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Exercise burnout is a real phenomenon. It’s a mental and physical state of exhaustion. Burnout comes from overdoing it in training, which leaves you vulnerable to injury, pain, depression, and a total lack of motivation.
Know the signs of burnout so you can spot them in yourself and clients. It’s hard for a fitness enthusiast to slow down and take breaks, but recovery and rest are essential. They not only help you get stronger, but they also prevent and relieve harmful burnout.
Burnout can affect any area of your life, including work, exercise, and relationships. Burnout is a state of mental and physical fatigue caused by prolonged stress.
In terms of exercise, burnout is more than just physical exhaustion. It also impacts your mental state, your mood, and your motivation. The stress is on both your body and your mind.
Burnout is damaging. It can lead to injuries and worsening mental health symptoms, like depression. The longer it goes on without some relief, the worse the effects.
For this reason, it’s essential to recognize the signs of burnout. When you know them, you can spot impending burnout in yourself or a client and take steps to make positive changes.
Everyone is different, but people generally react the same way to ongoing stress. It makes you unreasonably tired, moody, and unable to keep up with what should be a manageable workout routine. Here’s what exercise burnout looks like:
The degree to which working out is a chore varies by person. If you find that your motivation level has dropped, it could be a problem. We all have those days when getting out of bed for the gym is a little harder than usual, but it should not be a consistent, everyday struggle.
You could be starting to burn out if you stall going to the gym and starting a workout, if you skip more often than you go, or if you keep giving up early.
Are you over-motivating your clients? It’s important to recognize burnout in yourself and your clients. Find the balance between pushing clients to meet their goals and overtraining them.
Again, some fatigue is normal. A good, hard workout could make you feel more tired than usual the next day. Burnout fatigue is much more severe. You feel like you’re dragging yourself out of bed. Your workout that should be doable instead feels very, very difficult.
You may even find that your heart rate elevates much more quickly than usual. Your body is drained of energy, as is your mood—mental and physical fatigue set in during burnout.
Even if you don’t notice other signs of burnout, this one should be obvious. If your performance declines with no apparent reason, such as time off or an injury, it could be burnout.
If you’re a runner, runs get slower. They feel challenging, but your times aren’t what they used to be. If you’re a lifter, the weights you usually use suddenly feel impossible to lift.
The mental aspect of burnout affects your mood. Your attitude toward training is negative. You get irrationally irritable with training partners or clients. You may also feel depressed, overwhelmed, or hopeless. Your self-esteem may take a hit too. You have been working hard at training without getting results, which doesn’t feel good.
Burnout results from stress. When you chronically stress the body by overtraining, you’ll feel it. Strenuous workouts can make you sore, but with burnout, you may be sore a lot more than usual. Overtraining also causes injuries, like stress fractures. You get injured more than usual and take longer to heal if you're burned out.
The mental stress of overtraining can leave you completely jaded when it comes to exercise and your training program. You haven’t just lost your motivation; you’re done. When you're ready to quit, this is the ultimate state of exercise burnout.
Burnout can be a significant setback to your training. The good news is that it is reversible. The sooner you do something about it, the sooner you’ll be back to normal and ready to crush it in the gym. Here’s what you need to do:
Take a break. Rest is necessary to make fitness gains. This is non-negotiable. Overtraining inevitably stresses your mind and body to the point of burnout. If you notice any signs of burnout, take a day off. If you’ve reached the point of exhaustion and giving up, take off more time. Don’t be afraid to take an entire week away from training. It will help, not hurt, your end goals. If burnout isn’t too severe yet, you may only need to step down your training sessions to make them less intense for a while.
Use active recovery days. As a devoted fitness junkie, rest is hard. What’s easier and still beneficial is an active recovery day. Recovery isn’t just sitting still. Moving gently helps blood flow to stressed muscles to recover and get stronger. Instead of working out one day, take a walk. Go to yoga instead of doing that intense strength training workout.
Change your routine. Your body gets more easily stressed when you do the same workout repeatedly. Sometimes, just a slight change in your workouts is enough to head off burnout. Take a break from lifting and do some light cardio. Instead of cycling every day, try an elliptical or a circuits class. These changes are good for your body and your mental health. A change in scenery and workout can reinvigorate your interest in exercise.
Fuel right. Poor fueling strategies don’t cause burnout, but they don’t help either. Support recovery with a healthy diet. Ensure you’re eating enough calories for your training plan and choose healthful, whole foods. It may also help to look a little more closely at macros. If you get fatigued easily, you may not be eating enough carbs, for instance.
Prioritize sleep. Sleep is essential for rest and recovery. Inadequate sleep contributes to everything from obesity and heart disease to depression and dementia. Rest days are necessary for progress, but so is adequate sleep. Researchers have found that lack of sleep shifts the hormonal balance in the body away from building muscle tissue and toward breaking down muscle. Start prioritizing good sleep every night if you feel burned out.
Check out this guide to active recovery, from how to do it and why all athletes should.
These steps will help you backpedal from dangerous burnout. Even better is if you don’t get to that point at all. Set a good example for your clients by practicing healthy lifestyle choices that promote balance between training and resting.
Burnout is a genuine phenomenon. If you are highly motivated to meet fitness goals, thrive on working hard, and struggle to take breaks, you could be at risk. Watch your choices and listen to your body and mood to avoid or manage burnout.
Want to learn more about teaching clients how to include recovery in their workout plans? As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, you will deliver a unified approach with clients to get them feeling, looking, and performing their best. To become a knowledgeable, skilled trainer who can spot the signs of burnout and other pitfalls of fitness, sign up for ISSA’s Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist program now.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation. Hopkinsmedicine.org. Retrieved 28 January 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-effects-of-sleep-deprivation.
Dattilo, M., Antunes, H. K., Medeiros, A., Mônico Neto, M., Souza, H. S., Tufik, S., & de Mello, M. T. (2011). Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Medical hypotheses, 77(2), 220–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2011.04.017
ISSA's Exercise Recovery Specialization unlocks the science behind recovery techniques. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, personal trainers can apply this information to their exercise prescription and programs, helping athletes and general fitness clients alike.