training for a race, you can create a plan that facilitates recovery and reduces your risk of burnout. This approach includes rest days and cutback weeks.
Rest days mean what they say: rest. A rest day is not a recovery run, cross-training session, or lifting workout – it is true rest from exercise. A rest day allows glycogen replenishment, nervous system recovery, and temporary deloading of the musculoskeletal system.
Many runners need only one rest day per week. However, if your life is stressful, you may benefit from two rest days per week.
A cutback week is a week of lower mileage and intensity, done every few weeks during training. A cutback week encourages recovery and prevents burnout. Cutback weeks are especially beneficial if you are increasing mileage or training for a race.
For example, a cutback week during marathon or half marathon training might reduce mileage by 15-20% and shorten the long run. For example, if you are running 40 miles per week with a 15-mile long run most weeks, you would run 32-34 miles with a 10-12 mile long run during a cutback week. The frequency will vary based on the runner, but most runners benefit from a cutback week every 3-4 weeks.
If you struggle with taking rest days or building a plan that accommodates appropriate recovery for you, you may benefit from working with a running coach.
2. Take a Deliberate Recovery Season
Some runners can train year-round, but most benefit from deliberate downtime. Even the elites take deliberate recovery phases throughout their year.
You can’t maintain peak fitness year-round. Peak performance is a culmination of training, tapering, and putting yourself in a competition mindset. No way should you maintain this level of sharpness year-round! Trying to maintain peak intensity and volume will only lead to overtraining and mental burnout. Training is most effective when it is periodized. That periodization includes base building, race-specific training, recovery, and off-seasons. Each season is necessary for longevity and improvement.
A recovery season (sometimes also called off-season) features lower mileage than race training, with a majority (if not all) of your runs at an easy effort. The focus is on maintenance and enjoying running. An off-season can last a few weeks or a few months. For most runners, winter months or summer (depending on where you live) are optimal for an off-season. When you schedule your recovery phase, pick a time of year when there aren’t upcoming races and the weather isn’t conducive to hard training.
Some runners need longer off-seasons than others. It depends upon your disposition, other life stressors, and how your race went. The length of your off-season will likely vary based on your circumstances at that time. Embrace each recovery phase. Don’t rush into training for your next race.
Curious about how to train when you aren’t preparing for a race? Listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly podcast on running without a race!
3. Train for Different Distances
Consecutive marathons or ultra marathons can exhaust the mind and body. Monotony can be a factor for training burnout. Think of how the optimal training plan relies on variety: long runs, speedwork, tempo runs, easy runs, and rest days. The mind and body thrive with variety – and that includes variety in your goals.
I’ve seen this often in athletes, especially those who only trained for a singular distance (such as the marathon or half marathon) previously. Spending a training cycle, even a short one, focused on a different distance breathes new life into their training. They see improvements from working on different physiological systems and avoid plateauing. Most of all, the variety is exciting and prevents the mental burnout that can come from training for the same distance and doing the same workouts repeatedly.
4. Recover Properly from Races
Racing takes a toll on your mind and body. Physically, muscle damage occurs when you race. The longer the race, the more damage done. 5Ks may only require a few days of easy running to repair the damage, while a marathon requires up to two weeks of little to no running.
However, recovery is not simply physical. Racing requires you to give maximum mental effort. You dig deep, push yourself as hard as possible, and use every mental trick in your arsenal not to slow down or give up. That maximum mental exertion requires its own deliberate recovery as well.
The time you take off physically to recover will aid in mental recovery. Most runners benefit from the mental relaxation that comes from sleeping in, not worrying about a run, and taking advantage of any indulgences (both food/drink and time indulgences) that they minimized during training. It’s easier to be disciplined throughout a training cycle when you let yourself relax and enjoy indulgences and a less-structured routine for even a week.
Race recovery often constitutes two phases: complete rest and low-volume, low-intensity running. The exact duration of each will depend on the race; the longer the race, the longer you spend in each recovery phase. For example, after a marathon, you might take one to two weeks off of running and then spend two to three weeks only doing low-volume easy runs. By the time you finish those recovery phases, you will feel mentally and physically refreshed.
5. Address Dietary Gaps
If you feel fatigue, plateaued performance, and irritability, your running burnout may actually be overtraining. Overtraining occurs when training continues to be applied despite inadequate recovery. A 2021 narrative review in Sports Medicine links overtraining with chronic underfueling. Your body needs adequate nutrition to support both your training. If you are dealing with constant hunger during training or are fatigued all the time, try eating more. Eat enough and pick nutritionally dense foods so that you feel energetic for your runs and the remainder of your day.
Importantly, low energy availability is not always intentional. If you frequently deal with overtraining, burnout, or injury, it may be worth assessing your intake. Many runners experience appetite surppression or may make subconscious food decisions influenced by diet culture. Even if you think you are eating enough, it never hurts to check.
Related: How to Recover from Overtraining
Want more evidence-based running tips? Listen to the Tread Lightly Podcast!