Marathon Training “Burnout”: Causes and Remedies

For many runners, the marathon is the summit of the racing mountain, the ultimate goal worth putting in all those miles for.  Nothing equals the satisfaction of being able to slap that “26.2” sticker on your car and introduce yourself as a marathoner.

From afar, let’s say six months out, the marathon seems simple enough: build up long runs and weekly mileage slowly, add in some work at marathon goal pace and some quicker intervals a little later on, taper and voila! Instant marathon PR.

It works on paper, but there are so many factors that add to and take away from the experience of training for a marathon. The factor I’d like to discuss today is “burnout.”

Burnout is difficult to define because it can take on so many forms. Burnout can happen in the physical manifestation of chronic fatigue, or anemia as the result of overtraining or can simply be the feeling of mentally “checking-out” or feeling stale in training before the big day. I’ve even heard it referred to as, “the blahs.”

Most endurance athletes tend to ride a red line. Not wanting to undertrain, many long distance runners push their bodies right up to the limit of injury, or the “glass ceiling” as I’ve heard it called.

So, how do we train to our highest potential without falling off the other side into burnout? Let’s figure out some of the main causes of burnout and learn how to avoid them in our training.

Physical burnout

You can identify physical burnout using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) or the Eades Athletic Burnout Inventory (EABI) which include such physiological symptoms as:

  • Sleep loss
  • Weight loss
  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Increased exercise heart rate
  • Higher incidence of colds and respiratory infections
  • Increased resting systolic blood pressure
  • Increased muscle soreness and chronic muscle fatigue
  • Decrease in muscle glycogen
  • Loss of appetite

Cause #1: Anemia

Anemia, a condition that is defined as a deficiency of hemoglobin in the blood, is a notorious cause of weariness and fatigue among runners. When your iron is low, every run can feel like a chore.  This article by Runnersconnect founder Jeff Gaudette explains the symptoms of iron deficiency in runners, mainly: fatigue, shortness of breath, and poor athletic performance.

To rule out anemia, ask your doctor for a blood test.  A general rule of thumb is that at the minimum, a female runner’s ferritin level should be 30 ng/ml and a male runner’s should be 40 ng/ml at least.

Cause #2: Chronic fatigue

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a condition that is defined by very low levels of energy for a prolonged length of time. CFS is more commonly seen among highly competitive elite athletes but can be found in other long distance runners who push their bodies much harder than they should.

CFS often comes on quite suddenly and with disastrous results. Sometimes mistaken for mono, CFS exponentially increases the effort perception of any physical activity and athletes with CFS have been known to sleep 16-20 hours per day when suffering with the condition.

When I was in college, I ran very high mileage. The summer before my senior year, I began running 135 mpw. This lasted for only a few weeks before my body gave in to CFS. Within the span of a few hours I felt it come on, my immune system crashed and I ended up with a viral stress reaction; the nerves on one side of my face stopped working for two weeks and I slept for hours during the day as well as at night.

The vast majority of athletes will experience an injury when training too hard that will decrease their training load long before they hit the point where chronic fatigue becomes a real danger, but for those athletes like myself who are very resilient to injury, CFS is an issue to look out for.

Cause #3: Overtraining

For the purpose of this article, we will use the term overtraining to mean, when your training exceeds that which your body is prepared for without resulting in injury or chronic fatigue or anemia.

Running is type of stress. Even if you’ve been running for 20 years and running seems just as natural as breathing, every mile is still a stress on your body. For athletes who are training for a marathon, especially athletes who are training to run their first marathon, the heavy miles and long runs can result in too much stress on the body leading to muscles that are constantly sore, general bodily tiredness, and poor athletic performance.

If you find yourself slowing down consistently on easy runs, unable to hit the paces in workouts that you were able to hit recently, feeling stiff and sore on most of your runs, talk to your coach about overtraining and the possibility of backing off a little to give your body a chance to recover.

To be clear, as a marathon runner, you will certainly be stiff and sore on some runs and having a bad workout here and there is inevitable. I’d argue that there are few marathoners that don’t have at least one or two really bad workouts during a marathon segment. It’s bound to happen when toeing that red line.

Overtraining is a trend, not an isolated event.

