How to avoid burnout as ultra trail runner
Avoiding burnout is crucial for the long-term enjoyment and success of (ultra) trail runners, who often face physically and mentally demanding challenges. Also a recent study prevailed that because of the amount of training hours that goes into preparing for an (ultra) trail, amateur runners are more likely to become burnout than elite athletes*. Pro athletes are literally getting paid to prepare themselves, but if you are just participating to these type of challenges, you are very likely to also have a job, household, social life and who knows what else that you need to balance with your training sessions.
So the big difference between you and an elite is that the elite their main focus is the actual trainings whilst you might also be training 15-20h a week but at the same time tackling 1863862 other thigns. So here are some tips to help prevent burnout and to still reach your goal:
- Progressive training: Gradually increase your training volume (training HOURS) and intensity. Avoid sudden spikes in mileage or intensity and incorporate rest and recovery weeks into your training plan. These weeks are not only crucial for your physical recovery, but also for mental recovery and recharging. I personally always use a 3-week intense training plan and then 1 week of recovery.
- Listen to your body: Pay attention to signs of fatigue, soreness, persistent pain, mood swings or bad sleep patterns. If your body is signaling the need for rest, allow yourself the time to recover. Pushing through excessive fatigue can lead to burnout and increase the risk of injury. Also most smart watches now have functions such as measuring your HRV are your body battery: use these functions to follow-up how well your nerve system is recovering too. HOWEVER, do not solely rely on these systems but also on how your body really feels.
- Cross-train: I have said it before and I will say it again: include cross-training activities that complement trail running. This can help prevent overuse injuries, provide mental variety, and give specific muscle groups a break.
- Rest and recovery: I might be repeating myself, but that is because this is so important and still many runners keep ignoring this part of their trainings. Prioritize adequate sleep and rest. Quality rest is essential for physical recovery, mental well-being, and overall performance. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and also enough rest throughout the day (not rushing through your day, but taking the time to have chat & a proper meal instead of always something on the go).
- Nutrition and hydration: Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for sustained energy levels and recovery. Ensure you’re fueling your body with the right nutrients and staying hydrated before, during, and after runs. If you are not sure anymore what I exactly mean by this, I would advise go to take a look again at the chapter that is about nutrition.
- Set realistic goals: Establish achievable short-term and long-term goals. Unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and burnout. Celebrate small victories along the way and recognize that progress takes time.
- Variety in training: Include variety in your training routine. Mix up your trail routes, try different terrains, and incorporate speed work, hill training, and strength training to keep things interesting. It’s not because you are a trail runnner, that you cannot participate in road races anymore. I would instead encourage you to keep doing them to keep your mental focus sharp.
- Socialize and build a community: (most) trail runners are very social people and are often very welcoming to join their trainings. Running with friends or joining a running group can provide motivation, support, and a sense of community, reducing the risk of burnout.
- Mindfulness and mental health: Incorporate mindfulness practices, such as meditation or yoga, into your routine. These practices can help manage stress, enhance focus, and improve overall mental well-being. (Side note: I didn’t really believe in this until recently. Now I am going at least 1x/ week to a yoga class to regain my focus and to fully relax my body and also my mind).
- Plan rest days: Intentionally schedule rest days into your training plan. These days allow for physical recovery and mental rejuvenation. Use rest days to engage in non-running activities that bring you joy such as meeting with friends, reading a book or even doing a Netflix marathon. Whatever kind of activity that you enjoy that doesn’t require (a lot) of physical activity.
- Periodization: Implement annual training cycles with periods of higher and lower intensity. This approach helps prevent overtraining, promotes recovery, and allows for peak performance during key events.
- Regular assessments: Periodically assess your training plan, performance, and overall well-being. Make adjustments as needed to accommodate changes in your schedule, lifestyle, or fitness goals. Practice being honest to yourself and listening to your body.
- Have Fun: Remember why you started trail running in the first place. Maintain a sense of enjoyment and adventure. If running starts to feel like a chore, reassess your approach and find ways to rediscover the joy in your sport.
In the summer of 2023, I spent 3 months in the Alpes to train. And although I really had the time of my life, I also noticed that at the end I was kind of ‘burned out’. In the video below I will go a little bit more in depth about this and what I will do in the future to avoid this.
*I am not saying that for elites it is easier, because they also have a lot of stress to live up to the standards of their sponsors and to perform.