On Burnout

Discomfort Zone Associate Coach and Webmaster Mike Mahoney

by Mike Mahoney

I don’t think of myself as a highly motivated triathlete. I’m the guy who runs with the group, because if they’re doing it, I’ll do it too. When I first started working with a Coach Mike Coughlin, I was surprised to learn that more often than not, he has to hold an athlete back, in training volume, intensity, or both. I was even more surprised to learn that this doesn’t just apply to applied to elites, Olympians, and those triathletes (everybody knows one) who are cheerfully awake and have thirty laps in by the time my alarm goes off. Sometimes, Mike holds back even me. Why? More is better, right?

Not always. We all know that over training (or more accurately, under resting) can leave us open to injury. But most of us over train anyway. I was surprised to find that Mike’s objections to my self-increased running volume and maximal hill climbs were not only to do with injury. In fact, he just didn’t want me to experience the mental exhaustion commonly known as burnout.

We age-groupers are as vulnerable to burnout as athletes of much greater ability who train many more hours. For one thing, we have all the external stress of a life not dedicated to triathlon and the ever present challenge of “fitting it all in”. This means that age-groupers develop a tendency to train when they can, where they can, and as much as they can. That’s a useful skill, but too much life stress plus a case of too much training can add up to a case of burnout.

Professional triathletes get burnt out, and they work hard to avoid it. Six-time Ironman Triathon World Champion Mark Allen writes that in his early training, after trying to run five-minute miles every workout, he “was always feeling one run away from being too burned out to want to continue with my training.” Two-time Champion Chris McCormack writes in his book, I’m Here to Win, that he took criticism for having a “fluffy” training schedule, but: “…if you try to force a tough training regimen into a tiring personal life, you’re going to burn out.”

So how to avoid burnout? Here are a few ideas from my own training:

  • Accept that you’re not a pro: It’s always tempting to try a big workout meant for a stronger athlete. The problem is that if you’re going to get injured, this is the kind of thing that makes it happen; and the required recovery time from one flame out, however fun, is going to kill your training consistency.

  • Find the right group: My coach likes to tell the story of watching a local group run that took place earlier this year. Many of us had just raced the week before, finishing with a wide range of times. Yet there we were, running as a group. Obviously, some of us were running too fast to keep up with the group, others too slowly to gain ideal training benefit.

  • Quit while you’re ahead: If my training calls for 90 minutes on the trainer, I’ll put on a movie. If that movie happens to be 128 minutes, why not call it bonus training and grind away? Not always a wise thing to do: there might be a key workout tomorrow.

  • Listen to Coach: Sometimes I think I’m just being lazy, but if Coach calls off the workout I know it’s in my long-term best interest. If you’re not being coached, I strongly recommend it, but this principle can just as easily applied by self-coached athletes.

If you’re like me and have race goals that are years away, it’s the day-in day-out workouts that achieve the lasting results. Coach Mike calls these “pennies in the jar”, repeatable workouts that are the backbone of a consistent training program. It is this consistency that makes us faster, keeps us from injury, and maintains our motivation for this awesome sport. Who wants triathlon to feel like a chore? I’ll be using the suggestions above this season, making sure I don’t get burnout.