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Stress / Recovery Balance is Key to Avoiding Overtraining and Burnout

Today’s society places a high value on productivity no matter the costs. Whether in school, work, sports, or any other performance discipline, people are taught that they can achieve anything as long as they put in the hours. Cultural icons, like Bill Gates, are known for long nights and hours in front of the computer screen trying to solve problems. This “workaholic” attitude is often admired, celebrated, and encouraged—and many times compensated well, perpetuating the trend.

It is a positive shift that people are adopting a growth mindset, the belief that qualities such as skill and intelligence can be developed through effort and dedication, rather than a fixed mindset that skills cannot change. This growth mindset is important for developing resilience and love of learning which are essential for success. In a world that emphasizes productivity, individuals go to extreme lengths to achieve their targets in the short term, and often neglect the potential long-term detriment to mental and physical health. Furthermore, when these behaviors are encouraged in so many facets of our culture, it becomes engrained in people early and can have a global effect on people’s habits. Understanding the limits of the mind and body, and learning to balance stress and recovery, are vital for avoiding burnout, which can be a major roadblock to peak performance.

What is burnout?

Burnout is characterized by fatigue and decreased performance as a result of overtraining. Burnout can cause both physical and psychological impairment, such as extreme mood swings, injuries, poor health, and decreased motivation. Many people respond to the decrease in performance by training or working even more. It can be difficult to recognize the symptoms of burnout, which can include changes in eating habits, sleep disturbance, emotional sensitivity, increased resting heart rate, frequent health problems, muscle and joint pain, mood changes, and prolonged recovery time.

How do I know if I am overtraining?

Overtraining occurs when a person undergoes high levels of stress AND fails to recover adequately. Athletes may be particularly susceptible to burnout because in addition to the psychological strain on may experience with regard to performance, physical activity and exercise also places a physiological stressor on the body. Often times young and amateur athletes try to emulate professional athletes’ training regimens. However, without resources such as medical support staff, physios, strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychologists, dieticians, masseuses, as well as the time and money to in invest in proper rest and recovery, it can be a recipe for overtraining and burnout. Look out for the symptoms of burnout (listed above), and seek help from a performance psychologist for expert opinions.

Stress/Recovery Balance

Stress is simply a pressure or tension exerted on a person or object, and something that is necessary for people to adapt. The key is that there must be a stress and recovery balance. The problem isn’t only training too much, but also recovering too little. If we take a simple example of weight training, we know that lifting weights will stimulate the muscles to adapt, increasing their size and strength in order to be able to perform the task with more ease next time. In this example, adding more weight will add more stress. We try to find the optimal weight to lift by understanding how much stress we can handle before we cannot lift the weight anymore. Depending on the type of workout, the body may need more or less time to adapt. A workout which is high in volume (heavy weights, lots of reps and sets) on the same muscle group, will require more recovery time for adaptation. Physiologically speaking, muscles are damaged during the workout, and repair themselves after, during recovery. Strength and conditioning coaches curate special periodization plans which include different training phases and gradually progress the training load while also considering the rest time necessary to recover. Psychological stress can be seen in a similar way, where stressors illicit a mental adaptation, and that requires idle time.

Recovery is defined as a return to normal health, mind, or strength. In the case of an athlete it may encompass all three since sporting tasks require the use of both mental and physical resources. The weight training analogy used earlier can also be applied to mental training. Engaging in mentally and emotionally stimulating activities are stressful and deplete our mental resources. Consistently challenging ourselves to work harder and do more taxes our psychological systems and requires rest and recovery for adaptation. Training and work is a form of energy expenditure, and it is common to refer to recovery in terms of energy: “I need to recharge” or “I’m out of gas.” In order to maintain performance at a high level, and maximized productivity over the long term, we need to replenish energy sources and refill our physical and emotional tanks.

What can I do to aid recovery?

Each individual has their preferred methods of recovery. Research shows that different strategies can have positive physiological and psychological effects. In sports psychology, there is a strong belief that mind and body are connected and influence one another. Therefore, recovery for the body will also help the mind, and vice versa. Some examples of athlete recovery strategies include rest, active recovery, and mental activities:

  • Sleep (naps included)

  • Nutrition

  • Hydration

  • Light movement (walking, biking, casual swim)

  • Stretching

  • Mobility exercises

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

  • Focused breathing

  • Ice & cryotherapy

  • Compression garments (for travel)

  • Massage

  • Hobbies (listening to music, watching movies, solving puzzles, board games)

Overachievers may look at this list and want to try all of these strategies at once. However, it is important to remember that each individual will have different needs to balance stress and recovery. Some of the recovery techniques listed above require physical and mental effort, and therefore should be performed cautiously, knowing that recovery works differently in each situation. Training and work schedules should also include some time of complete rest from physical and mental activity in the training cycle.

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