Are you in need of some burnout recovery? If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the news, we’re guessing the answer is a hearty, “Yes!”
With all the free-floating stress and anxiety in the air the last year or so, you can count yourself a hero if you’re managing to get out of bed in the morning. Burned out? How about fried to a cinder?
Exercise burnout, however, is a distinct — though related — problem.
It’s what happens when you’ve been working out so hard for so long that your body can no longer recover properly from your workouts.
Instead of getting stronger, you plateau or even get weaker. Instead of feeling fired up, you feel sluggish. Instead of getting fitter, you feel fatigued.
Here’s how to tell if you’re in burnout territory and how to bounce back if you are.
What Is Exercise Burnout?
There’s a difference between burnout and occasionally feeling a bit off.
If you’re experiencing acute insomnia, work or family stress, or some other identifiable distraction, your workouts can suffer.
But you can usually solve the problem either by skipping a single session or two or by knocking back some coffee and willing yourself through a five-minute warm-up until your energy picks up.
Many times, the weights start to fly, and forty-five minutes later, you wonder why you ever considered skipping your session.
Burnout is different. Even jet fuel and a cattle prod can’t power you through your workout. The weights feel heavier; your body feels leaden.
Each rep is an act of will, and the whole time you’re looking for an excuse to finish early. When it’s over, the customary post-workout glow feels more like a wet blanket.
When you’re burned out, says Angelo Poli, ISSN, creator of the MetPro Diet and Workout App.
“Motivation wanes,” he says. “And you’ll feel depleted, especially in the back half of your workouts.”
Performance diminishes too, says Poli. “If you can usually do 12 pull-ups, suddenly you’ll only get nine. And instead of feeling energized by exercise, you feel drained afterward.”
And the feeling stretches on for days, or even weeks, on end.
Once you’ve recognized that you are burned out, the next step is to take active steps to fix it. Here are 5 ways to bounce back from burnout.
This is so obvious that many gung-ho exercisers skip it.
Diligent exercisers are stubborn. They might feel banged-up and restless. Their appetite might be all over the map, their sleep disrupted, their temper short.
And, very often, the first solution they come up with is to work out harder.
That way lies madness, of course — and injury, and even a frustrating condition called overtraining syndrome.
Working out is a form of stress: in response to exercise, stress hormones spike temporarily, your heart pounds, muscle fibers tear and break down.
Under optimal circumstances — when you’re eating right, sleeping enough, controlling stress, and recovering sufficiently — your body bounces back fully, and you come back a few days later stronger and better than you were before.
But when you work out too long, too hard, too often without giving enough attention to recovery, you outpace your body’s capacity to heal.
This can also happen when you change your diet, says Poli.
“You may change your diet to focus on fat loss, cutting out calories, and even if you keep exercising at the same level, you may show signs and symptoms of overtraining, just because you have less fuel to work with,” he explains
Whether it’s over-working or under-recovering, the solution is the same: Take a break.
You’re not making progress anyway, so more exercise won’t help you. Dial it back to some pleasant walks for an hour or so a day, and resume hard training in a week or so.
2. Check-In With Your ‘Why’
This is a big one for corporate warriors right now, but it’s just as valuable to the casual exerciser.
“The first thing that you want to do when you’re starting up again is remembering your goals — your reasons, your values, why you’re exercising in the first place,” says Poli.
For some people, it could be better health. For others, it’s more confidence, self-respect, energy, sex appeal.
Whatever it is for you, remember it and picture how good it will feel to:
- impress old friends with your new vitality and shape
- keep up with your kids on the basketball or tennis court
- fit into that dress or those jeans you’ve been eying for months
Exercise is valuable and vital for all of those reasons and more.
Remind yourself of why you, specifically, are doing it, and you’ll be that much closer to getting yourself back on track.
3. Change Things Up
When you resume exercise, don’t just pick up where you left off. Shake up your approach.
The change can be small, like the time of day or the place where you work out. You can change exercises, or you can up-end your whole program and take up martial arts or basketball instead of weightlifting and cardio.
“You can spend 80 percent of your exercise time doing whatever you want if you’re willing to spend 20 percent of it doing the stuff you have to do,” says Poli.
Everyone can benefit from cardio conditioning, doing some form of strength or power work, and incorporating some mobility work into their weekly routines.
From your mental and physical health standpoint, though, if you’re checking all those boxes, it doesn’t really matter what you do.
4. Phone a Friend
There’s safety in numbers. There’s also feel-good endorphins, accountability, life-extending social connection, positive peer pressure, and a little bit of friendly competition.
All those things can do wonders for your motivation.
“We’re social animals,” says Poli. “By working out with a friend or group, you’re borrowing someone’s passion until it becomes your own.”
The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and pretty soon everyone in the group is fired up to do more.
“Even one social workout a week can help keep you on track,” says Poli.
5. Keep Records
Finally, introduce a little accounting into your workout week. You don’t have to write down every set, rep, and lap — though if you enjoy doing that, don’t let us stop you!
Instead, write down any milestone accomplishment that achieves — or comes close to — a personal record.
Maybe it’s a heavy deadlift, or a max-effort set of chin-ups, push-ups, or bodyweight squats.
It can be anything:
- “Touched my toes for the first time since June!”
- “Did ten push-ups with my hands on the counter!”
- “Did three reps with 135 pounds on the deadlift!”
What gets measured, the saying goes, get managed.
A little bit of accounting can help keep you focused on constantly challenging yourself and progressing, which are essential for moving forward in your fitness journey.