Ultra Training during 2020: Burnout

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girl running up mountain in Tucson, AZ

At the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I still felt hopeful and fresh. I had been working through a training block for a race that was supposed to happen in March and while some things were being cancelled, I was optimistic. When that race was cancelled, it was okay. I’m an adventure runner at heart and didn’t mind not having the race, so long as I could continue going out and exploring on my own. Instead of that race, I participated in Aravaipa Strong, a 10-day race where you could pick your distance and proceeds went towards the COVID-19 fund.

Initially, I had signed up for the marathon and as the week approached, I could already tell my energy wasn’t where it should be for a race. I wasn’t overly excited and didn’t feel motivated. My anxiety had already begun to build — seemingly low level, but looking back, it was already impacting my sleep and recovery. I’d already put a halt on group runs for Wild Women Running and had been running alone more often than not. I was feeling the impacts of living alone and feeling isolated frequently by choosing to play it safe and not come in to contact with others, hardly seeing any friends and not having a roommate. I wound up running 100 miles over 7 days — a 40+ mile jump for me from my usual 45-50 mile week. I had felt strong during the entirety of the week and reflecting on it, I was running on the highs of doing something new that I’d never achieved before that kept my anxious mind at bay. I am able to zone in and work when I have a goal in my sights, even when everything else feels heavy and draining. After, I rolled right in to nearly 40 mile weeks and immediately began to feel the effects of high effort without time off.

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sunset in Phoenix, AZ over Dreamy Draw Recreational Park

I’m still pretty new to ultra-running and trail in general, my first race (a 25k) in 2018. As I navigated my body feeling absolutely exhausted, the tension surrounding every day with the pandemic, anxiety creeping in frequently, working from home in my small space and starting to experience the key symptoms of burn out… I was digging myself a hole. According to burnout researcher Christina Maslach, Ph.D. in this Forbes article the symptoms have been broken down into three main categories:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion.
  • Cynicism and detachment.
  • Lack of feeling impactful or accomplished.

Instead of taking some down time after a big effort, I continued to train and push as my energy dwindled, my emotional and physical exhaustion rose and my exertion felt incredibly high. The Arizona desert was beginning to heat up and soon, even before sunrise we were hitting 80+ degrees. No more midday enjoyable runs or relaxed mornings rolling out of bed and just going whenever felt right. I pushed for several 50-mile weeks and dropped back down again. My sleep was lacking, I wasn’t fueling enough to make up for everything I’d been expending and the recovery was not there. My desire to wake up at 4:30am was absent and when I was running, I was counting down the miles until I was finished. The joy was washing away. I was punching above my weight while I looked around thinking, others are doing this and MORE, why can’t I keep going? Why don’t I feel good to train hard? I should be THRIVING with all this time to train…right? 

My last straw came when I would try doing simple 6-8 mile runs with no leg turnover. I hadn’t felt fresh or strong since before the 10-day race. It had been nearly a month and a  half of feeling depleted. I woke up on a Sunday morning after camping near the Grand Canyon and felt a boulder on my chest.  I had consistently not been sleeping well and it showed, my whole body trembling and fatigued. I told my friend I didn’t think I could run the canyon. I worried, for the first time ever, if my legs would be able to get me out of the Canyon if I ran in to it. I didn’t feel confident.

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girl at Grand Canyon National Park

I put on my shoes, eating a cookie for breakfast and told her we should go. I should move and hopefully, set these feelings free as I went. And of course, as the miles passed and the canyon opened up beneath us, I was able to feel through the heavy and the heartache. I found moments of joy and goodness that felt light and pure, like this here. We laughed and talked and my self doubt of not being able to make it faded into the distance.

With everything in the world feeling heavy, uncertain and stressful I knew I had been absorbing that in my day to day. Add in a break up, being home so much and the confusion of how to handle these situations in the “right or wrong way” and I had hit my limit. Since then, I decided to back off any set plans and every day, ask my body “what do you need today?” It is rest? Is it a bike ride or lifting weights or yoga or a run? Instead of being fixated on training during this time with so much uncertainty, I decided to cut myself some slack and acknowledge just how much the weight of everything has impacted me and my ability to train…my desire to train.

My shift has come from being gentle with myself and realizing that there is no right way to be active and staying well. As long as I’m moving and taking care of my body, this is the season I’m in. I opted out of the race I planned to do for August and have embraced that my broken heart and my exhausted body need more time to come back in full force. I’m competitive, I’m driven and I have never backed down from a challenge or training block. This time it just didn’t feel right to keep digging and digging. All of this I share to say, listen to your body when it tells you it needs time, even if others don’t see it or it isn’t what is on your plan. I wanted to be one of the athletes that turned solely to the trails to cope and would log tons of miles during these times to decompress, but that hasn’t turned out to me right for me. These are situations we have never faced before and we are all going to experience, process and be impacted by it all differently. If it has lead to you feeling less focused, energized, motivated, etc — that is a very real and common reaction to trauma, anxiety and stress. Be gentle. Races and training will always be there, our health and overall wellbeing is far more important.

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