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Athlete Burnout: Signs and Prevention (Written By Siobhan Milner)

Updated: Mar 3


We’ve written posts on motivation before, particularly as a lot of clients come to us struggling to find the motivation to exercise.

However, we also see clients who have no trouble with self-discipline or with motivating themselves to train more or train harder. Unfortunately, athlete burnout is very real, and these individuals may be particularly susceptible to it.

Burnout out is a term that was created in the 70s by Freudenberger, an American psychologist, to describe the consequences of severe stress and high self-expectations or ideals experienced by people working in service or helping roles. [1]

But what is burnout when it comes to sport and exercise? Athlete burnout out has been described as having three key features [2].

1. A sense of reduced accomplishment: Feeling as though no matter how hard you try, you don’t perform as well as you should.

2. Sport devaluation: No longer enjoying your training or exercise, and perhaps even feeling quite negatively towards it.

3. Emotional and/or physical exhaustion: Feeling exhausted by either (or both) the mental and physical demands of your training.

If you’re experiencing a number of these, you may have entered burnout territory. But there are a few things you can do to help prevent (or correct) athlete burnout.

1. Take a break.

Not necessarily from all sport and physical activity. Burnout is often seen in children that specialise in a sport from a young age. If you’re doing the same training day in and out, it can get pretty monotonous.

For some individuals, this might mean you need to schedule a real break in your training schedule. If you train for a seasonal sport, it could be a good idea to reserve a month in your off-season to just do whatever you like other than your main sport, be it cycling, paddle boarding, or tramping.

Taking a break can also mean ensuring that you have adequate rest days (are you taking any?), or it might mean adding in some cross-training.

2. Add variety.

Which brings us to variety!

Just because you’re a runner, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing some strength training, or other activities such as swimming.

Adding in different types of training not only breaks the monotony, but has the added bonus of ensuring that you’re strengthening areas and body systems that might otherwise be neglected if you’re only doing one type of physical activity day in and out.

You’ll feel mentally refreshed after doing something different, and hopefully more able to enjoy and excel in your primary sport.

3. Set micro-goals.

In a study of semi-professional and professional rugby players in New Zealand, it was suggested that the players’ perceptions of their own competence could be associated with burnout2.

That is, if players felt as though they were incompetent, or not performing as well as they should be in rugby, they might be more likely to experience burnout.

Setting micro-goals can be a great way to overcome this. When we’re training frequently, our strength and fitness gains can happen gradually. That means that we might not actually notice how far we’ve come, or remember how much less competent we were before starting training!

Record your progress, and set little goals to aim for in between the big milestones. That way, you’ll see the progress you are making and won’t get so discouraged when you feel as though your event / race / target lift is still so far away.

4. Get a tailored programme.

Even for those with the best intentions and the best self-discipline, a little advice from an exercise professional can go a long way.

A tailored exercise programme will help you to know when to take breaks, when to increase your intensity, and when to add variety (and of what kind), helping to reduce your chances of burnout and increase your chance of success.

5. Get some support.

In the study of New Zealand rugby players, those who had a higher level of social support were less likely to experience burnout symptoms [2].

Training for a specific goal can be isolating at times. Try to train alongside others from time to time, or just find a friend who is willing to have a chat about how you’re doing (and celebrate with you whenever you reach a new personal best!).

[1] IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care), 2013, Depression: What is burnout syndrome? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072470/

[2] Cresswell, S. L., & Eklund R. C. (2004). The athlete burnout syndrome: possible early signs. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 7(4), 481-487.

#burnout #trainingprogramme




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