Dealing with Burnout in Exercise and Life

The Rio Olympics this summer sure were fun to watch. We got to see the best athletes in the world on display all in one place. Decades of hard work paid off for those who got gold, those who set world records, those who competed for their country for the first time. These truly amazingly people all have such incredible devotion and motivation.

Thinking about their lifestyles and achievements got me thinking, how do these people keep up such a level of intensity and commitment. Do they ever get burned out and have to get back in the game? And how can we learn from these incredible people and apply their lessons into our everyday lives?

Burnout: Examples from Top Athletes

During the Olympics, I came across an article from the Washington Post that provided two excellent examples of super-athletes who even at the top of their games, got burned out and had to quit, only to get back on it and return to the top level of competition.

Check out the article Burnout can happen to any athlete. Here’s how two of the world’s best got over it

Anthony Ervin, at 35, was the oldest swimmer for the US Olympic team. He won two Gold Medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. After originally winning gold at age 22 in the Sydney Olympics, Ervin retired. After years out of the pool, he eventually decided to come back, and he certainly came back strong.

Jax Mariash Koudele is an endurance runner from Wyoming who competes in 155+ mile running competitions in extreme conditions. Originally a high school track star, she burned out on running. After a few years, she got back into it, and started focusing heavily on trail running. She’s now achieving at an incredibly high level in the most difficult races on Earth.

burnout 01Beyond the two athletes mentioned in the article, we are familiar with this phenomenon. Those at the peak of their performance getting burned out, taking a break, and coming back strong. In the United States, Brett Favre from the NFL and Michael Jordan from the NBA are two legendary examples of stars who burned out and retired only to come back as good as ever. What can we learn from these people that can apply to the rest of us non-super athletes?

Michael Jordan’s Return from Retirement


The Process of Burnout

burnout 02Delving into the burnout process itself is a great way to understand how we can learn how to deal with the feeling and come back stronger.

Burnout can result from prolonged stress. Stress doesn’t just involve one aspect of your life, it crosses all boundaries. When the stress builds up for too long, burnout can be the result.


If you’re feeling stressed, check out my blog post on meditation to deal with stress

The Washington Post article describes three phases of burnout:

  • Staleness – When your performance lacks the thrill it once had, the energy that originally drove you has faded.
  • Overcompensating – The feeling of staleness brings the need to push yourself harder (usually too hard) to get back that thrill. Performance begins to plateau, making that feeling of discouragement even stronger.

This great piece helps you identify when you’ve reached this stage of burnout in your workouts

  • Exhaustion and Withdrawal – The combination of exhaustion from overcompensating plus the mental drain of feeling like your efforts aren’t helping you reach new heights. It’s at this point that people give up.

Can you think of a time when you went through these stages of burnout? It may be with your diet, your exercise routine, your professional work, or your efforts in a relationship. It can happen to anyone, in nearly any activity that requires a sustained output of energy. Don’t despair, we can all get back to it and be better than ever.

Click here to read about 4 stages of exercise burnout

Rebounding Back into Action

burnout 03Getting the burnout feeling is very natural. It happens to us all at different points in our lives. Making some fresh and healthy changes can help us get back to where we want to be.

Reigniting our social lives – By being so focused on our goals, we can easily shut the world out. When the burnout comes, take some time to reach out to your family and friends. Meet someone for dinner, go out to that party, spend an afternoon at the park with friends. In whatever way you feel most comfortable, let yourself be free to branch out socially.

Take “Me” Time – While I encourage social interaction when you’re feeling burnout, it’s also very important to make “self-care” time. It’s okay to have one of those Netflix nights, have a nice meal out, read a book you haven’t had time for. Whatever it is that will make you feel happy and content. The only person who can fully know what you need is you!

Feel Free to Say “No” – It’s okay to limit the amount of new work or effort you have to take on when you’re feeling burned out. Adding on new pressures will only make the burnout worse.

Re-approach from a new angle – Once you’ve taken the time to have the self-care you need, you can start thinking about a new way to get back into the swing of things. If your diet left you burned out, you can devise a new way of getting to the weight loss solution you desire.


Maybe you weren’t eating enough, so you’d starve and binge. Try a more flexible meal plan. Maybe you were working the same muscles each time you go the gym, check out a new exercise plan that excites you and gets you motivated to get moving again.

Click here to see my exercise roundup for some new ideas!

Maybe the projects you were doing at work were tedious. You can take the initiative to create a new project for yourself that will benefit your career.

Click here for a post from Psychology Today on Overcoming Burnout

You don’t need to make huge changes. Just re-approach your efforts in a way that allow you to feel excited and motivated again.

Putting it all together

burnout 04We’ve seen that even the highest-performing people in the world can experience burnout. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all likely be there again at some point. Remember, it’s okay to feel this way. We can take steps to prevent burnout along the way, like making “me-time” a regular thing and focusing on effort output rather than results, but no matter what, we’ll still probably feel burned out eventually.

When it happens, take care of yourself! That’s what your body and mind is telling you it needs when the burnout comes on. Be nice to yourself and you’ll soon feel ready to re-approach your goals in a new creative and constructive way.

Best wishes for a happy healthy September,

Dr. Johnson