I wrote this blog on overtraining and burnout a little while back but it feels particularly relevant during the coronavirus pandemic as I try to balance the challenges of work, childcare and training (whilst socially distancing)...
It's fair to say that I have a bit of a history of both training and working myself into the ground.
I was reminded of this when looking at my training history whilst writing a piece on how getting older affects your athletic performance.
But, I would like to think that this gives me some credible, first hand experience to draw upon and, as the episodes of burnout are becoming a lot less frequent these days, it does seem to indicate that I'm probably slowly learning from it as well, even if I'm not totally there yet...
My burnout highlights
Before I share my thoughts on how to avoid overtraining and general burn out, I thought it'd be useful to talk you through some of my own experiences as, if you're going through something similar it can be useful to be reminded that you're not the only one struggling to maintain a balance...
The One With The 'Repetitive Caning Syndrome'
The first times I can really recall running myself into the ground were when I was about 17 and on a gap year backpacking in Australia.
I was travelling up the East Coast with a mate and we were surfing, working and - most importantly of all - partying as much as we could. It was my first significant trip away from home and, without any checks and balances in place and full of general enthusiasm for life, I went at it pretty hard.
At one point we stayed in a hostel Byron Bay for a few weeks and hung out with a bunch of other Brits on a similar trip. The general routine was to work a bit in the morning at the hostel (cleaning etc) to get free rent, then we’d go surfing all day, and in the evening we’d go out partying and drinking until late and get up and do it all over again the next day.
Where most of the guys and girls in our group tended to lie in as late as possible in the morning, I was up and out running most days because I was on a bit of a mission to stay fit enough to get back into triathlon when I went to University after the trip.
It was not uncommon for me to be out doing 6-8 miles of hard running before 7am, even if we’d been out until 2am. At first I felt pretty invincible and soaked this up, but after a while a routine started to establish itself where I could keep this up for about a week and would then break down and need about 24-36 hours solid in bed to recover.
This became so regular the episodes got their own nickname - RCS (‘Repetitive Caning Syndrome’) and, whilst a few of us suffered from it a bit, I was the worst. The fact that I did it over and over again was perhaps the first indication that I was not going to be quick learner in this aspect of life…
Overtraining at University
Once I got to Uni I threw myself into some very hard triathlon training as I desperately wanted to make the GB team. I trained almost full-time alongside Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome when we were both spotty undergrads and we were very good at egging each other on and pushing our limits on a regular basis.
We both got GB vests after only about 6 months and won medals at the British University Sports Association (BUSA) Championships as first year students too so, early on at least, the ‘go hard’ mentality was extremely effective.
However, after that initially positive start, our super competitive, head to head training approach resulted in illness and fatigue beginning to creep in from time to time.
Looking back it seems clear that this was why many of my best performances during University came early in each season before I had a chance to 'overtrain' too much and run myself into the ground.
At around that time I remember repeatedly making some classic mistakes such as doubling down on even harder training when my form started to dip (ironically as a result of over doing it in the first place) and this had some fairly inevitable, negative consequences.
Whilst I generally improved over the period I was at Uni, the improvement was very sporadic and involved numerous steps backwards alongside any I took forwards. I also showed a tendency to swing between bouts of massive enthusiasm for training and racing when I was feeling good and absolute disinterest when I was ‘low’ - classic hallmarks of the pendulum swings that often characterise the burnout/overtraining process.
As a (nearly) full time athlete
After university I initially started to wind back on my sport before a second shot at training almost full-time opened up when my work as a Sports Scientist and fitness trainer for the Benetton and Renault Formula One teams allowed me the opportunity to make training a large part of my working day.
This resulted in me having a crack at Ironman and qualifying for Kona and picking up some overall top 10 finishes at Ironman UK and a podium placing at Ironman 70.3 UK in 2003 off the back of some pretty intensive training that year.
Looking back, all the indicators were suggesting that I reached a higher level of fitness than I had at university as most of my lifetime PBs were chalked up during this period.
But, having clearly learned nothing from my prior years of training, I went into 2004 with a ‘more is better approach’, layering on even more hard mileage than I’d absorbed in 2003.
The result was that I got injured and burnt out once more, leading to a very mediocre 2004 season that ended with a long, hot walk along the Queen K Highway during the run at the Ironman World Championships in October.
This, as it turned out, was also the beginning of the end of my ‘serious’ attempt at being an athlete, as the niggles I picked up eventually got worse and ended with surgery a few years later.
Once I had drifted away from sport being so dominant in my life, some of the same traits that I suspect drove me to train really hard and suffer overtraining syndrome re-emerged as work habits.
I have definitely suffered similar cycles of incredible enthusiasm and output at work, only to then get struck down with the work equivalent of overtraining syndrome. For me this has largely manifested itself in some extended periods of very low-energy and mood, and even mild depression when it got particularly bad.
The most recent episode of this was about 18 months ago and came to a crescendo on a brutal 10 day working trip to the USA where I crossed all of the timezones from EST to PST, took 11 flights (including 2 long haul and 2 red-eye) and had at least one important meeting or appointment every single day.
I planned my trip with military precision (you have to if you’re working with limited resources and trying grow a small business) so the trip itself went well and it was very productive.
But, the problems started to show themselves once I returned home.
