Burnout

It’s spring and you’ve been training (or at least exercising) since January. You get up every day, go into the gym, bust through the workout. The problem is, you’re just not that psyched to train right now. Plus, it’s getting so nice out…

Burnout. It’s not a pretty word is it? Brings to mind glassy-eyed, nappy-haired, poorly-dressed, disaffected hippies living in vans who try to bilk honest folk like you and me out of a free cup of coffee. This could be you if you don’t get it together.

Building lasting motivation is a tall order. We’re used to having things come to us easily and in short intervals. Think about it. You’re hungry. How long would it take you to find a snack? 3 minutes? 2? How about a sweatshirt? How long would it take you to find something warm to put on if you were a little chilly? When something takes a long time or a lot of work, it’s hard for most of us to saddle up.

The #1 cause of burnout is a lack of discernible progress toward a goal. I always like to equate training to saving money – we don’t care nearly as much about our health as our wallets, so the examples are better. Until you’ve saved and invested money for a long time, you don’t really see the payoffs. It can be 20 or 25 years before you start seeing the magic of compounding interest. And unless you see beyond the short term pain of not spending every dime when it comes into your hand, you’ll never even get to worry about your interest actually making you substantial funds.

Exercise is much the same way. We have athletes that work weeks and weeks to get one second faster in a 10k. Or how about the guy that spent over a year trying to eek out just one more pull-up? Sometimes, the small gains take the most work. And keep in mind that beating back burnout is usually a huge key to making progress.

Here are a few handy little tips to keep you from jumping on the burnout wagon this summer:

1. Set smaller goals. Big goals are fun to think about, but they can be pretty overwhelming when you’re only getting there 1% at a time. Say you’re trying to lose 50 pounds. That’s a whole lot of weight (mentally) to carry around. So instead of fixating on that number, try for a pound a week. This smaller chunk is easier to believe in.

2. Halve your training volume for a few weeks. Don’t stop exercising! Plan to lift just as hard, run just as fast, and  keep up the intensity of your exercise in all other respects. Just cut each workout straight in half time-wise. You’ll be surprised how much fitness you don’t lose.

3. Set divergent goals. Back to your 50 pounds; what if you had some completely different goals to focus on? Maybe you could aim to learn a new recipe each week. Try to get to where you can ride your bike for an hour without stopping. Do one new exercise each day. It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as it supports your big goal.

4. Turn your routine upside-down. That’s right, do it backward. Do the last exercises first. Do ten sets of three instead of three sets of ten. Run in the evenings instead of the mornings. You get the idea. The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep the ball rolling, but you don’t have to (nor should you) stick to the same thing.

The worst thing you can do is quit. Going back to money – sometimes you don’t have much and sometimes you have enough, but you never just quit using the stuff. You have got to keep earning it. Fitness is just the same.

How Good Are You?

How much do you do? How many different sports / movements / intensities? What have you changed in your exercise “routine” in the past year? If you’re stuck at the same performance level or body weight that you were this time last year, things are probably not going to change if you just do more of that which already excel. When you step back and look at your training, look for limiters.

Limiters. That’s the nice term coaches use for weaknesses. Every athlete has them, but the ones that are able to identify and train those limiters are miles ahead of the ones that don’t. The thing about weaknesses is that they are no fun to address. There’s a reason that little skinny people like running better than heavy ones do. Likewise there’s a reason little skinny people don’t tend to like 400 pound squats. We all default to training what is easy for us. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just that by stepping slightly out of our comfort zone might just be the best path to breaking that plateau.

We’re taught from a very young age to do more of the things at which we excel. Good at math? Well, then, do more math! It makes sense – find a career that suits your strengths and use it to make money. If you’re a little on the dumb side and you don’t like to dress nicely, you probably shouldn’t run a bank. It’s probably better that you consider personal training. If you know computers, make money off people who don’t know computers. And so on…

As an athlete, though, you’ll reach a state of diminishing returns pretty quickly if you always train to your strengths. We all know someone who has a favorite exercise or workout and this is usually their default mode of exercise. Funny thing is, in many cases an athlete can do just a little bit of training a weakness and see huge results. On the flip side, an athlete can double total training time on a key strength and only see a tiny improvement.

Take your typical “bro.” The guy bench presses 3-4 times a week for about an hour and sees an improvement in his max by about 2% every six months. A hundred hours of training for 2%…it’s crazy and it happens every day. What if he were to run a hundred hours? Stretch a hundred hours?

We talk training all day long at the gym. We see athletes succeed and fail all the time. One huge difference between the ones who make it and the ones who don’t is that some of these athletes have been able to make the commitment to addressing the things that are holding them back.

So, how to do it? The first step is to take an honest inventory of what you ARE doing. Get out your training log…oh, wait, you don’t keep one. OK, get out a piece of paper and write down all the types of exercises you did in the past two weeks. Be specific about mode, and time spent doing it.

Next, write down whether it was a heavy/fast, medium, or light/slow workout. Lifting 2-3 reps? Heavy. 10 or more? Light. Figure out how much of each speed you’ve done if you’re an endurance athlete. Write it all out in a nice big chart, and I’ll bet you see some holes.

Some questions to ask yourself: How much mobility / flexibility work did you do? How much time working on skills / balance? What about anaerobic endurance training? How’s your nutrition? Have you been getting 5 servings of vegetables a day?

You get the idea. Next, you’re going to write down a NEW training plan for the next couple of weeks that addresses the things you’ve been missing as your primary training goal. This means backing off on your bench in favor of more mobility work and back exercises. This means cutting 5 minutes out of your run to build core stability.

If, for example, you just turned 40, it might be time to really get serious about following a good, regular plan of strength and flexibility training just to make sure you keep from getting injured doing all the sports you’ve been punishing yourself with for the past 25 years.

Good athletes work very hard at improving their strengths, great ones eliminate their weaknesses. Get honest with yourself and find the things that are holding you back. There’s a whole world of health and performance waiting for you, as soon as you break loose of those old limits.