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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Avoiding Burnout (from Triathlon and Running)

Let's face it. The sport of either triathlon and running has seen a boom the past 18 to 24 months. The races, whether big or small get filled up soon after registration opens. More and more runners (or cyclists) transition to tri and more and more sedentary people get into running. This feeds into the sport which has taken a life of its own.

Another evidence of my (amature) observation is the amount of races we now have in a year. I don't know if you guys noticed it but there's practically one tri or duathlon each month starting January. And, instead of that one big gathering we have at the annual Subic International Tri, we now have 3 to 4 major "A-races" to join - the K-Swiss SUBIT, the Century Tuna 5i50, the Cobra 70.3 Cebu and of course, Whiterock Long Distance Tri (roughly 70.3 distance). There's also the Tri United series which kicked off in Laiya and will culminate in a Sprint Race in Ayala Alabang in October. The Powerade Duathlons of Thumbie and Popo Remegio are also getting packed and is a race series the tri community looks forward to. Not to mention the almost weekly run races all over the country.

As such, we pour ourselves into intense training almost the entire year. And it's not just the training. Along with this is the scheduling, the dieting, the actual races and the sacrifices that we, our families and friends and sometimes, even our work have to make for us to stay in top racing form (or just be able to do the sport).

I know many, especially the beginners, obsess with the goal of completing the 70.3 Ironman (half distance). It is indeed a great feeling to be part of the unique family of "triathletes" who have completed the half ironman distance. This obsession pushes many to train harder than they probably should. Some go as far as registering for an full Ironman on top of all the major races I mentioned earlier.

This whole year calendar of racing and the training, dieting and self discipline that comes with it literally beats up the body, the mind and even our will. Not to mention causing us emotional distress when the training leads to stresses in our personal relationships.

In my case, I may have pushed it too hard by racing each month at least twice via either a tri, a run or a duathlon. Despite a strong showing in the Laiya Long Distance Tri just 4 weeks before the Cobra Ironman 70.3, I was totally cooked in Cebu (that's my official excuse for my crappy performance - BURNOUT).

The typical symptoms of burnout are 1) lack of interest in the sport; 2) deminishing returns from training; 3) difficulty to train as hard as you did only a few weeks back; 4) Irritability and a general feeling of guilt for not training at top level; and 5) sometimes, intermitent illness either manifesting as a bum stomach, slight fever or mild headaches. It's your body's way of telling you to take a break.

Irritablility is a common symptom of burnout.

Moreover, it takes 3 to 4 weeks for the immune system to recover from a 70.3 Ironman race and 5 to 6 weeks for the Full Ironman. However, the race calendar doesn't seem to allow us to recover fully before we're off again to yet another race. We just usually tough it out and wish that we don't get sick.

After the difficulty of the Cebu Ironman 70.3, I felt the full brunt of a classic burnout situation where I couldn't even get myself to wake up early enough to run, bike or swim. I also couldn't sleep well and when I did I spent the first few days waking up late (6am versus 4:45am).  I enjoyed the life of a non-athlete. It was GREAT! I also put on some weight but enjoyed the feeling of eating anything and as much as I wanted. Until I had to buckle my belt one hole looser.

Even the pros go through burnout. Former world champ, Peter Reid quit abruptly when he realized that he couldn't go on another year of intense training at world champion level. He may be able to still do it physically, but mentally, he felt totally toasted. For pros, the issue is the intensity of the training. For us age groupers, it's the balance of training hard while earning a living, raising a family and our other pursuits that adds to the burnout.

The general prescription of most materials on the subject is generally simple. It's to take a break. For me, what worked wonders is a two week break from any form of hard training. I just did short runs for exercise rather than to be race ready. I also made it a point to resist the temptation to register for any major race that would pressure me to get back into the hard grind. After the two week lull, I felt energized, refocused and raring to go. However, I was careful not to ramp up the intensity and volume right away to where I left off. That would have left me frustrated especially as it is to be expected that I wouldn't be as fast or as strong as when I was in top race form.

It is also recommended to take another 2 to 4 week break at the end of the year. That "book ends" the race calendar with a long break before we start over again for 2013.

Other prescriptions to avoid burnout is adding variety to our program or routine. Do other stuff like Bikram Yoga or surfing or weight training or mountain biking. Join short run races or sprint tris to keep the competitive fire burning without risking burning out.

I plan to take it one year at a time and after not doing well in the last Ironman 70.3, the short but well deserved 2 week gap gave me perspective and prevented a total falling out with this great sport we all love.

Happy Training and see you guys on the road.

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