Burnout in Athletes

We look at the causes and symptoms of Burnout


It’s sometimes challenging to be a person who is new to endurance sports. Many people new to the sport get so drawn in to running, cycling, triathlon, etc. that it takes over their lives. I’ve coached (hundreds), done research and counseled newbies so I’ve seen how the passion and commitment consume new athletes in their sport.

You are probably at the three-quarters mark of you endurance season. You’ve probably been training hard but have you been training too hard? How is your body and mind feeling? Are you ready for the season to be over? If so, you may be experiencing symptoms of burnout.

The pressure to win and train with intensity has increased dramatically throughout the years, mostly because of the [perceived] rewards physically, mentally and emotionally.1 But one result of these pressures 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.2 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.1 Both definitions stress extreme wear and tear on the body produced through training demands larger than what an athlete can cope with physically, mentally and psychologically.

Why talk about burnout? In my work with endurance athletes, particularly beginners, I’ve found it to be common and it’s important to educate endurance athletes that you do not need to push yourself to complete mental and physical exhaustion [burnout] to be good.

This article is going to explain the causes of burnout, symptoms [what to look for], and some treatments and preventative methods.

Causes of burnout

Burnout afflicts athletes 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.2

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.2

Other factors in the research indicate the following categories of factors 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: lack of fulfillment, lack of enjoyment, and inappropriate expectations.1

Symptoms of burnout

The chart to the bottom left is a list of psychological and physiological signs and symptoms of burnout.

Throughout the life of an endurance athlete some of these symptoms happen on occasion for a variety of reasons, however if you are experiencing more than one or two and on a regular basis you are more than likely experiencing burnout.

A study of competitive swimmers found, the heavier the training, especially over time, the greater the mood disturbance. Mood disturbances included: increased depression, anger, fatigue and decreased vigor. Conversely, a reduction in their training was associated with improvements in mood.1

There are numerous instruments and surveys that measure burnout, but perhaps the best way to analyze burnout is to pay attention to your body and find ways to be realistic about your training. There is a huge difference in feeling motivated to train versus pushing beyond what is realistic.

Prevention and treatment

There are numerous easy ways to prevent and treat burnout.

1.Set short term goals with incentives for reaching them. This helps prevent burnout and also enhances motivation. Meeting short term goals provides a feeling of success which enhances self esteem.1

2.Find someone you feel comfortable communicating frustrations, anxieties and disappointments, in particular about your training program.

3.It’s important to schedule time outs or relaxation breaks. It’s important to have one or two [maybe more] days completely off from training. One reason the business world provides vacations is so that employees don’t get burnt and have time to rejuvenate.

4.Change up your workouts. It’s easy to do the same workout, but psychologically and physically it’s better to switch it up. Try a variety of exercises for each goal of the training regimen.

5.Learn 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. Keep a positive outlook in your training environment and have fun! 1&2

It’s important to look at the overall balance in your life to ensure you have other outside interests, friends and family you spend time with. And are you good at taking care of yourself physically, acknowledging vulnerabilities, humanness, and time constraints? 3

To completely recover from burnout you need to remove yourself completely from the sport. Severe burnout takes months to recover from. Coming back into your sport is a slow process and should include some/all of the above prevention tools.


When people burnout they feel physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted and no one, particularly people who are new to endurance sports want to experience that. 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. 3

Your training program should not be too simple [it won’t challenge you enough] or too extreme [which eventually leads to burnout]. Athletes need to do a better job of routinely assessing their how they are feeling physically and mentally. Not only do you need a basis of where to begin a training regime from a physical standpoint but you also need that information from an emotional and mental one in order to observe fluctuations that lead 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 drmichelle@drmichellecleere.com.


1 Weinberg RS, Gould D. Foundations of Sport & Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. 2003.

2 Williams JM. Applied Sports Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance.Moutain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1998.

3 Martens R. Coaches Guide to Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. 1987.


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