Burnout is complicated

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Kieran Abbotts is a PhD student at the University of Oregon, studying human physiology. He received his master’s degree in metabolism and exercise physiology from Colorado State University. The lab where he works now studies exercise, the environment and stressors on physiology. In other words, he’s an expert on how chemicals work in the body during exercise and what happens when things get freaked out.

Essentially, there are two types of training. There is functional overshoot, which means putting stress on the body with hard workouts and long runs. So provide adequate time to recover and induce adaptations, Abbotts said. This type of training is ideal – your body is getting stronger. You want to be functionally over the top as an elite athlete so that you make progress and become a better runner, but also give yourself adequate recovery.

And then there’s non-functional overcoming, which may look the same to many athletes, but it’s very different.

With non-functional overreaching you are essentially doing the same thing, great workouts, stressing the body but Not give yourself enough time to recover. And so you start doing damage. That damage could take a long time to show, Abbots said, but eventually it will.

This may be the most important thing to know about being an athlete at any level. Non-functional overcoming is exactly the same as a very healthy workout, except without enough rest. And rest is different for everyone, making it exceptionally easy to slip from functional excess to harmful nonfunctional excess without realizing it. Without adequate rest, the body begins to break down instead of getting stronger.

RELATED: How Do You Avoid Burnout? Simple: rest.

Stress is stress

Pro ultrarunner Cat Bradley, 31, a Hawaii resident, has experienced fatigue and burnout in various forms, including immediately after won the Western States in 2017.

Winning a big race is great, but it also means that all eyes are on you – the pressure is on to stay on top. After winning Western States, I took a month off, but I was still racing at a high level. And for lack of a better term, I felt like I had a gun to my back, Bradley said. I wanted Western States so badly, and after I won, so many things happened and I never shrugged off that gun-to-my-back feeling. After a while, it led to burnout. I had to take a mental break.

For many athletes, finding success can be the stress that necessitates non-functional overcoming. How can you take an extended break when you win and sign new sponsor deals?

A second version of the burnout for Bradley came when he went through a particularly stressful situation outside of running. He was dealing with such extreme daily emotional stress in his personal life that everything else was affected, including his running and training. When the body is enduring stress, it doesn’t know (or care) what’s causing it. We cannot silo our lives. If there is stress in one’s life, everything else needs to be fixed. It doesn’t matter if that stress is just work or illness or relationships.

When you exercise too much or are chronically stressed, your body is creating higher levels of catecholamine hormones released by the adrenal glands during times of stress such as epinephrine, norepinephrine or adrenaline. Having those chronically high levels of overstimulation and poor recovery end up with desensitization, Abbotts said. Overstimulation also causes decreased plasma cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone and plays a very important role in your physiology.

When you exercise or stress the body, cortisol will rise, to help the body deal with the stress. But if you constantly need a lot of cortisol, your body will eventually downregulate itself. It will adjust and therefore you will have low cortisol levels. This means difficulty coping with physical and mental stress.

In February, Bradley experienced his most recent version of the burnout, and it happened mid-race. Bradley was racing the Tarawera 100 miles in New Zealand. Besides training for such an important race, he was also working full time and planning and preparing for his wedding, which would be just a few days after the race. Also, the journey to the event was incredibly stressful.

I was in fourth, I could see third, and at mile 85 I passed out and hit my head on a rock, Bradley said. We can talk about the reasons why I passed out, but I really think my brain shut down, it was too much.

For Bradley, achieving burnout has much more to do with external stressors than the actual running. But he is aware of it now and continues to work on not reaching the feeling of a gun to his back. The need to please others. The fear of losing the physical form to take care of your body. It is an ongoing process, but an important one.

Sally McRae runs through the desert (Photo: Courtesy of Camelbak)

Overdoing it is the American way

Pro ultrarunner Sally McRae said, based on her observations, that Americans are really bad at taking time off. “I’ve traveled the world and Americans are really bad at resting,” she said. It is part of our work system. You go anywhere in Europe and everyone takes a month’s vacation. You have a child and you take a year off. We are not so conditioned in America. It’s like you have one week and then, after working a decade, you have two weeks off.

