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The beginning of a new year is a time when many runners often want to start fresh and chase ambitious new goals. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, it is important to start at an appropriate baseline for your current level before embarking on your new endeavor. Otherwise, you could end up veering into burnout territory, which could not only set you back as far as your progress is concerned, but can suck the fun and joy right out of running for you.
The COVID-19 pandemic also threw a lot of people for a loop; some who were prepared for a race that was canceled stressed over carrying their fitness over to the next opportunity, whenever that would be. Others struggled to find motivation at all without a specific race target to shoot for.
I personally found somewhat of a silver lining in this forced break from racing, as I was coming back from an injury just as races were getting canceled. The last year allowed me to build back up slowly rather than piling on too much too soon, and I’m excited to finally be pursuing the Boston qualifier goal I put on hold in 2020 at the Houston Marathon in a couple of weeks. But whichever side of the motivation spectrum you fell on, know that it is normal.
“It’s inevitable that there’s going to be times in your running career when things just aren’t going as well,” says Sarah Bishop, a Washington, D.C.–based professional triathlete, 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and running coach for McKirdy Trained. “It’s important to have a strong sense of self and remind yourself that running is what we do and not who we are.”
Now that many races have started to make a comeback, you can decide if you’re ready to pursue that next big goal. In the meantime, here are some expert-approved tips on avoiding burnout and continuing running for the joy of it.
Take Your Social Media Use Into Your Own Hands
Social media platforms like Instagram and Strava can be something of a double-edged sword for recreational and competitive runners alike. On the one hand, it can be fun to keep up with what your friends are training for and plan group runs if you’re able to find people near your same fitness level. On the other hand, it can be easy to fall into a comparison trap and feel like you need to be doing more based on what everyone else is doing.
I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, falling into patterns of overtraining and burnout while doing too many races. It took years of trial and error (and just plain chilling out) to figure out that I personally perform much better on lower mileage and volume than many of my running peers, as well as when I keep easy efforts truly easy.
“There seems to be so much more pressure on performance these days, whether it’s real or perceived because of social media,” Bishop says. “I think that’s causing burnout in women to a much greater degree than it used to, and now it’s becoming a problem because instead of running being a stress reliever, it’s becoming a stress enhancer.”
So what can you do about it? If you never used to post daily updates about your training, you don’t have to start or continue doing it now. You can also just use Strava as a personal training log and avoid scrolling it more than you need to. Lastly, unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, or delete these apps altogether, either permanently or temporarily, if they cause more stress than they’re worth.
Ask Yourself How You’ll React After Putting Your Goals Out There
Everyone is different, but today, at 34, I’m someone who is motivated by sharing my goals with my training partners and on my social media platforms. When a race doesn’t go as planned, I can usually identify where I might have fallen short and focus on improving on those specific areas next time. In my early 20s, though, I was in a place where I took myself and my running goals way too seriously, almost losing sight of the fact that this is a hobby and something that I do for fun. I eventually dug myself into a burnout hole by putting goals out there and then feeling down when they didn’t come to fruition. So it’s important to examine where you’re at in this regard and ask yourself how you might respond if it doesn’t go your way.
“My runners who have a strong sense of self and can just shrug off if a run streak ends, or they had a bad performance, or they didn’t quite reach their goals but got further than they thought they might are going to be the happiest and most successful because they can just move on,” Bishop says. “The ones that tie their identities to whatever goals they set and are so immersed in them if they don’t achieve them are who I worry about because that’s when burnout happens, when you tie everything to a goal.”
Reconsider Your Run Streak
The New Year often inspires people to embark upon run streaks, which are not necessarily for everybody. According to Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, a sports psychotherapist in New York City and New Jersey, it is possible to carry out a run streak in a healthy manner—if your lifestyle provides ample flexibility.
“With a run streak, your goal should be a reachable, low-mileage target on most days that you have the ability to reach during a lunch break or in the morning, for example,” Roth-Goldberg says. “Without flexibility, run streaks won’t work because there will, of course, be days where you’re needed elsewhere or someone is sick, so you need to be sure that doing it won’t add any unnecessary stress and become so consuming that it’s no longer fun.”
Bishop echoed the sentiment of proceeding with caution, noting that a run streak may lead to pushing yourself to run through injury or push through when you should be resting, such as during an illness.
Watch Out for Both Physical and Mental Signs of Burnout
If you find yourself getting to a place where you’re dreading your run and just don’t want to do it, that can be a sign that you’re starting to lose the joy that should come with a hobby like running. Similarly, if you feel run down, low on energy, and haven’t been getting enough sleep, yet you find yourself feeling guilty about potentially skipping a run, that’s another sign that perhaps it’s time to take a step back. Whether you’re overtrained or simply stressed from putting too much pressure on your goals, at that point, you may benefit from taking a few days or maybe even a couple of weeks off from running, Bishop says.
“If your workouts are very much suffering consistently, burnout is definitely one of the things that can be going on,” Roth-Goldberg adds. “Similarly, mood changes and agitation are another big sign, along with a lessened ability to be present in other activities. If you’re constantly wondering when a run is going to be over and not really finding joy or interest in what you’re doing, that’s another sign of burnout.”
Consider Your Lifestyle Factors, And Yours Alone
One thing that’s important to remember is that running is an individualized sport; it’s key to not compare yourself to someone whose lifestyle is completely different from yours. Do you have young kids and work full-time, while also managing other household obligations or health issues? Don’t compare yourself to your younger, single training partners, or to someone who works part-time or has a much more flexible schedule.
“You have to keep perspective about what’s really important to you and recognize that your life is different from everybody else’s,” Bishop says. “You’ve got to just internalize what’s worth it to you, what’s your balance, and avoid falling into the trap of what everyone else is doing.”
“I think balancing your own obligations is the only way runners don’t burn out,” Roth-Goldberg adds. “It can be key to have a schedule and be able to let it go if something happens and you can’t fit a run into your day, like if your kids woke up in the middle of the night and you couldn’t get up early for your run, or there was an event at your kid’s school during the time that you might run. I think one of the best things people can do is let go of one of their obligations, typically running for that day, rather than stressing about getting it in when it just might not fit in.”
Take a Step Back From Racing…Or Put Your Next Goal on the Calendar
If you’ve done so many races that you’ve gotten to the point where your performance has started to suffer, Bishop and Roth-Goldberg both agree that it may be in your best interest to just run without any structured training for a while and not worry about when you’ll next sign up for a race. At the same time, if you’ve felt a little lost because it’s been a while since you worked toward a goal, committing to a race goal may be just what you need.
“Sometimes a goal can reignite a passion and signing up for a race can be a way to have a goal and feel happy and contained by a training plan,” Roth-Goldberg says. “[At the same time], take more frequent breaks from your goals, [even] a month or a few months of no structured training. If you feel burnout coming on, acknowledge it and take an evaluation of what’s happening rather than fighting it, which will cause more stress and likely leave you feeling more burned out.”
Finally, Consider Adding a Professional to Your Corner
If you’ve simply felt a little lost, or you’ve taken a running break after a bout of burnout and are ready to start fresh, it can be helpful to enlist a professional to hone in the areas you may have struggled with. That can be a new coach to help you determine an attainable next goal, a sports psychologist or mental health consultant to help you reframe things and get back into the right mindset about your running, or even a registered dietitian if adequate nutrition is an area you’ve struggled with.
“Hiring someone can help you continue to be in that correct mindset to avoid burnout, continue to improve and continue to enjoy running,” Bishop says.