How to Identify, Prevent, and Deal with Running Burnout

Running burnout can affect the most seasoned competitive runner or those just starting to run. While it tends to occur gradually, there could be sudden/compounding events that contribute to losing the love for running. The challenge is knowing when you are at risk for burnout, if you are currently experiencing burnout, and what to do about it.

Knowing When You Have or Are Approaching Running Burnout

Running burnout comes in one or a combination of forms. It may manifest itself as physical, mental, or emotional in the singular form, and differing degrees across two or all forms. Often, feeling burnt out in one area spills into the others as you need all three to achieve running balance.

Factors such as life events can play a huge role in bringing burnout on (not getting enough sleep due to work demands, a new child, unhealthy stress, etc.). Contrary to what some believe, running burnout is not “in your head” but very real and can lead to serious issues such as chronic fatigue, sleep issues, and weight loss while increasing feelings of depression and irritability.

Physical Burnout

Physical burnout indicates itself as your body does not respond the way it typically would during a series of training sessions or races (a few bad runs may not constitute burnout). It does not need to be a running injury but these can contribute to burnout. This is far different than naturally aging, perhaps towards Masters Division, and more likely is a worn-down feeling or not being able to recover between runs.

Mental Burnout

Mental burnout may appear as a lack of focus, lessening of mental toughness, or a feeling of “brain fog” where it’s difficult to keep details and focus together. As an example, you could be in the middle of a track workout where you routinely recall your previous splits but start to forget the times, or struggle during parts of the workout where your mental toughness generally pulls you through. You might also feel “fog” when planning a run, detailing specifics during a run, or recalling information post-run.

Emotional Burnout

Emotional burnout is closely related to mental burnout, except this aspect manifests itself as a lack of desire/motivation, getting down on yourself, an overall lack of confidence, or not feeling joy for running. Emotions are the steam engine for a runner; when you reach burnout, it is quite literally like running out of steam. Akin to an injury, sometimes recovering from the emotional part of an injury can be more difficult and take longer than the physical recovery itself.

The following sections address how to prevent or deal with running burnout if you detect a risk or are already experiencing a full-out running crisis.

Burnt Out Runner
Burnt Out Runner

Reevaluating Your Running Goals

Whether you sense that you are approaching burnout or in the throngs of battle against it, there is never a bad time to reevaluate your running goals. You may be taking on too many miles than your current lifestyle can accommodate, as a lack of recovery is a direct path to burnout. Ineffective training or overtraining, such as running junk miles, is another culprit to keep aware of. Perhaps you are simply aging or have life events that necessitate running fewer miles, running less intensely, or both.

Run/Life Balance and Right-Sizing

Running burnout can be viewed as a spectrum where on one side, you have the physical capability but lack of challenge, and on the other side, too much challenge for your physical and mental/emotional well-being. Run/life balance requires setting reasonable expectations and stopping being so hard on yourself because running is hard enough without compiling additional stress. It is critical to keep this in mind as you ask yourself the all-important question “what do I want to get out of my running?”

Whatever the scenario, you don’t need to stop running, but rather right size your goals and training to your situation, inclusive of cross and strength training to break up the monotony while supporting your running. This could be a short-term adjustment to bring the fun back into running by taking on a new challenge, such as the Ragnar Relay or obstacle races. It might also be time to chase the elusive marathon you have always wanted and feel physically prepared for. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you may need to tone down the miles as it’s more of a long-term adjustment to run within the limits of what your body is now capable of.

As you consider all these factors, try to let go of previous personal records and expectations, but focus on why you started running/what you love about it. Doing so will allow you to find your next steps and ensure they are heading in the right direction.

Running With or Without Music

Music is a great companion to running and a powerful tool to fight burnout, as it can take your mind off of the tougher parts of your run, help motivate you before your run, or relax the mind during recovery. However, music can also become a crutch or too repetitive where certain songs invoke negative emotions or remind you of a bad experience that occurred while listening to a particular song or song.

With this in mind, consider if you should “run naked” for a different perspective or generate a new playlist to either amp up or down your run. Have a friend create your running playlist or randomly generate one to mix things up so you stop expecting certain songs and have pleasant surprises along the miles. The goal is to enforce a positive experience, with or without music, as you indulge in the natural sounds around you or your favorite artist inspiring your steps.

Get More or Less Involved in the Running Community

Running is a solitary activity, so much so that the isolation can speed up burnout. This is when it may be better to get more involved in the running community. That does not necessarily mean more running but possibly helping at races, coaching, or even becoming a race director. The running community is extremely inclusive and a great place to lower stress with the support of those around you. Specifically, when you are struggling with running burnout or an injury that could lead to burnout.

Conversely, it may be the level of your involvement in the running community that is affecting or accelerating running burnout. You might be a competitive runner being pushed too hard by others around you, losing run/life balance by being at too many events, or struggling with the stress of coaching and race direction. This does not mean that you should isolate yourself, but perhaps consider pulling back a bit so you are still involved but not overburdened.

Choosing a Complimentary Activity or Leaving Running All Together

If running is your only activity and you are feeling burnt out, you don’t need to leave running altogether but perhaps find a complimentary activity to break up the monotony. This may include biking, swimming, soccer, or a host of other sports. Once you find a complimentary activity, or even two, it’s important to evaluate the strain on your body as running along with additional activities may require less running miles to stay healthy.

Running less miles while enjoying other activities, or even having running become a secondary activity to a new one, does not necessarily make you a poorer runner but perhaps stronger overall. With this new found strength and balance you can always focus on running for a specific running goal before returning to balance across your other activities. Taking this approach may surprise you as the complimentary activities could provide injury prevention and muscle strength to propel you further as a runner.

The hard truth is that not everyone is meant to run, but it is imperative to still stay active. While there are numerous running benefits, the most important benefit to your life is to keep healthy. If that means stepping away from running to a new activity, embrace this new opportunity, but never lose focus on the importance of the physical, mental, and emotional support offered by being active.


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