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burnoutBy Dr. Michelle Cleere

The pressure to win and train with intensity has increased dramatically throughout the years, mostly because of the perceived rewards. But a result of that pressure is burnout. One definition of burnout says it is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion brought on by persistent devotion to a goal whose achievement is dramatically opposed to reality.

Another definition states burnout is an exhaustive psycho-physiological response exhibited as a result of frequent, sometimes extreme, and generally ineffective efforts to meet excessive training and competitive demands. Both definitions stress extreme wear and tear on the body produced through training demands larger than what a person can cope with physically, mentally and psychologically. 

Why talk about burnout? Triathletes experience burnout and it’s about this time in the season you might start experiencing the symptoms. I am going to explain the symptoms and what you can do about them.

Causes of burnout

Burnout afflicts people who are overly dedicated, idealistic and motivated toward high achievement. Individuals most prone to burnout are those who work too hard, too long, too intensely and are extremely dedicated to it.

Three personality characteristics have been identified as increasing an individual’s susceptibility to burnout:

1) Perfectionists are at risk because they tend to set high standards for themselves and others.

2) People who are other-oriented have a strong need to be liked and admired. They tend to be generous with everyone but themselves.

3) People lacking assertive interpersonal skills find it difficult to say no or express anger without feeling guilty.

Aside from personality characteristics there are other factors in the research that lead to burnout. Physical concerns: injury, losing, getting beat by other people, etc. Logistical concerns: demands on time, travel, etc. Social or interpersonal concerns: dissatisfaction with personal life, negative family influences, etc. Psychological concerns: unfulfillment, lack of enjoyment, and inappropriate expectations.

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout includes some or all of the following physiological and psychological symptoms:

Physiological: higher resting heart rates, higher systolic blood pressure, and delayed return to normal heart rate, elevated basal metabolic rate, elevated body temperature, weight loss, impeded respiration, sub costal aching and bowel disorders.

Psychological: sleep disturbances, loss of self confidence, drowsiness and apathy, quarrelsomeness, irritability, emotional and motivational imbalance, excessive and prolonged weariness, lack of appetite, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger and hostility, and confusion.  

There are numerous instruments and surveys that measure burnout, but perhaps the best way to analyze burnout is by getting to know your body and paying attention to what is going on with it. If you think you are beginning to experience signs and symptoms of burnout but aren’t sure, talk to your coach, trainer, or doctor.

Prevention and treatment

There are numerous easy ways to prevent and treat burnout. A few of ways to approach burnout are:

1) Set appropriate short term (physical & mental) goals with incentives for reaching them. This not only helps prevent burnout but it provides feedback that you are on the right course and also enhances motivation.

2) Athletes need to schedule days off. It’s important to have one or two (maybe more depending on your life) days completely off from training. One reason the business world provides vacations is so that employees don’t get burned and have time to rejuvenate. 

3) Make sure you are flexible with your workouts. Don’t be too hard on yourself and so regimented that you can’t make a change in your training program when necessary.

4) Break up your workouts. Try a variety of training modes and make sure you allow yourself activities you most enjoy; there will certainly be activities you won’t. 

5) It’s important to have balance in your life. Spend time on other interests and with friends and family.

6) Learn to use self regulation skills: relaxation, imagery, goal setting and positive self talk. These skills can help ward off much of the stress that leads to burnout. 

7) Stay positive and emphasize FUN! 

Your training program should not be too simple (it won’t challenge you enough) or too extreme (which eventually leads to burnout). When people burn out, they feel physically and mentally exhausted. Burnout arises from a sense of distress and discontent and a perception of failing to achieve the ideals or goals that a person has established. After repeated efforts to attain these goals and after working as hard as possible without complete success, feelings of failure develop along with negative attitudes towards life, work, other people and oneself. 

The signs, symptoms, prevention and treatment of burnout aren’t just physical but also mental. As an athlete it’s important do a better, more objective job of assessing where you are at physically and mentally, not only initially, but on a continuing basis. Not only do you need a basis of where to begin your training program from a physical standpoint but you also need that information from a mental one in order to observe, anticipate and learn from fluctuations that lead to burnout.

If you didn’t begin your athletic career with a healthy physical and mental plan for your training program, now might be a good time to start. Having a healthy well-rounded perspective on your training is key, and it makes more sense than wasting all the time you’ve put into your training to burnout.

Dr. Michelle Cleere (PhD, Certified USA Triathlon Level I Coach, NASM-CPT) has coached hundreds of amateur and professional athletes who compete in sports that require a high degree of mental endurance, toughness and focus to get more out of their training, obtain better results and lead more balanced lives. For a free initial consultation email

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.