It seems like in the past year or so there has been heightened awareness of and concern about burning out. This has become an especially big concern within extreme sports like CrossFit and ultramarathon running. As someone who has spent many of my waking hours physically exerting myself, mainly through the act of running, the subject has certainly caught my eye.
All this has made me reflect back on the amount of training I've done since graduating high school back in 2004. I definitely didn't start my collegiate career at what I would consider "high mileage," or even year-round training. But later in college and in the following years, I built a base of miles that I would consider high mileage. In 2008, I began what I would consider "very high mileage" training. And over the past seven years, I have a run 100+ mile weeks pretty consistently. Over the last three calendar years, I ran more than 5,000 miles per year.
I wouldn't say that I have over-raced in the last few years, but I certainly have not shied away from racing. I have raced over 25 ultra marathons since I started them at the age of 24. With my training and racing background one could likely argue that I am on the fast track to burning out. Based on some of the articles/posts this year, it would seem to be just a matter of time.
That said, I will not be changing my training and racing philosophy. The reason being is I have serious doubts as to the logic behind most, if not all, of the arguments that are pointing to burnout. Lots of the comments I have seen in the past few months suggest that ultra runners need to significantly reduce their race schedule and pick spots throughout the year to take time away from running. I don't feel the need to partake in that advice.
Instead, I plan to look towards individuals who have managed to remain high-charging athletes for decades with no burnout. The most notable person I have had the pleasure to meet and discuss this topic with is Frank Bozanich. Frank wasted no time letting me know exactly what he thought about the whole concept of burning out. Let's just say he vehemently disagrees that it is the workload that causes burnout. I shared with Frank my training load of the past few years, which turned out to be quite dwarfed compared to his past. Frank told stories of 7,000-mile years littered with 150-mile weeks. Frank wasn't hanging out on the couch in between these training bouts, either. He was working, at times, up to 12 hours a day!
My takeaway from Frank, and others like him, is that it is not the workload that is causing the burnout, but something else. So what is it? I strongly believe that poor nutrition--putting inadequate or inappropriate substances into our bodies--is the main cause for what we as a culture have termed "burnout." In my eyes, finding an approach to nutrition that keeps you going is the ticket.
Back in 2011, when I first started seriously training for and racing ultramarathons, I found myself in a bit of a mess. After racing three 50-milers in a nine-week timespan, I started noticing some unnatural trends in my day-to-day life. Things like trouble sleeping, midday lethargy, swelling in my ankles and abdomen and excessive nighttime trips to the bathroom. I won't go into great detail, as I have told this story multiple times on podcasts, but the point is I recognized then that I had to either scale back my training and racing--or find a way to make it sustainable.
At the time, I followed a pretty typical endurance athlete diet. Carbohydrates were my go-to fuel. I had dabbled in a wide range of high-carb diet trends, from high carb no meat, to high carb with meat, etc. I had never ventured into the world of high fat. But today, the bulk of my calories come from quality fat sources, and this approach to nutrition has worked great for me. Moreover, I have noticed significant improvements in training, racing and recovery with this approach.
I have found a method of nutrition, called Optimized Fat Metabolism (OFM), that has worked great for me. It allows me to train hard, and feel like I am getting stronger.
I think our culture has gotten pretty off-base with nutrition. Many people seem to think that the harder you train, the more you can "get away with" when it comes to food. When people see my training and racing schedule, they often comment on how I can eat anything I want. But the reality is quite the opposite. The harder you train, the more dialed in you have to be in order to give your body the tools to recover and get stronger. Burnout is not inevitable. It's running hard and then giving your body a double-whammy by eating poorly that's going to lead to burnout.
So if you ask me, rather than demonizing what most might consider an "overly active" lifestyle, we should be looking for ways to support a lifestyle of movement. Managing our stresses in life, including stresses induced by what you eat, in order to provide a framework for the level of activity we desire.