What is runner burnout?
Simply put, I think of burnout as the point at which the hobby of running, once much loved, becomes nothing more than work. You aren’t running as much as you used to and when you do they suck and aren’t much fun. It may even get to the point that you are only running out of a sense of obligation or habit. One may experience a general lack in motivation to go faster or farther, where once a sense of excitement and accomplishment was the predominant driving force. When you get to the point that you can think of a thousand things you would rather be doing aside from running, you are more than likely burned out. Chances are if you have been running ultras for a significant amount of time, you probably have been or will be burned out on running at some point. Maybe it will come after a long stretch of huge training miles and a very busy race schedule. It may come when you have been burning hours you could be sleeping to keep up on training because “life has gotten in the way”. Whatever the cause, the point is, it happens to the best of us.
What can I do about it?
My first case of burnout came after nearly an entire year of training and racing with the ultimate goal of finishing my first 100 mile ultra. Tons and tons of miles, some hard run races, and an annual mileage total nearly doubling my previous highest had me very well prepared for the October 100 miler I had picked out. It also had me set up for a case of burnout. The strenuous year and accomplishment of my goal left me with quite a running hangover. I was kind of lost without the goal that I had been working for and when I did run it was not much fun – even after the aches and pains of the 100 went away.
After a couple months of this I decided to see what I could do to pull myself out of the funk. Here are a few things that I think contributed to pulling me from the brink of nearly quitting running ultras and propelled me into an even better year than the one that had been amazing, while simultaneously kicking me in the teeth.
1. Reflect on why you started running. Was it to get healthy, compete in a race, run with a group, or scratch something off your bucket list? Taking a look at your original motivation might just help you put your current situation in perspective and help you find the passion once again. Isn’t a bit of silent meditation and reflection something you normally do while running anyway?
2. Re-evaluate your goals. Do you want to PR some specific race or distance? Do you want to tackle a course of distance that has previously been unattainable? Do you want to lose some weight and get stronger? Whatever your goal is, tailoring your running specifically to the accomplishment of these new priorities may help get you back on track. It could be the new motivation you need to make those workouts feel more exhilarating than a day working in the widget factory for minimum wage.
3. Sign up for a race that scares you. By taking on a challenge of epic proportions, you might scare yourself into working harder than you would if you were just kind of seeing what comes up. In my experience, having a particular goals race that you know will kick you square in the nuts if you don’t get ready for it is a strong motivator to lay off the pizza and beer and go grab some hill repeats instead.
4. Just go run. One of the things I do when I am just not “feeling it” is to just go. Set a schedule for 14 days and follow it without question. It takes you back to when you first started running and didn’t know what you were doing – you just followed the almighty schedule. No motivation required. The schedule says 4, you run 4. No motivation needed. If you are supposed to go run 16 you go run 16, without excuses. I think this works because it makes running a normal part of your routine again. Rather than trying to talk yourself into going out for a run, you do it because the schedule says so. When the scheduled days are done, you just keep with it because it has become routine and feels weird not to. Either way, you are still moving and running continues to be that important part of your life that you might have begun to take for granted.
5. Find some running buddies. Find some new people to run with. Joining a new group of runners might be very helpful in breathing some new life into your love of running. A new group means new people to talk to and share race “war stories” with. It might inspire people to tackle some of the challenges you have already taken on, or vice versa. Sharing the experience with new people may help you gain a fresh perspective on running and help you win the game of hide and seek with your own love of running.
6. Run somewhere new. A change of venue could be just what the coach ordered. I know I personally have a tendency to run the same routes over and over and over and over… My 5 mile route has been a staple for close to as many years, and when I need 10 or 15, I just do more loops. If you look closely you can see the groove in the road created by about 200 pairs of running shoes. If you had the nose of a dog, you could probably smell me on it. The point is, running past the same tree, farmhouse, and water tower can get just as old as a morning rush hour commute. Mix it up! Drive to a different town or trail. Go get on the treadmill of a new gym. Just changing your scenery may help you regain the elusive “fun factor”. This is one instance where I am telling you to go find out if the grass really is greener on the other side!
7. Rest. Don’t overlook the importance of taking some time off from time to time. When was the last time you didn’t run for a full two week span? Do something different. Swim laps or ride a bike. You won’t lose your massive ultarunning base if you take a couple weeks off. I have a feeling a recharging of your metal batteries is going to help you way more than not running for two weeks will – especially if you replace the activity with something else physically demanding like pickup basketball at the YMCA or an adult soccer rec league.
You will surely notice that some of these things work better for you than others, much as everything else in ultrarunning. Ultrarunning is a sport of trial and error and what works for one may not for another. Just like fueling during a race or finding the best shoes, there is no “perfect” way to pull yourself out of a funk. I suppose if all else fails, you can just quit. While you might regret it later, I certainly don’t mind less competition in a given race. Hell, it might even help me get into one of those big lottery selection races some day!
Until Next Time…. BE EPIC!