Consistency is essential for improving as a runner. Regardless of your goals or fitness level, logging the consistent miles week after week and year after year will make you fitter and faster. However, one of the biggest threats to consistency is burnout. For some runners, there is a fine line between consistent training and burnout. These tips will guide you through how to structure your training, both on a micro and macro scale, to prevent running burnout.
In my coaching philosophy, running burnout is simultaneously physical and mental. We cannot separate the two in training or racing. You need to take care of both physical recovery and mental relaxation to prevent running burnout.
Schedule Regular Cutback Weeks
Without adequate recovery built into your training and racing schedule, you will physically and mentally burn out. Weekly rest days are part of recovery, but you do not want to neglect cutback weeks. 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, 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.
Take a Deliberate Off-Season
Some runners can train year-round, but most benefit from deliberate downtime. Even the elites take off-seasons from racing!
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.
An 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 of an off-season, 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 circumstance at that time. Each off-season, embrace it; don’t rush into training for your next race.
Train for Different Distances
Consecutive marathons, especially within a short time frame, exhaust the mind and body. 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.
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.
Fuel Your Body Properly
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.
Have you dealt with burnout before? How did you overcome it?