I have never written on here about this, but in 2011 I had glandular fever, which in itself was not much of a big deal. Unfortunately, I was unaware at the time how close to burnout I was, which meant I never recovered from the post viral fatigue and developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). I look back at this time in three parts, the acute post viral phase, the chronic M.E phase and the recovery phase. Recovery took me years, I would say I am recovered now, but the fear that should I forget myself, is ever present. I want to discuss a method I leant from my recovery that I still apply to daily life now as a healthy person. In particular, how to mitigate the risk of overtraining and injury through a holistic approach to viewing how we spend energy, pace ourselves and what stress is.
Note: I want to add that this is not science, it is my personal experience and how I made sense of an illness that made little sense to science. My experience of M.E and how I managed recovery was personal to me and I am only touching on one aspect (& my penultimate stage) of recovery in this blog post. I am not going to talk about the physical recovery, or emotional, but how I began to understand and manage my energy and highlight the importance of pacing. I do not write this as a way to recover from M.E, or expect this to work for someone else or make anyone feel they have failed if they are unable to recover.
What is burnout?
We need to understand that we have a finite amount of energy per time frame and this is different for everyone and what I refer to as pacing. Some things take more energy than we get back, and some give more energy than they take, and the time frame is important. If I get all my work done in 4 hours, I may feel more exhausted and take longer to recover than in 6 hours with mini breaks throughout the day. Energy expenditure and time frame is not always linear, pace is key. A really easy example for me is running. Running gives me more in terms of joy, stress relief, down time and confidence than it does in physical burden, but saying that, there is a balance. For me, high intensity running, faster and at a high heart rate costs me more than it gives back. A 7km fast run could take a much longer recovery than a 20km slow run due to the impact on the body, heart rate and metabolism. This applies to every aspect of your life; where are your energy givers and your energy sucks? Commuting, family, work, training, friends, poor sleep, being cold etc… are all a source of stress and it is important to ask how you pace these throughout your week.
If you have a period of time where the net energy out is higher than the net energy in you may be at risk of burnout. What you need to work out is for you, what is the energy difference and time frame that puts you at risk. It is a bit like being in your overdraft too much, or too often, and putting yourself at financial risk. It is time to take a look at your income and out-goings and make some lifestyle changes.
How to mitigate risks of burnout, even if you think it could never happen to you.
1. Know yourself.
Know how your body and temperament exhibit fatigue. Listen to your body and adjust your pace of life to allow yourself to recover. Start listening and systematically determine what are your energy sucks and what are your energy givers. Is there an imbalance? How can you spend more time in energy giving activities, adapt energy sucking activities to cost less or can you simply dump any of the energy sucks altogether? Also do not ignore the small stresses, like being cold, small annoyances that might seem petty, but affect you every day – change them. Stress is a HUGE energy suck. Learning to avoid and cope with stress is a must. Finally, do not ignore the deep issues. One self-limiting belief may be that we rely on others or external sources for energy, and never learn how to help ourselves.
The difference here between M.E and run of the mill overwhelm and exhaustion is, with M.E, activities a healthy person would not even give a thought about are too energy sapping. This may include conversations, crowded streets, bright light and too much noise. As these things can take too much cognitive energy to process. It is hard to explain how my brain could not process information when there was an overload, though it was very similar to the day after I had quite a serious concussion. I will not go into the M.E specific stuff, as it does not apply to everyday life.
We also need to take two views to understand how we got here and how we need to change our pace.
2. The Long-Term View.
The long-term views allows you see where fatigue may have been accumulating very gradually, you have had no symptoms as these are incremental small costs. However, the energy debt, if not eventually replenished, is there.
3. The Short-Term View.
In the past month to one week how has your balance of activities been, have you had time to relax or have you unknowingly altered your training?
I just wanted to highlight how this works, with my own current example.
Your body gives you a sign it is overwhelmed. You hear it. For me, this is recurrent insomnia and a couple other symptoms. A one off is not an issue, but recurrence or acute symptoms means you need to address pacing.
You take a long-term and short-term view of your life. You know your own timeframe and the energy deficit that you can cope with and determine from this knowledge and your views if you need to adapt your training and pace of life to mitigate a future burnout risk. My long-term view is not great – months of living in two cities, a large commute, feeling displaced means not fully relaxing anywhere, training for a 95miler and converting a campervan at weekends.
Short-term view; have I done anything to bring on these symptoms in the recent past that I can change right now? It is this short-term change, that if not rectified will be the straw that breaks. Looking at my training and work, I did three long days at work and three high heart rate training sessions in a row – 50m swim intervals (1k with 15sec rest), 20k run at 5.45pace, 7k hilly run at sub 5.30pace, I have stopped sleeping and had a bout of illness. This is on top of the fact that I may not have yet fully recovered from running 53miles a few weeks ago. Oops.
Change of pace. For me, I am dropping all sessions till Friday and reducing the planned weekend running to walking. I am cutting out stimulants (coffee, sugary snacks, alcohol, too much screen time) and dropping any social activity I had planned. Finally, for every 1.5hours of any activity I must take 5 minutes downtime (including writing this blog). Through trial and error, I know these interventions work for me.
I think you can also apply this to injury prevention. My husband does not seem to get burnout but does have overuse injuries that coincide with when he is overwhelmed and stressed. It is easy to think that fast pace work and stress cannot lead to a physical sport injury, but if work and training takes too much time and energy, you have less energy to recover post exercise and before the next session.