A Coach’s Perspective on How to Manage Burnout in Cycling
In this blog, I’ll provide a brief personal background, define burnout, identify some of its causes, drag you through my pillar metaphor, and provide you with some actionable solutions along with some parting thoughts.
I discovered cycling back in 2002 when I was an energetic spaz of a 12-year-old in desperate need of a proactive hobby (I can’t say much has changed). Cycling turned out to be an obsession that would both plague and benefit me for well over a decade and counting. For the next 7 years, cycling was akin to a religious pilgrimage where going pro sat atop a pedestal of everlasting salvation. Seriously, I treated my first $600 road bike as if it were blessed by the Pope himself. To this day, cycling still feels sacred. Sure, not every ride is a spin through The Garden of Eden, but truthfully, many seem to be. I am no doubt blessed to have found cycling.
However, this wouldn’t be a self-help blog if I hadn’t gone through some kind of burnout crisis myself. Are you ready for my sappy feeling on burnout? Here’s the brief: when I was 18, I stopped cycling entirely for nearly 4 years. Burnout is a serious subject for me chiefly because I know how awful a place it is to be. I still remember my final ride in 2009 where I decided to quit. Conflicted by the existential crisis of who I was beyond a cyclist and facing an impending void that would swallow that identity, I remember crying in a tailwind on my way home from a three-hour ride. Yeah, read that again… I cried in a tailwind! Tailwinds are supposed to be happy times. The reasons for my burnout are numerous but most notable was that the foundations for why I first fell in love with cycling had eroded away as well as the support group I needed to thrive. Don’t worry, I will dive into each of those areas and more. So, without much further ado, let’s discuss what burnout is and what we can do to prevent and treat it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is when your current levels of motivation/strength consistently no longer support your previous (or current) ambitions and goals. Severe burnout can cause serious mental and physical distress – affecting more than just your on-the-bike life. Burnout is like having the construction of your dream house half-finished, but you’ve lost 90% of your workers, and the funds are running dry. Common signs (as well as causes) of burnout can be depression, unusually high and consistent levels of fatigue, regularly getting sick, consistently being unable or unwilling to finish or even start workouts, social isolation from your cycling peers, poor time management, no longer practicing good off-bike habits (stretching, nutrition, massage, etc.) and regularly bemoaning hard workouts.
Obsession and ambition are the prerequisites for burnout. You can’t burn out if there wasn’t a fire in you first. What originally got your butt in the saddle pre-burnout is important to identify because that will be your lifeline to burnout recovery, but more on that later. You have two main pillars of cycling; your mind and your body. If one of these breaks, usually the other follows soon after. Sometimes they fall apart in unison. I’m going to paint two very common scenarios to illustrate this. I’ll start with the mind first.
Let’s make a hypothetical mind pillar crumble. But hold on, not all mind pillars are the same. Some are incredibly strong and others very weak. Some start strong but have internal issues right from the get-go that will gradually become pronounced. Others are like a late-stage Jenga game. Finally, some contain few imperfections and live in the perfect environment – more or less destined for success (rare). No matter the variables of a mind pillar, all can come up with big, lofty goals. Hopefully, you’ve caught on to what I’m getting at. Our minds and our environments are diverse. While some are luckier than others, we all still generally share in making goals that will challenge us. For this reason, I suggest you reflect on who you are and whether your goals are adequately supported. Nevertheless, let’s use a common type.
Our hypothetical pillar is decently strong but has a goal that borderlines on being too ambitious. Each training week adds a bit more weight to the pillar, and after fifteen weeks of heavy training, the pillar shows signs of imminent collapse. A responsible pillar construction worker will stop adding weight after noticing this effect and begin brainstorming solutions to fix the problem. A bad construction worker won’t notice the signs and will keep adding weight. A negligent construction worker will notice the signs but, despite common sense, will keep adding weight. Don’t be a bad or a negligent construction worker. Spot the signs and identify solutions! Maybe you need a week off the bike, perhaps you need better sleep, maybe school or work is adding weight you hadn’t accounted for, maybe you’re doing everything right but you need to tweak your goals. The key is to be realistic and pragmatic.
I’ll spare you the lengthy pillar metaphor because I’m guessing you get it by this point. Instead of minimizing stress, perhaps you’re falling apart physically because you’re not eating well, or you’re training too hard too quickly. It is absolutely possible to be very mentally strong, yet your body cannot keep up. The plan of attack remains the same as the mind pillar; identify support structures that could either be added or could maintain/repair your body. Take action — the sooner the better.
While I hope I’ve helped turn on some lightbulbs for you with my brilliant pillar metaphor, no good self-help blog is worth much if it can’t provide solid solutions to a problem. Below I’ve put together a list of actions I do or have seen others do that add and return strength to their mind and body. These are all just starting points, and each could have its own separate blog post. Note, there can be quite a lot of cross-over between the two lists.
- Write down 5-10 goals (they don’t all have to be monumental) and put that by your bed, taped to a mirror, or some other convenient location. Read this list often
- Talk positively to yourself. Frame things in the present tense and avoid negatives like “do not” and “quit”
- Bad example: “I will not give up”
- Good example: “I am powering through each interval”
- Ride or converse with people who are motivated
- Clean your bike! This, for me, is a reliable source of stoke
- Create a list of your favorite cycling videos/channels in YouTube and watch 5-10 minutes before heading out the door for a ride
- Change up the type of workouts you do or just ride for fun for a couple of weeks without any structure
- Take a few minutes to message your riding friends each day. Even if you’re not stoked to ride, give them some fuel for their training with a compliment or a little friendly ribbing, or pump up song. Staying in the loop socially might be what it takes to keep you rolling when times get tough
- Commit to just one 5-minute interval on your ride. If you complete this, your workout was a success!
- Recharge with sleep: do everything in your power to get 8-9 hours consistently (do not underestimate the power of sleep)
- Eat LOTS of vegetables
- Get a professional massage
- Drink PLENTY of water
- Stretch 5 minutes a day
- Shave your legs! If you’ve got freshly shaved legs, you’re required by law to ride your bike
- Take several moments throughout your day to check in with yourself: Ask, what mood is coloring my mind right now? Am I tense? Relaxed? Happy? (Take some mindful breaths while you do this)
Keep it simple. If what was once a perfectly good campfire starts to dim, are you going to add rocks? Yet I think we have a tendency to lose track of common sense when we’re desperate to get back on track with our training ambitions. Look into what got the fire started in the first place. I credit my return and my current anchor to our lovely sport to our even more lovely community. If I kept everything about cycling the same but took away all my friends, I don’t think I could keep cycling at my level very long. My friends and the overall community are the wood to my fire. To strengthen this, I plan group rides (pre-COVID), I start ridiculous group chats that regularly go off the rails, I plan trips, and I have friends over for dinner where we mainly talk about bikes. Maybe you’re like me in this regard, or maybe you’re more into the mechanics of cycling and the latest tech, or it’s the tranquility gained from long rides. Likely, it’s some sort of combination. The important takeaway here is that if you find yourself in the burnout category, search hard for what originally drew you to cycling, and work to amplify those areas.