Whether you’re training for your first race or a PR, there comes a point in any distance where all that running simply becomes tiring. Not merely physically tiring, although you certainly feel the fatigue in your legs. Race training can be very mentally exhausting, especially when you’re running more miles than before and pushing yourself harder in workouts than you’re accustomed to.
We all have those days in our training where we don’t want to run, but what happens when you begin to have those weeks? If you’re feeling mentally burnt out from training (but aren’t injured or overtraining), then try some of these 8 ways to avoid mental burnout during training.
Here’s a simple but effective trick: smile when you run. Smiling has an instant psychological effect of boosting your mood and associating happy feelings with your current activity. No matter what your mood, you will be in a better mood and enjoy your run more when you smile. And don’t worry about looking crazy to other runners and people; it’s much better than looking like you’re suffering through your run.
As awful as I look mid-race (seriously, does anyone have tips for not looking bad in race photos?), I love the picture I used from the Go! St. Louis Half because it reminds me how much attitude affects running. That race wasn’t my best race, but I did my best to keep my head up, smile, and enjoy the fact that I was racing. Just smiling at spectators, especially Ryan and my family, lifted my thoughts out of the discomfort of how I felt.
I probably talk about this too much, but it truly is one of the best ways to prevent injury, overtraining, and burnout: slow down on your easy runs and recovery runs. Pushing yourself too hard in each and every run is as mentally exhausting as it is physically exhausting and is a quick way to achieve mental burnout. When you push yourself hard, you are engaging your mind to override signals of fatigue and discomfort; do this too often, and your brain will succumb to the fatigue.
Slowing down also makes the run more enjoyable. There’s no fun in stressing about pace each and every day. A light, easy pace allows you to zone out to your music, listen to an interesting podcast or audiobook, or enjoy the scenery on your favorite trail. If you have a hard time keeping an easy pace, ditch your music and focus on your breathing as a cue. I promise, your run won’t be completely boring without music! You may even find you enjoy the quiet, meditative, and relaxing aspects of running without music.
To help myself slow down and stop stressing about pace, I run without that data feedback on my easy days. Instead of having my Garmin display my pace or time and distance (because it’s too tempting to do that mental math), I set it to display the current time and use markers on the trail to indicate when I should turn around. Since I’m a data geek and like to have the data for analyzing my training, I do keep the GPS running, but just not so I can see it until after my run. Then, I just run easy—no heavy breathing, no pushing the pace, just an easy, relaxed pace.
Run for Fun
Along those lines, have one run a week that is devoted to being an enjoyable run. I like to take Charlie out for an easy 5-6 mile run. My only pacing concern is that I am running slow enough so that his puggle legs can handle the distance. Instead of stressing about my pace or the distance, I just enjoy getting out there with my dog and seeing how much he loves running. These runs often remind me why I love to run and serve as a mental refresh button between my Monday speed work and Wednesday tempo runs.
So do what you need to revisit that love of running. Maybe it’s running with a friend, on a dirt trail, or without any technology. Maybe you like to plug an easy pace into the treadmill and indulge in your favorite TV show for 45 minutes. Whatever you do, find a way to revisit that original love of running that lead you to sign up for your race in the first place.
Shift Your Mindset
When you’re logging 40+ miles and doing long runs for 2-3 hours, it can begin to feel as if you are always running. More than likely, you catch yourself spending over half your run just wishing you were done already. Shift away from the mindset of wishing you weren’t running and instead focus on the great things about running. Think about how good the physical act of running feels, how much you enjoy the sunshine and fresh air, and the sense of accomplishment the run bestows. Savor every moment of the run (yes, even the not so good ones) rather than wishing it away. Even if you have to continually convince yourself to focus on the moment, it will improve the overall mental and physical experience.
Reassess Your Goals
If you’re dreading your workouts, it may be because you set an unrealistic goal and are pushing yourself too hard. Goal race pace won’t feel easy during training, but it shouldn’t feel impossible. Plus, you will put more stress on yourself and each run if you keep pushing harder as that goal becomes no more achievable. This not only guarantees physical burnout, but it will be discouraging, stressful, and lead to mental burnout during training.
A more realistic goal will make your workouts more feasible and thus boost your confidence and improve your state of mind throughout training. This, in turn, will help you enjoy the workouts, or at least not dread them. Then, come race day, you will be more likely to achieve your goal, which will prevent further mental burnout and discouragement.
Sometimes, a little self-indulgence is all you need to avoid mental burnout during training and feel rejuvenated in your running. By treating yourself, you remove the feeling that all training is about is work, work, work. For some people, this might be a massage to work out all of the knots and adhesions in your muscles. Not only will this relax you and release stress, but the massage will make you feel physically better, which will in turn make your runs feel easier both physically and mentally.
You could also purchase a brand new pair of running shoes or some new workout clothes. Having new running gear will bring excitement to your next run; who isn’t eager to get out there and run when they have a pretty new pair of Brooks running shoes or Oiselle shorts? Never underestimate the power of something small and simple to help you overcome temporary mental burnout during training.
Find a New Route
Much like a new piece of running gear, a new route will bring excitement and variety to your stale training routine. After hundreds of miles day in and day out, your usual running route can become boring and no longer provide the same motivation it once did. Try a a social media site such as MapMyRun or Strava to find a new route in your area.
A new surface can also provide some fresh stimulus to give you a mental reboot in your marathon training. If you’re usually a road runner, try a soft trail for some natural scenery and a cushier surface under your feet. If you’re a fan of the treadmill, take some of your runs outside and reap the benefits of fresh air and some vitamin D. If you normally plod along for miles on a pancake-flat path, seek out some hills—they’ll not only make your run more interesting, but they’ll also make you a stronger and faster runner.
If you just can’t beat the mental dread of running so much, it could be a sign your body needs a break. Cross-training will help you avoid mental burnout during training for a big race. Swap out one of your runs for an equivalent cross-training session such as swimming, pool running, cycling, or using the elliptical. You will still build your aerobic fitness, but your mind will the variety and your body will thank you for the lower-impact workout. Cross-training won’t cause you to lose your running specific fitness; it will help maintain in, especially when the alternative would be skipping a workout all together. Chances are, also, that after cutting back on the frequency and volume of your runs will soon leave you eager to get back out there and run.
Questions of the Day:
Have you ever felt mentally burnt out from running (or any sport)?
How do you avoid mental burnout when training for a big race?