This post was written as part of Trail Runner Magazine’s Blog Symposium. This month’s topic is, “How can trail runners avoid burnout?”.

It happens every year. Most often, this time of year, as the leaves start to fall and the days grow shorter.

The excitement of summer training and races has now faded, and many of us are lacing up our shoes with lower motivation and little drive.

It’s called burnout.

And every runner deals with it at some point.

It leaves us feeling desperate and depressed, longing for the thrill and energy we once felt for this sport that we love.

No one wants to feel burnt out on something they are passionate about, but when it does happen, you realize that it’s impossible to keep that passion burning bright when all it wants to do is extinguish.

So when you do start to feel burnt out, it’s only natural to ask yourself, “Self, what can I do to avoid burnout?”

And there are plenty of good tools and strategies, I and many others, have used to stay motivated when we’re desperate. Strategies like:

  • Mixing up your routine and discovering new routes,
  • Focusing on base fitness and working to improve that base,
  • Joining a new running group full of energy and excitement,
  • Or, Going after a big PR or new distance goal that gets you excited.

There are no shortage of these tactics that help delay burnout, but that’s all that they’re going to do.

Delay it.

In my opinion, burnout shouldn’t be viewed as this terrible thing we need to avoid, but instead as a badge of honor. Proof that we’ve been working hard and pushing our limits. Proof that we’ve left everything out on the trail.

Proof that we have more to prove.

Burnout As A Natural Occurrence

Think about it. Aside from work and family, there probably isn’t much you do consistently throughout the entire year.

We go through natural cycles:

  • As the weather changes, so do our eating habits.
  • As the months progress, so do the sports we follow and watch on TV.
  • Music tastes and bands that excite us continue to develop over time.
  • Beer that you loved in January might be overlooked come August.

And after months of intense training and racing, and hours spent studying course maps, designing routes, and suffering on the foam roller, it’s only natural for us to want a break.

To need a break.

If we consistently push at our highest level, progress will ultimately come to a halt, and we’ll begin to hate whatever it is we’re pushing so hard to achieve.

Burnout As A Badge of Honor

The most burnt out I’ve ever felt were the days following this year’s Massanutten Mountain 100. I didn’t all of a sudden hate the sport, in fact it was the exact opposite, but still the thought of putting on my shoes and hitting the trail made me nauseous.

Burnout, especially if it’s from something you love like trail running, means you’ve given it your all. It means you’ve spent hours and hours running in uncomfortable conditions and pushing your body.

It probably means you’ve had to make hard choices and sacrifices when it comes to work, family, and play.

It also means you’ve succeeded.

Because if it was always easy and fun, you wouldn’t ever get that burnout feeling. And doing it wouldn’t make you feel nauseous.

So be proud of yourself. This is part of the experience.

Don’t believe me?

Even the greats need time off. Kilian Jornet only runs half the year, focusing on ski mountaineering the second half. And after winning 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps took significant time off before training for London because he, “had to find the passion again.”

By not fighting burnout, but embracing it, we increase the likelihood of building back that flame.

Don’t be ashamed of the burnout. Be proud of the work you put in that got you there.

I took a full month off running after the MMT100. I needed it. But when I hit the trails for the first time after that break, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Eyes wide open, legs pushing hard. That day I found the passion again, and never wanted to quit.

So You’re Burnt Out, Now Pull Yourself Together

Even after all this. After claiming that burnout is not only natural, but something you should be proud of, I’m going to get real.

Pull yourself together! You’re a runner. A trail runner. And trail runners are tough.

Burning out is not an excuse to quit. Nor is it a reason to get lazy.

So take this time, and instead of forgetting about running all together, use the burnout to your advantage.

  • Take up a new sport like cycling, swimming, or something else that keeps you in shape.
  • Take care of your body so that it heals properly and prepares for next season.
  • Eat well.
  • Rest the mind.

At some point, hopefully before it’s time to really start training for next season, your burnout will end, and you’ll find that passion once again.

And when that day comes, you’ll be happy you weren’t lazy and aren’t forced to start from scratch.

Until then, embrace it. Wear your burnout proudly.

To learn more about Trail Runner Magazine’s Blog Symposium, visit there website here. 

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of Burning Out

  1. Well said Doug! I am not a trail runner, but can appreciate and identify a good burnout when it happens. I think the best advice you gave was to change it up. I like to do crazy things like Pilates classes and circuit training and yoga. Stuff that I want to do more of, but don’t always have the time when training for a tri on a limited schedule as a dad!

    1. That’s exactly right, IronDAD, thanks for commenting. Although a lot of what I gravitate towards when I need a break from running, you’re already doing with triathlon! 😉

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