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Warning Signs of Athlete Burnout and How to Prevent It

burned out athlete burnout

Participating in endurance sports, whether for fitness or at a high level, is physically demanding and places significant mental and emotional stress on many athletes. 

Athlete burnout is a serious concern that can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s well-being and performance. 

What Are the Warning Signs of Athlete Burnout?

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Athlete burnout involves physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion from prolonged and intense training periods. 

It goes beyond the typical challenges of training and competing, impacting an athlete’s overall physical and psychological well-being and athletic performance. 

At least 10% of athletes experience moderate burnout symptoms on a regular basis and 1%-2% experience severe burnout symptoms. These numbers are expected to rise as sports become more demanding and competitive. Here are some warning signs of burnout:

Persistent Fatigue

Athletes experiencing burnout often find themselves drained, both physically and mentally. This exhaustion can be a result of overtraining without adequate recovery. To prevent it, athletes and their coaches should carefully design training programs that incorporate rest days and prioritize quality sleep. 

Decreased Performance

A sudden decline in athlete performance can be a key indicator of burnout. Athletes who are emotionally drained may struggle to maintain their usual level of skill and focus during training and competitions. Athletes may feel tired, causing frustration when they’re unable to perform to their usual standard.

Loss of Motivation

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Burnout can lead to a significant dip in motivation. Athletes who once felt passionate about their sport may find themselves disinterested, lacking the drive to train or compete, and ultimately falling out of love with their sport. Setting short-term and achievable goals can maintain motivation. Coaches should regularly check in with athletes to assess their mental well-being and provide support when needed.

This disinterest can even lead to mental health issues. Athlete burnout is strongly linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety or strained relationships. 

Irritability and Mood Swings

Athletes experiencing burnout may become irritable and anxious. These emotional changes can impact their relationships with teammates, coaches, friends, and family. Encouraging a positive team culture and promoting open communication can ensure athletes feel supported and reduce the risk of burnout.

Increased Injuries

Physical burnout typically results in increased susceptibility to injuries. The body’s inability to recover properly can lead to a higher risk of strains, sprains, and other sports-related injuries. Studies have found that physical exhaustion is associated with both overuse injuries and acute injuries.

Isolation and Withdrawal

Burnout may cause athletes to withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves from support networks. This distancing can exacerbate the negative effects of burnout and make it even more challenging to address.

Some athletes may even voice wanting to drop out or retire from the sport early. 70% of school children under 13 and 45% of youth athletes quit their sports due to burnout. Approximately 80% of elite athletes retire early due to exhaustion. 

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Disrupted sleep patterns, such as insomnia or oversleeping, can indicate burnout. Sleep is crucial for recovery and any disturbances can contribute to physical and mental fatigue, making performing at their usual level challenging.

Preventing Athlete Burnout

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Athletes who want to avoid burnout need to be more than aware of the signs. They can take several steps to proactively prevent physical and mental exhaustion with their sport.

Balanced Training

Coaches should emphasize the importance of balanced training schedules. Avoid excessive training loads without adequate rest periods to allow the body and mind to recover. Periodization, incorporating rest weeks, and adjusting training based on individual needs can help maintain a healthy balance. 

In fact, several studies show that rest days are just as important as training days. Rest days are part of a well-rounded workout routine, and can improve performance and sleep quality.

However, it’s important that athletes and coaches schedule these rest weeks appropriately. The human body has limits, and pushing it too far can result in injuries and fatigue. These will leave you sidelined for longer and in worse condition than normal rest periods, throwing off the progress you’ve made.

Highly trained athletes can lose between 4% and 25% of their endurance performance in as little as three to four weeks when left unable to maintain their regular routine. Most athletes take a rest day every seven to 10 days to prevent this. On average, athletes also take one to two weeks off training at the end of a season. 

Open Communication

Encouraging open communication between athletes, coaches, teammates, and support staff is vital. Athletes should feel comfortable discussing their concerns and coaches should be attentive to their athletes’ needs. 

Regular team meetings and one-on-one check-ins can allow athletes to express their thoughts and feelings. Research shows that having proper social support can significantly reduce the risk of burnout, particularly in weight lifters. Additionally, individual sports have higher levels of burnout than team sports. 

Goal Setting

Establish realistic and achievable short-term and long-term goals. Clear goals provide athletes with a sense of purpose and motivation, reducing the likelihood of burnout. Coaches can collaborate with athletes to set meaningful and attainable objectives, creating a positive and focused mindset.

Switch Up Activities

It can be beneficial for athletes to engage in a variety of activities within and outside of their sport. Doing this prevents monotony and provides a mental break from the pressures of competition. 

Cross-training and incorporating leisure activities can contribute to a well-rounded and fulfilling athletic experience. This approach to training can prevent overuse injuries and prevent the athlete from becoming bored with their sport and training plans.

Additionally, adding fun activities, like socializing or workouts that are less stressful on the body like group walks or hikes, gives athletes an opportunity to relax and unwind.

Rest and Recovery

Prioritize rest and recovery rituals as part of the training regimen. Recovery strategies, such as proper nutrition, hydration, sufficient sleep, and rehabilitation exercises like adequate stretching and foam rolling, are essential for maintaining peak performance and avoiding burnout. 

Approximately two-thirds of student-athletes believe they’re burnt out due to overtraining. Coaches should educate athletes on the importance of self-care and make recovery practices an integral part of the training plan. 

Pay Attention to the Warning Signs

Athlete burnout is a complex issue that requires proactive measures for prevention. Fortunately, recognizing the warning signs and implementing strategies to address the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of burnout allows athletes and their support systems to create a healthy and sustainable training program.

Jack Shaw contributed Better Triathlete
Jack Shaw
Senior Writer at Modded | Website

Regular product tester and frequent contributor to Better Triathlete, Jack Shaw is a senior writer for Modded, a men's lifestyle brand focused on fitness, sports training, and overall wellness. Jack specializes in various facets of athletic training, sports nutrition, and recovery, and he enjoys immersing himself in nature via camping and other outdoor activities.