For McRae, avoiding burnout and overtraining has a lot to do with creating a sustainable life. She started working when she was 15, so she realized earlier than most that life couldn’t be about working as hard as possible to countdown to retirement.

The outlook is huge when it comes to burnout. My goal every year is to find the wonder, beauty and joy in what I do. Because it’s my job, but it’s also my life, McRae said. And I truly believe that we should resume should be a regular part of our lives. Whether taking a vacation or taking an off season. I take a two month offseason and have done that for a long time.

RELATED: Strong body, strong mind, strong love: A review of Sally McRae’s Choose Strong

One of the most important parts of resting and not overloading the body is that everyone is different. An overloaded body can lead to hormonal imbalances, which in turn affect everything.

When you exercise too much, you tend to have mood swings and have trouble sleeping, Abbotts said. Two of the big things that stand out are that you’re exhausted but can’t sleep. And the other is irritability, mood swings and depression. When you get to the point where you’ve been overloading your body for so long that the chemicals are changing, pretty much everything starts to fall apart.

And while everyone is different, you’d never know by looking at social media. I know social media makes it look like ultrarunners are running 40 miles a day, having a 100-mile race every weekend, McRae said. And this is insane. You have to be in touch with yourself. It is very different waking up and feeling sore or tired, but if you wake up and feel like you have no joy in what you are doing, you need a real break.

How can the running community do better?

Elite ultrarunner and running coach Sandi Nypaver wants runners to be more in touch with how they feel and less concerned about numbers or what other people are doing.

I have to have honest talks with the people I’m coaching. I need them to feel they can tell me how they’re feeling, because sometimes they think they need to stick to the workout plan for the week no matter what, she said. But the plan is never set in stone. It’s meant to be adjusted based on how you feel. Some weeks we may feel great and not need to change anything, while other weeks we may have to totally crash the plan and do something else.

It’s easy to judge ourselves against everyone else, especially when the results and reactions are so public and available.

It’s easy to say, if that person only took three days off after a big race, and now they’re already back in training, that must be what you should do, he said. But even at the top level, training is different for everyone. Rest is different for everyone.

Something that’s really, really hard for a lot of runners to understand is that once you’re no longer in pain, you’re still not healed, Nypaver said. A lot of research says things keep happening in your body up to four weeks later, for certain races, depending on the distance.

Sometimes it’s hard to be aware of the subtle signs when the pain is gone. Convincing people that they need to relax for a while, even after the pain, can be really hard. But after one massive effort, and before the next one, people rarely end up saying things like, I really wish I hadn’t rested so thoroughly. Part of it is actually having a recovery plan. Put rest days on the calendar, focusing on foam rolling and mobility on the days you’re not doing.

And, actually, I’m just chilling out. Take it slow. It’s not just a running model, we live in a culture where we’re always being asked to do more, Nypaver said. I wish that instead of always thinking about doing more, we focus on how we want to be more. Many of us want to be more relaxed, less stressed and happier and enjoy life. We need to focus our attention on this instead of trying to do so much. It’s something I always struggle with.

We don’t get the validation to rest, relax and be present because there is nothing tangible to show for it. There’s not much calm to often challenge on Strava. But the bigger rewards are great. You just have to trade immediate hits of dopamine for a much more balanced and happier life.

Simple, right?

One thing I’m doing, and asking my athletes to do, is write down your intentions, Nypaver said. One of my intentions is to relax more this summer and enjoy it. I grew up thinking it was all about racing and I have to put everything into racing. But having other outlets, other things that I like to do, is so important.

When you’ve hit burnout, a long period of nonfunctional overcoming, extended rest is the only way to allow the body to repair itself.

Once you’re overtrained, you need to stop training, Abbotts said. It’s just kind of the bottom line. Perhaps some people can get away with significantly reducing their training load, but most of the time, you need to stop. You need a long period of free time.

There is nothing glamorous about rest. There are no cash prizes in relaxation. But it is the absolute key ingredient to sustained performance and a much healthier, happier life.

RELATED: Nail your post-race recovery

#Burnout #complicated
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