In my own training, I run hard workouts twice each week, if I have 3-4 bad workouts in a row, than I start to look at the possibility that I am overtraining.

Mental burnout

Common symptoms of mental burnout in running include:

  • Lack of desire to get out the door and run
  • Increased perception of difficulty on runs, even easy runs
  • Depression
  • Decreased motivation
  • Anxiety about next workout/race

Staleness

Lets define staleness as the death of your passion for running. An obvious prerequisite for this type of burnout is that you ever had a passion for running to begin with.

To figure out whether or not your passion was genuine, ask yourself this: “Was the decision to begin training made completely because you wanted to and not because of some outside influence (a parent or spouse pressuring you into it, an external motivation to run such as weight loss, etc.)?

If this is not the case and you truly began running because you were passionate about it but are no longer feeling the flames, it’s time to take a step back and figure out why.

Is the pressure of race day keeping you from enjoying the day-to-day training? Have your runs and workouts started to blend into a monotonous pattern and the light at the end of the marathon tunnel seems very far away? One reason for this could be monotony.

Monotony

The Law of Diminishing Returns in running is the idea that your body gets less and less benefit from the same stimulus over time. I believe this law also applies to your mentality in running. When I was in high school, my long run was 10 miles. I remember feeling like I was out there forever, catching that runner’s high with a few miles to go, just floating on air.

Today, 10 miles is a short run. There is no runner’s high, no floating, just 10 miles of pounding the pavement. Now, to get that long run high, I have to run at least 20 miles. As marathoners train day after day for a 26.2 mile race, often running on the same route at the same time of day, day in and day out, the monotony starts to build in the latter stages of the training cycle.

My advice? Shake it up. Run somewhere brand new even if you have to drive 20 minutes to get there.

This time of year is great; to make a run fun I often count the beautiful fall trees I see or the number of pumpkins on porches! Try running at night or with friends if you usually run alone, or with music if you usually train unplugged. One of my favorite ways to pass the miles is to listen to an audiobook as I run, I often get so involved in the story that I forget I am running at all!

Physical vs. mental burnout

Keep in mind that more often than not, physical and mental burnout are correlated. Physical burnout can lead to mental burnout and vice versa.

When physical burnout does not result in injury, we tend to blame the problem on our mind rather than our body.  If you decide to give your body a short break from running, make sure you are giving your mind a break too.

As a marathon looms on the horizon, it can absolutely consume your thoughts. As my first marathon approached I had nightmares about it for over a month! Sometimes what you need is a mental break, just to give yourself permission to not think about running. Take a day off for yourself, get pampered, see a movie, just do something that isn’t running related to give your mind a rest from training.

How to fix marathon training burnout

  • Rule out physical problems. Whether you feel you are are suffering from physical or mental burnout, see a doctor and discuss how you’ve been feeling, ask for a blood test and share exactly what your training has been like.
  • Be honest with yourself and your coach. When you are feeling burnt out, give yourself the liberty of being able to take some time off, even if it is just a day or two. This does not make you weak; it makes you smart. Your training will benefit more from breaking the cycle of burnout with downtime than you would if you just tried to push through it. Always communicate how you are feeling with your coach; if he or she doesn’t know how you are feeling, they cannot adjust your schedule accordingly.
  • Recovery between runs is key in order to reduce the stress on your body and prevent overtraining. To help your body recover, always hydrate and eat something with simple sugars, protein and carbs within 30 minutes after you finish a run.
  • Start taking ice baths after especially taxing long runs and workouts. Use a foam roller or “the stick” to work out lactic acid and kinks in muscles and if possible, see a massage therapist once every week or two.  For more tips on recovery, check out this article by Runnersconnect’s Jeff Gaudette.

 

References

1. Budgett R. Overtraining syndrome. Journal of Sports Med, 1990; 24:231-236
2. Fry RW, Morton AR, Keast D. Overtraining in athletes: an update. Journal of Sports Med, 1991; 12(1):32-65
3. Cox RH. Staleness, overtraining and burnout in athletes. Sport Psychology, Concepts and Applications, 1998; 4:362-372.
4. Derman MP, Schwellnus MI, Lambert, et al. The ‘worn-out athlete’: a clinical approach to chronic fatigue in athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1997; 13(3):341-351

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