How to Prevent Burnout in Your Workout Routine – and Recover

Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.
Washington Mystics player Elena Delle Donne experienced burnout from basketball as a teenager.

In recent years, professional athletes like tennis star Naomi Osaka and Olympic champion Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin have become increasingly open about prioritizing their mental health and taking time off to reset.

But it’s not just Olympians or elite athletes who need a break. Everyday athletes can experience burnout from training and exercise.

“I think sometimes weekend warriors can overdo it,” said Jennifer Lager, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in McLean, Va. “This isn’t their life, so sometimes they have limited time to work out. And so they try to be very intense about it, and maybe not listening to their body or respecting where their body is at.”

When two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne thinks back to her experience with burnout from basketball during her senior year of high school, she remembers sadness and being in a dark place. Delle Donne would just go through the motions during a basketball practice or game. She withdrew from the University of Connecticut, where she had committed to play college basketball, and instead played volleyball as a walk-on her freshman season at the University of Delaware in 2008.

Delle Donne, now a 33-year-old Olympic champion who plays for the Washington Mystics, tried to describe burnout during a recent interview with The Post.

“I would say it’s just, like, everything feels gray,” she said. “Like there was no color in my life.”

The Post spoke with Olympians, amateur athletes and mental health experts to understand potential causes of workout and athlete burnout, its symptoms and how to recover from it. Here’s their advice.

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What causes athlete burnout?

Studies have shown that overtraining and perfectionism can lead to prolonged stress and mental and physical fatigue – which is essentially athlete burnout.

Athlete burnout is not a formal clinical diagnosis like anxiety or depression, but there are ways to measure it, said J.D. DeFreese, a teaching associate professor in exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The most common way to assess burnout is the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire by exercise researchers Thomas D. Raedeke and Alan L. Smith. The 15-question scale asks responders to read several statements and note how often they feel that way, including:

-I feel overly tired from my [sport] participation.

-I feel so tired from training I have trouble finding energy to do other things.

-I’m not into [sport] like I used to be.

-I feel less concerned about being successful in [sport] than I used to.

Athlete burnout can happen with everyday athletes because they are balancing so much in their lives on top of sport and exercise, said Steve Magness, a performance coach and author of the book “Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.”

“Often [exercise] is an outlet in their lives, so it’s a positive,” Magness said. “But when that balance shifts, it goes from an outlet to something that’s contributing to stress.”

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What are the symptoms of athlete burnout?

Common symptoms of athlete burnout include emotional and physical exhaustion, perceptions of reduced accomplishment toward your sport and devaluation of sport, DeFreese said.

Athletes “might be more tired than usual, they might be getting injured more often, or having more pain, their performance might decline, they might have low motivation,” Lager said. “They might be procrastinating things that they usually don’t hesitate to do.”

Leading up to the 2010 Baltimore Marathon, Jeff Contract, a 54-year-old personal trainer from Rockville, Md., started taking unplanned days off from his training. “I just didn’t have the push,” he said. “The mental push.”

Ultimately, Contract, who ran marathons and competed in Ironman triathlons, stopped running for about a month and scaled back his endurance training.

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How can you prevent athlete burnout?

One technique that Lager recommends is finding a balance between work and rest.

“My main message would be if you can do preventative things to find a balance, you help inoculate yourself against burning out,” she said.

Two-time Olympic champion decathlete Ashton Eaton agrees. The 35-year-old retired decathlete believes that he avoided burnout during his career because he took breaks and rest seriously.

Eaton’s rest phase during the year would last three months. He and his wife, also an Olympian, would travel around Europe, eat burgers, and drink beer and wine. “We always thought of rest as training, also,” he said.

Delle Donne said she wishes she had talked to someone about her experiences.

“I think if I was more open about what I was feeling in the moment, it wouldn’t have been such a huge explosion,” she said. “I think it just would have been more helpful to speak my feelings and not keep them in.”

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How can you recover from workout and fitness burnout?

There is sometimes a misconception that burnout means that someone is done with the sport forever, DeFreese said. That isn’t always the case.

Burnout “is like a variety of other psychological variables,” he said. “It can not exist. It can exist in high levels, and then it can also go back away.”

Contract, the Maryland trainer who participated in marathons and triathlons, changed his focus. He took pressure off himself by not signing up for another race. “That led to taking time off from being competitive,” he said. He now lifts weights, does high-intensity interval training and goes for runs, but at a far shorter distance than before.

“That variety also keeps your body from getting bored,” Contract said. “You don’t want to get bored, because boredom is a form of burnout.”

Delle Donne ultimately announced her return to basketball in 2009 and has not experienced athlete burnout since. She played her collegiate basketball career for Delaware before being drafted as the second overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft. Delle Donne no longer solely defines herself as a basketball player.

“I wake up now every day and I work out and I play basketball, that’s my life,” she said. “But I have my wife. I have my dogs. I have water activities that I do in the summer. I read books. I think you have to be well-rounded.”

She also reminds all athletes – from those exercising for fitness to Olympic champions – that it’s okay to press pause.

“Maybe it’s a pause on that goal, whatever it is you’re trying to do. If it’s a race, like, press pause on it,” Delle Donne said. “Maybe you’re gonna miss that race and maybe down the road, you’ll come back to it and do it, but continue to stay active.”