5 Ways to Prevent Athlete Burnout

You’ve worked hard in the gym. You’ve showed up day in and day out. You’re seeing results (or maybe not, depending on your individual case). You’re at the very least, feeling better than you did before your fitness life started.


So why are you feeling kind of… meh? You might feel your initial beginners’ high of going to the box giving way to the daily grind. You might feel bored, now that you’re not learning a new movement every single day. You might miss the comments people made when your physical progress was striking and sudden. Maybe your eyes are wandering back to your old routine, like an ex you know isn’t good enough for you.

You’re not alone. This is completely, totally normal. But it really shouldn’t be the end of your functional fitness journey.

I can talk from experience. I’ve burned out, too.

200As I came back from my ACL surgery, I was disheartened to find I didn’t find joy in metabolic conditioning like I did previously. My strength had taken a huge hit, and that bothered me, as it’s always been my athletic advantage. Metcons no longer felt like an internal challenge to be overcome. It felt like I had to do it to keep my six pack, or to prove to other people I am a good CrossFit athlete, or to claim credibility as a coach. (In retrospect, none of these externally-driven fears are true.) This was super painful for me because (A) I really love CrossFitting for my own health, and (B) I coach because think it’s the best damn thing out there for improving the health of people overall, and I want to be part of that movement.

Frustrated with my sudden and uncharacteristic athletic apathy, I made the decision early in 2015 to specialize in Olympic weightlifting. It’s a sport that is still new to me, full of mysterious detail and beautiful in its minutiae. At the end of the day, a barbell has always felt like home to me, and this was a new way to express that feeling. For most of 2015, it’s put the butterflies back in my stomach when I think of going to the gym. It’s been fun, educational, and rewarding.

I’ve maintained a couple WODs per week (around 70% effort) over the past 8 months, recently beginning to add more to my training. To my relief, the old spark is still there. I’m stronger than before, and more attuned to my body’s needs and thresholds. I’d estimate I have lost about 15% of my work capacity, but personally, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

kenny kane barbell shrugged
Photo credit: Barbell Shrugged

I recently re-listened to a Barbell Shrugged podcast episode featuring movement coach Kenny Kane, and while I’d encourage you to listen to the whole thing, the gist of it is this:

  • Functional fitness is supposed to be a lifelong journey, so why is it so common for athletes to hit the 18-24 months mark and quit?
  • By and large, CrossFit boxes are flipping the CrossFit pyramid,  competitiveness over virtuosity, and it’s leading athletes to believe they’ve “peaked” when they still have a lot more to learn about quality movement– a lifelong endeavor with no end.
  • Coaches need to have the tough conversations with athletes about their CrossFit career. Not every day can be a super sexy sweat soaked WOD. There is tough work to be done, and it’s not always the barn-burner followed by that oh-so-addictive endorphin rush.

That in mind, I have a few thoughts on ways to power through even the worst burnout phase:

1. Be Honest About Your Goals

This might come off as rude… But why are you here in the first place? No, really. Say it out loud. Write it down. This is your raison d’être, your driving force, the thing that will keep you going when the luster has worn off and the drive to the box has become routine. You will need to call on this reason when you’re feeling tired, whiny, PMS’ing, nursing an injury, or thinking of skipping the gym to rearrange your Pinterest boards.

Are you in this to compete in local fitness competitions? Get really goddamn ripped so your ex will hate themselves? Have your kids watch you grow into your golden years with grace and minimal health bills?

Whatever your reason is, you need to know it. It needs a name.

No matter your skill level, you need to have an honest conversation with your coach about how to reach those goals, because your well-meaning coaches do not come standard with mind-reading skills. If your coaches blow you off, you need to find a way to make them listen, or find another gym where the coaches have ears that work.

Recommended Viewing: SMART Goals are a great place to start.

In St. Pete, FL? Attend the CrossFit9 Goal Crushing Workshop December 6, 11:00am.

2. Don’t Compete Every Damn Day

Professional athletes won’t do it, and neither should you. All-out effort should be reserved for special occasions, depending on your fitness level. Fitness is truly a case where the tortoise beets the hare, because the hare will eventually be sidelined with an injury. (Disclaimer: I’ve been the hare… a few times.)

