The Inevitable, Painful Burnout

I’ve extolled the virtues of running numerous times on this blog, so after some careful consideration, I decided that it was worth discussing the other side of running – burnout.

I’ve often said that running can be like a dysfunctional relationship.  Like, you’ll be totally obsessed with running and want to love it until you die and have its babies.  But then you’ll get really tired of running and how goddamn needy it is, and how taxing and abusive it can be on your body.  So you try to let it down gently by ignoring it and hope that it just goes away forever.

Then you start finding yourself missing running, and wondering how running  is doing. Before you know it, you have reconciled with running, and then you find yourself doing things like running out in the rain and cold and trying to figure out why the hell you’re the only person outside when all the smart people are warm and indoors.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Marathon training does a lot of good things for your body. I was in the best shape of my life and generally felt awesome.  If you’re not careful, though, running for enjoyment can quickly turn into an obsession. It’s a complex, untidy thing, and I’m not really keen about going into details but here’s the gist of it: you’re around a bunch of other crazy runners and lose perspective on what it means to take a break. You want to retain your fitness and body even without the crazy mileage; this means that, instead of running for enjoyment, you spend every run berating yourself for not running fast or strong enough, and obsessing that you are losing your shape.

Without even realizing it, I found myself in this spiral, with each run getting worse and worse.  Last week, I ran four miles and felt nauseous, and then saw a migraine aura afterward (luckily, I didn’t actually get a migraine; it was just bad dehydration, hence the nausea).

The next day, it finally dawned on me.  And I can’t even say it was an epiphany.  I was at the doctor getting my biennial checkup for work when I told him about my dehydration episode and injured shoulder.  “Maybe you want to take it easy from running for awhile,” he suggested.  “It seems like your body is trying to give you hints to take it easy.”

And that’s when it finally hit me.  I’m burned out. And all the shitty runs I’ve been having lately totally make sense.

My dad advised me not to run until I absolutely wanted to, but I found myself today heading out on my group run out of habit.  It was only a 2-mile run, but my legs felt like lead.  This run used to be a breeze for me and I would sprint my way to the finish.  Now my pace was plodding and I felt tired.

There were four other women running with us.  Lately, I’ve been feeling completely antisocial, and since none of my friends were there tonight, I felt like retreating into myself and being a hermit.  At one point, all the women stopped because the path was overgrown by grass, and I guess cutting around the grass to get to the path again was too difficult of a task for them or something.  Feeling impatient, I cut around them and started running on the path by myself, feeling the kind of angsty, moody tiredness that I indulged in frequently as a teenager.  I just wanted to be by myself, to be lost in my own frustrations with running without having to make small talk.

I had told myself before the run that I wasn’t going to be competitive, that I was just going to relax, but here I was, back up front, and obsessing about keeping that position.  Two of the women started catching up to me but I consciously stayed ahead of them.  Back in my peak running days, this would not have been a problem, but today my body was screaming, “THIS SUCKS THIS SUCKS THIS SUCKS THIS SUCKS.” And I wasn’t even running that fast.

Ignoring my rebellious body, I pushed through to the stoplight that usually signifies our finish line, feeling triumphant that, even though I was completely burned out, I was going to finish first.  I turned around to look behind me and noted the two women who had been catching up to me were not behind me at all. I looked across the street; they had cut across the street to get to the running store and would get there faster than me. They had finished first after all.

My first thought was, “Well, if jaywalking is what you need to do to finish first, then whatever bitches.”  My second thought was, “This was supposed to be a social run, and I keep turning this into a competition. I totally deserved that.”

So for an undetermined amount of time, I’m going to be taking it easy.  I have to find the joy in running again, the joy I felt on those beautiful mornings during marathon training when I had a good album on my iPod, and I could see the sun rising over the city skyline; fuck, those were awesome runs.

I know I’ll get it back.  This is not the first time I’ve been burned out; the last time I experienced burnout was about three or four years ago.  I’ll still keep running, but not with any set frequency or schedule.  I’ll run when I feel like it, and try to find other supplemental exercises in the meantime that are still interesting and challenging (and won’t kill my healing shoulder.)

And the most important lesson is – I’m too hard on myself, in all aspects of my life. I don’t have to be the best or fastest runner. I need to give myself permission to run slowly, even if it’s a short distance.

It’s frustrating, but it happens.  I still love running, and I always will. Just right now, I kind of hate it.


4 thoughts on “The Inevitable, Painful Burnout

  1. Ah, no good!

    Sometimes I do things like this too, I can’t understand why I don’t learn to listen to my body..

    In May there’s a running competition in Malmö, and I really wan to join. It’s just that I don’t really know how I should prepare myself (there’s no running groups around here). It’s only 5 km, but when I run by myself, I always run 1,5 km and walk 1, run 1,5 km.. The weather and migraines have stopped me from running so much that I want, but I hope it will be better now when the spring is here 🙂

    Hope you’ll feel better soon!


    • I know! It’s hard to listen to your body sometime. You want to push yourself and end up hurting yourself even more.

      Ooo a 5K sounds fun! 🙂 I think the best way to train for one is to do a longer, slower run once a week. Those long runs will really help your running and will even help you get faster as time goes by. Let me know if you do it!

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