I had the usual couple of days of tiredness, re-adjusting to the UK timezone but then found that even beyond that it was like someone had pulled out my plug and I had no mental energy or enthusiasm for anything anymore. It can best be described as being like when Austin Powers had his mojo stolen, only much less funny.
That particular trip was in the August and came off the back of a very hectic and stressful time in the business, so the travel schedule (and lack of sleep) was essentially the straw that broke the camels back.
I struggled on until December of that year when, luckily, I had a long family holiday to Cape Town planned. This gave me almost 4 weeks of relative down time to relax and recharge. However up to that holiday - and even for the first two weeks of it - I was a bit of a mess.
I was still ‘functioning’, but barely. It was taking all of my available energy and willpower to get out of bed in the morning and even answer simple emails just to keep plates spinning.
I was struggling with looking after my kids and in engaging with my wife or any of my friends. I was flip-flopping between sleeping a ridiculous amount and not being able to sleep properly at all.
It was awful.
Luckily, a well timed 4 week break in the sunshine seemed to be a big part of what was needed to reverse my symptoms and by the time I came back to work in January I was well on the mend.
It was scary though that even 7-10 days into my holiday I was still recovering and finding it really hard to actually enjoy myself, despite the fact we were in an amazing place, doing amazing things.
Looking back now it's instructive how similar many of the signs and symptoms I suffered during this period (and during a few other similar episodes in recent years) were to how I used to feel as an athlete when I had over done the training and racing.
How to avoid burnout
Through my numerous experiences of burning out, I think I’ve learned a few key things about how to avoid it.
None of what I'm about to say is especially novel, they're all pretty simple and obvious in fact. But, if you're overtraining or edging towards burnout in other aspects of your life, you may well need the obvious stating to you!
None of these tips apply only to overtraining or work/life burnout scenarios as these share so many root causes, so you can apply them in either scenario...
1) Prioritise sleep
This is a huge one and the summary is don’t skimp on it. 8 hours per night is the minimum you want to aim to be getting on a regular basis.
Don’t believe me? Read ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker then please try to come back to me with a decent argument for how you can sustain yourself properly on less!
My experiences with very disrupted sleep caused by jet lag have changed the way I plan all of my travel now to minimise disruption to sleep patterns as much as possible.
2) Balance periods of high stress with adequate rest
This one is echoed in the excellent book ‘Peak Performance’ by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg (which is a very comprehensive read on overtraining and burnout in itself and is well worth a read if you want to learn more about this).
The athlete-inspired model of 3 weeks of escalating training followed by a ‘down’ or recovery week is not a bad template for work as well as physical exercise.
I’ve also found that I function better with a long break (3-4 weeks) at the end of the year and have tried to build this into my planning as it’s been helpful in keeping me on track for the last 3 years.
3) Learn to recognise the early signs of mental and physical fatigue
When you see the signs you need to take IMMEDIATE preventative steps (i.e. increase rest and recovery time).
I'm convinced that being self aware is what allows some people to be so much more productive than others, because it allows them to push harder - and achieve much more when they're able to - without trying too hard when the body or mind are not really capable of the efforts required.
4) Listen to trusted people around you
Those you know you really well (i.e. partners, training buddies, coaches, close friends, parents, kids and close work colleagues) will often pick up signs of burnout or overtraining before you do.
Try to listen to them if they show concern and try to take what they say constructively. It's easy to be defensive when you’re tired and on the back foot, but try to be self aware enough to understand where they are coming from.
5) Understand your deep motivations and set realistic targets
I definitely used to train harder and harder partly because I set few realistic performance targets and was always on the look out for constant improvement, and for the reassurance you get from being ‘on the up’.
Anyone who’s observed athletic development, career progression, sales revenue growth or anything else where there's constant pressure to move to the next level knows that never ending, linear improvement never actually happens in real life.
So, it’s so much better to set and often re-evaluate some targets that are reasonably likely to be achievable so that you're not always feeling inadequate striving for rates and levels of improvement that are unlikely to be met.
6) Be kinder to yourself
Many athletes, business people (especially the self employed in my experience!), or anyone striving to 'succeed in life' have a tendency to be quite hard on themselves.
Of course, this can provide a much needed level of positive motivation to get stuff done and to push through limitations and obstacles.
But it can also become something negative and self destructive if it's not kept in check.
As a rule of thumb, I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's a good idea to try to be kind to yourself a lot of the time and take time to reflect on positive things you have achieved, rather than always looking for ‘what’s next’.
In closing, and as odd as it might sound based on everything above, one thing I want to make sure comes across in this piece is that I'm not completely anti-burnout or overtraining.
If you want to do something hard like become a very good athlete, grow a business from scratch, there will be a lot of hard graft required to get somewhere.
This is especially true in the early days of any undertaking, when you usually have a lot of energy and enthusiasm - and often a healthy dose of naivety about exactly how hard what you’re getting involved in is actually going to be.
This means that some minor flirtations with overtraining or burnout are probably an inevitable (and arguably healthy) part of the overall process. They teach you where the limits are.
But, repeatedly getting overtrained or burned out is not a badge of honour, nor is it helpful in the long run, so being prepared to learn from early encounters with this particular beast is very important for keeping it at bay later on...