It'll hit after you make serious gains in the gym. You'll probably be in, or on your way to, the best shape of your life. That's when you just won't feel like doing it anymore.
It's called burnout - or the loss of drive, passion, and interest in training and competing. And it can be just as serious as any soft tissue or bone injury.
Burnout is linked to our stress response, which, in turn, is explained by a theory called "fight or flight." When faced with manageable levels of stress we "fight" (e.g., push the bar up for 10 more reps, continue to attend grueling two-a-day practices, or run brutal track workouts). But if stress levels become overwhelming, the "flight" trigger kicks in, urging us to flee from the cause of our stress and lose the desire to train and compete.
Unpacking “fight or flight” reveals why burnout is so common amongst elite athletes. Making continual gains in fitness requires constantly adding training stress over days, months, and years. This would be fine if we knew what our breaking point was - when we shift from fight to flight - but we don't. Push too hard and the drive to get better can quickly fade.
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Old-school thinking on burnout advises athletes to take an extended break from their sport. While this can be effective in some instances, 1) sometimes it isn't an option (e.g., an Olympic hopeful six months out from a qualifier event), and 2) many athletes lose connection with their sport and never return.
The good news? Much like for serious physical injuries, cutting-edge research has given rise to a new and innovative approach for "treating" burnout that may not require extended time off and has the potential to actually strengthen an athlete's bond with his or her sport.
I’m going to call the protocol “Give Back, Get Back.”
The Behavioral Science
Give Back, Get Back (modeled after a concept known as Tend and Befriend in academia) is based on the research of renowned psychology professors Shelley Taylor and Adam Grant. The basic premise is that when burnout strikes, rather than moving away from your sport, you may actually need to move closer to it, albeit in a way that is different from training and competing. Specifically, Grant’s bestselling book, Give and Take, suggests that "giving back” to one's sport could be the perfect antidote to burnout. Giving back can take many forms, including coaching, mentoring, or simply posting training advice in an online forum. Giving back is effective because helping others activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain, which works to re-associate positivity with one's sport. This can result in a renewed energy and motivation for training and competing.
An additional benefit of giving back is that it takes what is often an inherently selfish pursuit, like training, and balances it with our innate desire to find meaning and fulfillment by assisting others. Thus, you can use giving back prior to burnout as a preventative measure. Not to mention, giving back makes the world (and your sport) a better place.
Adam Grant's Discovery:
Before becoming a New York Times bestselling author and one of the country’s top rated professors, Adam was a competitive diver, earning two-time high school All American honors before diving collegiately. When I told Adam about the idea for this column, he was taken back to his senior year of high school, when he confronted a serious case of burnout. “I had practiced nine-hours a day the summer between my junior and senior year, so much that I had to tape the bottom of my feet from board blisters,” Adam explained. “My training went even better than expected and I was in a great place heading into the biggest meet of my senior year; I was ready for a peak performance.” And then Adam had an off-day. He missed his dives and got beat by a bunch of athletes that he knew he could beat. “I went to a dark place, I was depressed, and I didn’t want to touch a diving board again.”
While Adam thought he was done with the sport, he was convinced to come back to the pool. Not as an athlete; as a coach of younger divers. “It completely rejuvenated me,” Adam said of coaching. “I took a tremendous amount of joy in working with and seeing other divers get better. It reminded me what I loved about diving in the first place – how much personal growth I experienced through the sport.” It wasn’t long after getting into coaching that Adam was back on the board himself, going on to have a successful collegiate diving career.
In addition to rekindling positive feelings about your sport, Adam points out that giving back also lets you take a more objective view of sport in general, making it easier to focus on the beautiful process of getting better (always easier to see in others than yourself), instead of just results and performance. “Giving back is a wonderful reminder about all of the great things in sport.”
The Give Back, Get Back Prescription for Burnout
Find opportunities to give back in the context of your sport. These can be intensive like coaching, or less intensive like posting advice in an online forum. The only criteria are 1) it involves giving without the expectation of getting anything back, and 2) it is in the context of your sport. In parallel, take some time off from your own training, or at least tweak your routine to address what might have brought on the feelings of burnout in the first place. Give it a few weeks, do at least 2-3 giving back activities, and see what happens.
Disclaimer: Serious Overtraining Requires More than Just Giving Back
Finally, in some cases, burnout can result from severe overtraining in which the body’s biochemistry gets thrown completely out-of-whack. If you don’t bounce back after a few weeks off and some focused giving, you may in fact need extended rest. While it is extremely hard to truly train yourself into the ground, if you think you’ve managed to do it, I’d recommend consulting a sports doctor.
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Brad Stulberg is a Population Health consultant for a large integrated health care system. His portfolio of work includes exploring innovative ways to keep people healthy. He also moonlights as an endurance athlete. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.