Dreading Your Next Workout? Here's How to Prevent Exercise Burnout
You might not think you need to know how to prevent exercise burnout. Exercise feels great. You look forward to the weights, the road, or the pool. Your workouts are challenging but rewarding, and you hit new levels of strength and endurance each session.
Well — sometimes.
Other times, exercise feels close to impossible. Motivation wanes, and if you manage to work out at all, you’re still dragging when the session’s over. You’re frayed, exhausted, and your performance is in the commode.
Welcome to exercise burnout — a soul-sucking purgatory that can make you wonder if working out is ever a good idea.
Burnout happens to many — if not most — serious exercisers at some point. In pursuit of superior results, they push too hard, do too much, and do so too often, too soon. Luckily, burnout is temporary, so don’t sweat it too much.
But don’t ignore it, either. The last thing you want to do is double down on exercise when you’re burned out, reducing yourself to a cinder and risking injury in the process. Instead, acknowledge that you’re in a rut. Then, take the following steps. Here’s how to prevent exercise burnout.
1. Make Sure It’s Really Burnout
Burnout is more than the occasional impulse to skip a scheduled workout; it’s a prolonged lack of motivation and desire. If you ignore it and keep plowing ahead, burnout can stick around for days or even weeks. During that time, fitness gains grind to a halt and sleep, sex drive, and appetite may also be disrupted.
But burnout is also several steps shy of true overtraining syndrome, a much more severe condition that may persist for many months or longer. Assuming you’re not overtrained, try this test next time you feel like skipping a workout:
- Commit to the first 10 minutes: get your gear on and do the warm-up, the easy jog, some light lifting, or whatever you had planned for the beginning of your session.
- If you feel better, soldier through. All you needed was to shake off your lethargy.
- But if you still feel sore and tired, call it a “WIN” for the day, skip the rest of your workout, and consider the next steps.
2. Take a Rest
Burned out for real? Time for a rest.
This can be tough for dedicated exercisers because you like working out: the endorphins, the sweat, the feeling of accomplishment. If you stop, you think, you’ll lose all the muscle, strength, and fitness you’ve built.
It’s not true, of course. Fitness, muscle, and strength stick around for longer than most people think. Regardless, you don’t have to back off entirely. Instead, take an active rest day. Walk, stretch, mobilize. Do some low-key yoga in lieu of your regularly scheduled workouts. Enjoy feeling energized after exercise instead of sore and tired. Recall how it feels to take care of yourself instead of whipping yourself into a sweaty pulp whenever you exercise (exercise is supposed to make you feel good, remember?).
Your body will get a much-needed break. Muscles will rebuild, connective tissue will heal, and your appetite and sleep patterns will normalize.
How long should this back-off period be?
At least a week, but possibly longer, depending on how long it takes you to reset. Regardless, don’t start up again until you’re itching to get back to intense movement. And when you do…
3. Try Something Else
Young athletes have it good. They rarely do a single sport for more than a few months at a time. Then, as the seasons change, they switch activities, working different muscles from different angles. Motivation stays high. Injuries are relatively rare.
But few of us make these changes as adults. Instead, we take up a new activity and think we’re supposed to stick to it forever.
But that’s not so. There’s enormous value in cycling through two, three, or four major fitness activities throughout the year. Some trainers recommend switching from indoor to outdoor activities as the summer approaches, from strength to cardio work, or from competitive sports to yoga or dance. Even a simple switch from running to cycling (or vice versa) gives the muscles and connective tissue in your lower body a break while keeping you strong and maintaining your cardiovascular fitness.
Consider making a change like this when you resume exercise after a break. Can’t bring yourself to stop lifting, running, swimming, or doing your favorite streaming workout? At least make minor changes:
- Run hills.
- Cycle a new route.
- Choose a new lifting program.
Change fights burnout.
4. Check Your Diet
Many gung-ho exercise newbies erroneously take the “cardio and starve” approach to weight loss. Hoping for fast changes, they embark on an arduous exercise schedule while cutting way too many calories from their diet. It’s a classic example of burning the candle at both ends.
If you attempt a long, strenuous workout without enough fuel in your system, sooner or later, you’ll “bonk” (i.e., reach a point where you simply can’t work any harder). Keep that up over a long period, and your body won’t have the nutrients it needs to recover from each session.
Curbing unhealthy carbs and fats — desserts, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods — is a smart way to reduce caloric intake and shed fat. But cutting back too far on carbohydrates, protein, fat, or any combination won’t help you lose fat any faster. It will just slow your progress.
Stress is part of life. You can’t complete a marathon, lift a big weight, or, for that matter, raise kids or make a good living without at least some of it.
If like most people, you’re trying to fit your workouts into a schedule that includes a job, family, social life, travel, and a hobby or two, you will experience times when you can’t work out as often or as hard as you might otherwise hope.
So stop trying. When the big project, the big wedding, or the big exam looms, put your workouts on maintenance: reduce your weights, sets, reps, or distance. Scale back from five days a week to three, or switch gears to a form of exercise geared explicitly towards stress reduction like walking, hiking, or easy cycling. Then, when you return to the more complex stuff — after your other obligations settle down — you’ll feel all the more focused and energized.