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It was the fall of 2018, the weather was perfect, and I was living in Colorado, surrounded by some of the greatest trails in the country. And yet, I couldn’t bear to think about hiking.
Every morning, I would wake up and see the mountains out my window, glowing golden in the morning sun. And then I would roll over, away from the view—and away from my shame about not wanting to do the one thing I used to love most.
I did try. That fall, I kept forcing myself to hike and trail run. I would drag myself to the trailhead, thinking that if I could just get started then the rest would take care of itself. But it didn’t. I would make it about two miles down the trail—and then just stop. It was like the fire had gone out of me. I could walk to the top of something, sure—but for what? The promise of new views or new trails didn’t seem exciting anymore; I just felt exhausted.I couldn’t see the point. Sometimes I would grit my teeth and grind out another few miles just because I felt like I had to. Other times, I couldn’t bring myself to go another step. Instead, I’d simply turn around and go home.
After moving to Colorado specifically to be closer to the mountains, I felt like a failure. It took me months to realize what was wrong with me—and even longer to understand how to fix it.
What’s athlete burnout?
After doing some reading and talking to friends with similar experiences, I started to suspect I was likely suffering from athlete burnout. A condition first identified in 1980s sports science literature, athlete burnout is defined as the overwhelming exhaustion that comes from hyper-focusing on a sport for too long with too little rest. Common symptoms of athlete burnout include:
- Plateaus or reductions in athletic performance
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Listlessness or irritability
- Aversion toward a once-beloved activity
- Emotional fatigue
- Low self-esteem
- Increased anxiety or depression
- Higher resting heart rate or blood pressure
When I first heard about athlete burnout, I brushed it off. The papers I read were all about pro and collegiate athletes. I was hiking, for goodness sake. I wasn’t an Olympian. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be burned out.
I didn’t realize until speaking to a therapist that you don’t have to be competing in a sport at a high level to experience burnout. Burnout affects participants of all sports, even recreational ones. Elite athletes like mileage-chasing thru-hikers are more likely to experience symptoms, but anyone who takes their hiking seriously is at risk. That’s because burnout isn’t necessarily tied to the level of training you’re doing. According to recent research, athlete burnout is more closely tied to athletes’ perceptions of pressure to perform a certain way. In other words, it’s tied to perfectionism.
The more I thought about it, the more true that felt. For my first few seasons in Colorado, hiking had been no more than a hobby. At first, living next to great trails was pure bliss. I would hike, run, or go rock climbing almost every day. I couldn’t get enough of the rugged foothills or the adventurous community I found myself surrounded by. Then, outdoor adventure became my life—and I started feeling pressure to not just hike a lot but to be good at hiking.
The perfectionism trap
That’s when the trouble started. In 2017, I became an editor at Backpacker. My hobby had suddenly become my job. Nearly all my time outdoors was for gear testing or training for trails I hoped to write about. I spent all summer getting up before dawn to beat the heat, grinding out miles to train for an upcoming (and ultimately ill-fated) thru-hike. By the end of that summer, hiking started to feel like work and not play. I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I couldn’t believe myself. I had to keep hiking, climbing mountains, and doing rad shit outdoors. If I didn’t do those things, who was I? Still, I kept dragging my feet about planning outdoor adventures. And the longer I waited, the more pressure I felt to make my next hike long, difficult, and impressive. I was putting so much pressure on myself to make each next hike perfect that I froze up, and I was unable to hike at all.
The cure for athlete burnout
Treatment for burnout can be highly individualized, but some experts recommend treating it the same way you’d treat overtraining syndrome, a similar condition that describes the physiological effects of training too hard with too little rest. Some common recommendations include:
- A complete break. Take a full rest from the sport causing burnout (as well as rigorous exercise of any kind) for at least two to three weeks, and up to 12 if necessary. This gives your body time to recover—and gives you time to lean into other aspects of your life that leave you feeling centered and fulfilled.
- Adequate sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours per night, but you may need more if you have symptoms of overtraining syndrome or have been burning the candle at both ends for too long. Good sleep can also help with depression and anxiety, which can both contribute to and be symptoms of burnout.
- Adequate caloric intake. If you’ve been training hard for a long time—or even just exercising more than you’re used to—you could be in an unhealthy calorie deficit, which can contribute to fatigue, dips in mood, and likelihood of injury. Regardless, try to honor your hunger and feed yourself in a way that leaves you feeling satiated and taken care of. Eating well and listening to your body is a crucial part of recalibrating and falling back in love with movement in a healthy way.
- New sources of identity and purpose. Overidentifying with a sport or activity is a leading cause of performance anxiety and burnout. If hiking has started to feel like work, a chore, or something you “should” do, take a step back. Find a creative pursuit, a book you’ve been waiting to read, or another hobby. It’ll keep your brain and/or body engaged, and remind you that there’s more to your personality than just hiking.
- Therapy. If you’re feeling anxious, sad, or chronically listless, you might want to consider therapy. Exercise shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolbox for managing your emotions. A good therapist will also have much more insight into the causes and solutions for your personal burnout symptoms than any article ever will.
- Medical advice. If you’re experiencing chronic fatigue, pain, or other physiological problems, see a physical therapist or general practitioner in addition to taking care of your mental health.
It took me about three years to experience relief from my burnout symptoms. For me, the most critical step was quitting hiking, full-stop. I told myself that my recovery period was indefinite. I found that if I gave my recovery a deadline, that only added pressure to “fix myself” by a certain time. By completely letting myself off the hook, I was able to stop the cycle of perfectionism.
Your needs might be different. Maybe you just need a month-long break to experience burnout relief. Maybe you need a year. It all depends on your personal circumstances.
Instead of hiking, I threw myself into new hobbies like rock climbing, weight lifting, and even dancing. When I started hiking again, I eased into it. I stayed on top of my mindset, focused on the reasons I’d first fallen in love hiking, and worked hard to embrace where I was at, even though I was much slower than I had been a year ago. I took regular rest days, and I was intentional about changing up the scenery and company to keep things fresh.
I also had to be careful to do only what felt fun. If that was a mile-long walk around the neighborhood, great. If I felt like hiking a bunch one week and none at all the next week, that was great, too. Even now, I follow my stoke and only do what’s fun. Am I as fast as I was when I was training hard? Absolutely not. But right now, I’m hiking at a level that I know I can maintain for decades. And that, at the end of the day, is what matters most.