By Michael Krueger
One morning you wake up and you’re tired and grouchy and lack motivation. All you want is to go back to bed and be left alone. You had been doing everything right, too. You’re on the longest continuous exercise streak of your adult life, and now you feel lousy. What went wrong?
Before You Burn Out
If you decided after the holidays to change or begin a fitness routine, you are now heading toward the end of the second month. That is eight weeks of regular and consistent exercise. The fun and enthusiasm of those first heady days are long past, and yet you continued to soldier on. Good for you.
Now you find your energy lagging and your attitude slumping. It is time for a short break. I know, you worry that you won’t come back to your program after a break, or perhaps you worry about losing what you have gained. Both are irrational fears, fears usually are, but that doesn’t make them any less problematic. It can be very tough even for a veteran exerciser to take a break, but trust me, your mind and your body will thank you.
The most successful exercisers (and athletes) schedule time off every so often. It doesn’t have to be a heavily researched and planned “periodization” sort of stand down but just a few days to let everything rest and recover. It’s a good time to take stock of how effective and enjoyable your program has been as well.
If you are a new exerciser, then you may feel that you have a legitimate fear with regard to not resuming your program after a layoff, even one as short as a few days. It probably wouldn’t happen, but just to allay your concerns and still take a break, you could just cut back what you have been doing rather than stopping completely. This might mean rather than running your normal distance, you walk it instead, or do 50 percent less weight or half the reps on your lifts. This isn’t as effective as complete rest, but if you are worried, it will keep your head in the game while still giving your body some downtime.
Being new to fitness, you will eventually have to come to terms with a fact that long-term successful exercisers already know: that mentally you need a break from exercise as well. In my experience, 90 percent of fitness takes place between your ears, and if that part of your anatomy isn’t getting a break, then you are headed for trouble as well.
Fear of failure is a powerful force in fitness--for both good and evil, so to speak. It can get you out on a run or into the gym on a cold wet morning better than almost anything else. It can also cause you to overtrain, ignore pain signals, get injured, and burn out. The combination of training hard and resting adequately is a fine line that you must learn to walk if you are to be successful in the long run.
After a few cycles of scheduled rest, you will see that your program actually does get a needed boost from taking a little break. Your muscles and joints feel better, and your attitude is improved. Now you are ready to plan and tackle another progressive cycle.
Unplanned rest is also known as injury. This is the most common type of forced time off and obviously the most devastating to anyone working to improve their fitness. It is equally tough if you are brand new to fitness or if you are a 20- or 30-year veteran.
Acute injuries come out of the blue. Misstep coming off a curb while out on a run, and you end up with a sprained or broken ankle; this is just bad luck. Then some injuries, even something as severe as a ruptured Achilles tendon, you would’ve seen coming a mile away if you had been paying attention. So let’s talk about those injuries. Let’s talk about paying attention.
Say you’ve been exercising regularly for many weeks and everything is going great. You are eating better and sleeping better, and your attitude both in and out of work has been so improved that people have actually mentioned it. Then one morning, you wake up and you don’t feel quite right. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you feel a little sluggish. Being a dedicated fitness athlete, you put these thoughts out of your mind and head to the gym.
The next morning, you feel the same anxiety, an odd knot in your stomach. Of course, you push on and go out for your scheduled morning run. Halfway through, your heels start to hurt, your Achilles tendons burn, the old loop of negative thinking starts playing in your head, you just feel lousy, so you slow to a walk. You drag yourself home and during your post-workout shower, you wonder what is going on.
To anyone who has successfully exercised for years or decades, it would be obvious: You need a rest. To someone who has been at it for only weeks or months, still riding on the crest of success and boundless enthusiasm, it might not be so obvious. You might tell yourself that you are just being lazy (we’ll talk about that possibility in a later column), but that’s not it. If you don’t heed this early warning from your body, it will get more and more insistent until it forces you to rest from illness or injury.
Burnout is relative, and its severity varies from person to person. It isn’t something that can be easily predicted or tested for, but once you’ve experienced it, you know exactly what it is. Your attitude goes right down the toilet, your energy is nonexistent, and your mood is so ugly that your friends and family hide when they see you coming. And your workouts, once a bright spot in your daily routine, now feel like a pending death sentence.
There is one quantifiable way to monitor yourself physically for signs of burnout. It is as simple as taking your pulse. Anytime you have the opportunity to sleep a full night and awaken without the aid of an alarm, take your pulse before you get out of bed. Immediately on waking, check it for 15 seconds. This will give you your true resting pulse. This is your baseline.
Now, once you have that number, you continue to take your pulse whenever possible first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. If you notice a couple of days in a row where it is elevated by a beat or two, this is a warning sign that you may be overtraining and need a rest. If you do this for a few months, you will get a very strong sense of your rest and recovery needs. Eventually you will be able to identify when you need a day off without even taking your pulse; you will just “know” you need a rest, and you won’t feel guilty about taking it. The great thing about this system is it usually takes only one extra day of rest from exercise to bring you back to your baseline. It’s so simple it is hard to believe it works so well. I know runners who have regularly used this procedure and, other than the occasional “pulse-indicated rest day,” haven’t missed a scheduled run in many years.
It’s All Part of the Plan
Regularly scheduled days off should be as much a part of a well-designed program as planned progression should be. Your mental health as well as your physical health both depend on exercise, nutrition, and rest. Don’t be fooled into thinking that exercise compulsion, masquerading as dedication, along with energy drinks and a big dose of hubris can make up for sleep, rest, and recovery.
Take a rest as needed and, in the long run, you will be stronger, faster, healthier, and happier. Thinking otherwise will only earn you an unplanned break from exercise, and nobody wants that.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.