Coming back from burnout: Part 1

I’m writing this post because a friend of mine is going through a burnout phase. She’s an elite athlete (not a fighter), and when I bumped into her the other day I could see in her eyes the same look I had a few years ago.

It was a look of deflation, struggle and loss of spirit. She was burned out, and I felt bad for her. Then it got me thinking, if an elite athlete like her can go through this, how many other people are often faced with the same experience?

I reached out to her, and I offered what advice I could, having been in the same position she’s in now. So what is burnout, and how can we recover from it?

What is burnoutfotosearch_k8107726

There are a myriad of articles (both general and scientific journal articles) that discuss burnout. I’m not an expert in health and science, so I’m not about to try to explain it from a scientific point of view. 

There is, however, a really good article I came across that talks about how over-training can kill you. I suggest reading this article to get a better sense of the sever biological effects over-training has on your body. I found the information in this article reflective of what I went through, and what many others have gone through.

In terms of what I understand burnout to be, my noted symptoms included:

  • Rapid fatigue (muscles quick to tire or you start breathing heavily quickly when training).
  • Low mood.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Constant fatigue / lack of energy.
  • Lack of enthusiasm towards activities.
  • Limited or no motivation.

As everyone is different, I’m sure some people experience burnout in different ways. 

Background on burnout

Melody Downs - training
Me slammed after a hard cardio session in the pool.

In order to paint a better picture, I thought I’d give a bit of background on my experiences with burnout as I feel it’s an important story to share.

In 2012, I was training very hard and working full-time. Towards the end of the year, I thought it would also be a good idea to study something, so I decided to study part-time on top of training and working. As someone with an obsessive nature (I’ve mentioned this before in another post) I of course over did everything.

To me, training wasn’t hard enough so I’d do more, and lived by the understanding that the more I did the better. I applied the same principle to everything in life. I wasn’t working hard enough, so I’d work harder by coming into work early, leaving later and taking no breaks. 

In-between work and training, I spent my spare time studying for my part-time course. I thought I’d be used to this workload given that, when I started fighting, I was also finishing my honours degree while working two part-time jobs. Should be a piece of cake right? Wrong! This time, it was different and putting all that pressure on myself to be perfect, as most over-achievers do, was a recipe for disaster.

It wasn’t hard to see that I couldn’t keep this up for long. By the end of 2012 I hit a massive wall. My body wasn’t functioning like it used to. I would try to exercise, but for some reason my muscles would fatigue dramatically within 30 minutes of training.

I became slow and sluggish. I ended up hating the sport I loved, and every time I walked into the gym I just didn’t want to be there. I felt like I was getting the flu all the time, only the symptoms weren’t rearing their ugly heads. I lost all motivation to do anything, and I became very fatigued to the point where waking up in the morning was a real challenge.

I didn’t know what was going on, and I was getting frustrated. Why was it taking so long for me to get over this bump? Why do I still feel lethargic? Why can’t I just get back to how I was before? 

I soon realised that in order to get back to normal, I had to cut things right down so I decided to take a break from training thinking that a bit of time off will do some good.  Little did I know how long it would actually take for me to recover.

Before I knew it, 2013 rolled around and there was no improvement. My symptoms still lingered. I had zero desire to train. The months rolled by and I was still staying away from any form of training. By the end of 2013, the fire finally came back and I started training again. I wanted to fight in 2014, so by the end of 2013 I took the necessary steps towards getting back on my feet.

Almost a year later, and 15kg heavier, I went back into my sport with full force. Not only did I get back into training, but I felt better than I was before. So what did I learn through that experience that can help others faced with the same situation?

Not forcing recoverykickboxer-girl-kickboxing-athletic-girl-160920

Forcing yourself to get over burnout is probably not gonna work. Trust me, I tried!

Sometimes when your body has reached capacity, it’s worth actually listening to it and giving it time to get back to normal.  

During my break away from training, I was forcing myself to reignite the passion and fire I had for my sport rather than taking the time to recover and seeking the right advice. If you force yourself to get back into your sport when you’re in this situation, training might be nothing but a chore and you may find yourself hating it so much that you’ll never go back to it again. I’ve known some people who have quit their sport (not just Muaythai, but other sports as well) purely because they worked themselves into the ground. 

If you choose to give it up for good, that’s absolutely fine – it’s your choice. But if you feel like you have unfinished business, then taking the right amount of time to get back to normal in a healthy way may benefit you more in the long run.

Getting back slowlyfotosearch_k10834351

Taking little, positive steps towards your goal of recovery can speed things up a little.

I found watching fight videos very useful. I always like watching others fight, as it ignites the fire inside me – and that’s exactly what I did. Doing this really helped. Eventually, watching videos turned into desire. Desire turned into action. Action meant taking small steps, like going to the local fitness gym a couple of times a week. Those few training sessions soon turned into many, then I eventually got back on my feet with a full-fledged training schedule and gains to boot.

During burnout, I found it’s not about hammering yourself into the ground straight away if you want to get back in the game. It’s about finding the little things that help you, whether that’s watching fight videos, getting a gym buddy, or taking up another activity for the time being.

Next post…

In Part 2 of this post I’ll be talking about how nutrition plays a part in the equation, what happens when you decide to start training again, having the right support and spotting the early warning signs of burnout.

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