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What to Do About Burnout

We all face burnout sooner or later, but do we really deal with it in a systematic way that benefits our long-term goals? Or do we just haphazardly take time off and let loose on our diets and training?

Is there a better way to handle when we feel burned-out, tired, and overly fatigued from training? Can we take control of our burnout so we can avoid throwing our progress down the drain?

A quick review of symptoms

Despite your best efforts you will inevitably reach times where your body is just plain tired from training at such a high intensity. No matter if you regulate said intensity, strategically take rest days, manage stress levels, ensure proper sleep and recovery, and practice great diet habits you’re still susceptible.

Some symptoms of a much-needed rest include:

  • Lack of motivation to train most days of the week
  • Lack of the infamous “blood pump” in your workouts
  • Struggling to just maintain current strength levels
  • Tiring in the middle of a training session
  • Decreased intensity during training
  • Lack of motivation to stay on your current eating plan
  • Increased body aches and minor pains (not related to any serious sickness)
  • Trouble sleeping or inconsistent sleep patterns
  • More than normal chronic soreness or the feeling of overall body weakness
  • Decreased appetite

Of course this isn’t a list derived from some medical journal summarizing clinical findings. This list is more practical and relatable to your “at-home diagnosis.” In other words, you don’t need a complete medical workup to tell you you’re burned out.

Which approach?

So you’ve decided you’re burned-out. Now what?

If you’re experiencing several of the symptoms above (or maybe you just know something’s up) then let’s look at some best practices to both properly recover and stay on track with your goals so that all that progress you made over the last few months wasn’t wasted. Let’s not take one step forward and then one step back.

I’m not immune. I face fatigue every now and again, but I take a much more instinctive approach in handling this. I always say:

“Don’t schedule time off. Life will provide plenty for you.”

What I mean by that is life will find ways to force you to take time off. Whether it’s a sickness, stress from work, family obligations, injury, vacations, or any other episode life throws at us life will find a way to throw a wrench into our best laid plans.

Now some may argue this approach touting the advantages of periodization models of training. That is a systematic training plan designed to include certain levels of regulated intensities, volumes, loads, and frequencies in order to elicit specific training outcomes. It has its place in certain training systems namely strength for performance, but hypertrophy (building muscle mass) is a bit of a different animal. Additionally, we are normal people with jobs, families, and other stresses that push and pull us. In order to pull off a perfectly constructed periodization plan would mean living in a bubble.

That is why I feel a more instinctual perspective is a better, more realistic indicator of when a break is due.

What to do to stay on track

So what do we do exactly? Well, it’s not rocket science, but I will list a few things I’ve done and continue to do to stave off total burnout and stay on track with my long-term training goals.

  1. Recognize your burnout and shift your perspective to recovery. This is easier said than done. If you’re like me you tend to be all or nothing most of the time. Once I reach an overly fatigued level I shift my mindset to one of “back off, it’s time for some rest.” This is simply a shift in mindset — temporarily.
  2. Schedule about three or four days of complete rest. If you are severely fatigued then you’re in for some real rest. Three or four days away from training will do wonders for your entire system including your joints, muscle tissue, nervous system, and overall mental state.
  3. During those days off focus on recovery. Your days off aren’t green lights to veg out, eat like crap, and party at all hours of the night. Your goal is to use these days to your advantage. Imagine you are in some sort of rehab recovering from injury. This is a time to take care of yourself.
  4. Don’t let the diet slip. As mentioned above, don’t let your diet go to crap. Yes, have a cheat meal or two (you may need the extra calories for repair and recovery), but don’t go overboard or you’ll end up spiraling out of control and blow this whole process.
  5. Sleep is the best cure. Of course keep up with your protein intake, complex carbs, and healthy fats, but sleep will be your most powerful weapon against the damage you’ve done. Nothing has the therapeutic effect like quality, sound sleep. Nap if you can, too.
  6. Return carefully. Once your time off is over resist coming back to the gym full bore. Take another four or so days to come back to training at half speed. Reduce your volume, avoid muscular failure on all sets, and pump the brakes on the intensity. This time is your barometer determining how you’ve recovered.
  7. Crank up the intensity when you’re ready. You’ll know when you’re ready to attack your training again. I’ve found that the best indicator is my enthusiasm for training. Once I start looking forward to going to the gym again I know that my body is recovered and hungry for training.

Of course, this is my experience with how I handle burnout and fatigue. We all must remember that we are not machines that can systematically turn on our intensity levels and continuously make progress with no end in site. We are human after all that ebb and flow through life. Physique building, to me, is an ever-evolving learning process with no end in site. If we can regulate burnout, train smart, and take the long view then we are better positioned to continue walking into the gym recovered, rested, and ready to take on the next workout.

Happy training!

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