Don’t get me wrong. Effort is key to getting results. But your effort can be concentrated in different, equally constructive ways. Some examples:

  • “Today I’m going to challenge myself to do more weight. I know my time will be slower, but I’m committed to keeping great form.”
  • “This WOD is a sprint effort. I could really concentrate on my breath control today, because I tend to let my heart rate race out of control.”
  • “This WOD is an endurance effort. I should work on setting and keeping a strong pace.”
  • “Push-ups again? I flail through these. My goal is to make sure I keep my core strong and proper elbow positioning, even through the last rep.”
  • “My first Rx Murph. Today is a Mental Toughness test. My goal is completion.” (See #3)

If you are confused about the “point” of the workout, talk to your coach. Even a halfway decent coach will be able to make suggestions based on your skill level, health, personal goals, and their knowledge of the programming.

3. Decide who you are first.

You have your reason. You have today’s goals. Next: Make up your mind about what you think of yourself.

*RECORD SCREECH* You might be thinking, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” I’m so glad you asked, or that I assumed you asked. Whatever.

zoolander who am i

When I hear a disappointed athlete disparage themselves over the results of a workout, I cannot help but think that is the biggest load of bull, and indicative of a complete lack of perspective. A workout does not define you. That’s ridiculous. The fact you’re willing to put yourself through a painful ongoing learning experience can shape your character, sure. But if your self esteem is shit, you’ll never be happy no matter what happens today or tomorrow, inside or outside the box.

“This workout scares the crap out of me and I really hate running, but I’m the type of person who will do it anyways and then be humble enough to look for the lesson it has to teach me.”  Now you’re truly ready for the “3…2…1…. Go!”

Recommended reading: Unbeatable Mind by Mark Divine

4. Learn to love your goat.

cool goatNot that way, perv.

You’ve got a goat, what is it? Do you suck at handstand push-ups but you’ve always floundered through them in WODs, one at a time, neck aching afterwards? Does the thought of thrusters make your blood run cold? Do double unders end with you breathless, whipped, and hog-tied? You, my dear, have a goat. It’s time to make friends.

My goat is almost always gymnastic-based. I hated everything about learning muscle-ups. I’m impatient and generally uncoordinated. To commit myself to the task of getting my ass on top of those rings, I had to first stop telling myself that I’m impatient and generally uncoordinated. I had to do chin-ups and transitions and kip workshops and grip strength, and repeat, repeat, repeat. To this day, every muscle up is as fun as my first one. I earned the feeling of flying, goat be damned.

Your weaknesses will teach you something, if you’re willing to listen.

5. Concentrate on the big picture.

You cannot only be an athlete in the box and expect to see long-term success. Get serious about a lifestyle change. There are sneaky yet major factors that hamstring your progress.

kris jenner money
You win again, Sephora.

Get serious about your recovery. Are you sleeping 7.5-9 hours per night? If you’re not, this is the first place to start. This is what separates the lumberjacks (Jills?) from the twigs. It’s free, and it keeps you from spending $300 on Sephora.com at 2am. (Guilty.)

Eat right. Fuel your body properly for the demands you’re asking of it. Not sure where to start? I’d recommend a Whole30 to reset your sugar-addicted self.

Insure yourself against injury by doing accessory work. It’s no guarantee and it’s not sexy, but it will pay off in fewer missed gym days. (I swear by Jared Fleming’s back routine for lazy spinal erectors and glutes. My chiropractor, Dr. Lance Robbins, has awesome adductor exercises for an often overlooked muscle group that is crucial to knee health and beyond.) To the same end, mobilize properly, even if it’s really freaking boring. We consider this so important in our box, we started offering yoga classes to keep our athletes healthy.

Manage your stress. Meditate before work. Make yourself get everything done at the office. Don’t schedule everything quite so tightly. Be prepared for life to interfere sometimes. If you have to miss a workout for your kids’ play, don’t go psycho on everyone within screaming distance, go for a short run afterwards.

Finally, remember your fitness is only as good as it can be applied in your actual life. Take your fit-ass self and go standup paddle boarding with a friend, hiking with your dogs, take your kids to shoot hoops, adventure into an acro yoga class, whatever! If your world is only as big as the CrossFit box, you’re selling yourself short. This step is crucial for developing gratitude for how far you’ve come.

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