First, what causes burnout? Some argue it’s all in your head; others say its physical factors caused by going too hard early in the season. Burnout is a mental condition brought on by physical realities. Here’s how it works:
- You begin a year with a training program in mind.
- Gradually (or maybe not so gradually) you begin rising in form.
- You reach a peak
- You come off your peak
- You continue training as if you were still rising in form
- Though you’re training hard, if not harder than ever, the results in races are getting worse, and/or don’t come as easy.
- You find yourself unable to train as hard as previously. You have trouble recovering.
- Though you’re still trying hard to keep the regimen going, you’re not getting the same rewards. This begins to depress you.
- Maybe you take a week off, when you come back you get right back on the rivet, but it’s just not there.
- It’s May, you’re cracked, you stop coming to races. Maybe even stop riding altogether.
- You get back on in August and start getting excited about next year
The key is between step 3 and 4. It’s important to learn to recognize when your peak(s) occur. Peaks aren’t easy to recognize, and while you’re on your peak it is also difficult for people to realize the peak won’t last forever, no matter how hard you train. The more seasons you race, (if you’re observant) the better you will be able to read yourself and recognize form peaks and valleys. Generally though, you can recognize a peak by observing the following:
- Notice how training feels. If week-to-week you feel like there’s improvement, you’re able to train at increasing intensities and durations, and your ability to actually race follows, you’re rising in form, and rising to a peak. Recovery is good.
- There should then come a 2 to 3 week period when you feel stronger than previously. Racing goes “easier” than before. (Sometimes, this step is optional, that is, you have a “soft peak” and basically go from rising or flat form straight to declining form)
- Shortly after this, you should notice that training doesn’t go as well. Recovery is not good. This is because you’re coming off your peak, and your body wants to rest. When you don’t let your system rest after a peak, and keep training as if your form is still rising, you start “digging” yourself deeper into that proverbial hole that we call burnout.
After you’ve reached a peak, it’s important to back off your training. It’s also important to keep riding, just don’t train (and realize there’s a difference between simply riding and training). Everyone is different, so how much you back off is something you learn about yourself through trial and error. Personally, I go back to square one, small gear tempo riding. It is also important to keep racing. Racing doesn’t burn you out; it’s the training that burns you out. It is actually through racing that you recognize when you can begin training again. After a peak you will probably struggle in races until you hit your bottom, or valley, in form. Eventually, you will start to feel “fresh” in races again; your head will be more into racing. This is the signal to begin training again. Remember that you have to start back up gradually and be patient. If you take your time rising to a second peak, it will last longer, and possibly be better than the first.
Also realize that if you don’t recognize your peak and grind yourself down into deep, seemingly irrecoverable burnout, you can come back. Just take your knocks and keep coming to races, and eventually you will feel better, I learned this from direct experience in ’88. Early on in the year I won a lot of races. But as the summer stage races rolled around my form just kept getting worse. By August, I was totally and completely cracked and couldn’t even go out on an easy ride without unreasonable suffering. So I stopped riding for a couple of weeks and just worked on my parent’s farm. I kept going to races though, and for 3-weeks got absolutely kicked. Then, as if by magic, I started winning races. I started training again. In late October, I did the Vuelta a Guatemala (14-stages) in good style.
There is a greater implication to all this. Once you’ve learned to recognize and stave off burnout, you can move on to building a real season, and therefore, series of seasons. As you learn more about yourself, you can learn how to ride peaks longer and how to lessen the amplitude (if you will) of your peaks and valleys, which is another way of saying you’re strong all year. The ability to do this comes by avoiding burnout, which then allows you to effectively race an entire season. You are then able to begin the next season at a higher level of fitness. It follows then, that the longer you’re season is, the better you will be able to add to your level of fitness the next year, etc. See how that works? Successful bike racing is an accumulation of strength and experience. This is why I recommend riding ‘cross (at least half the season) around here. When you realize that most top racers race from February to October, you see how really short our Northwest road-racing season is. Without something to keep your fitness level relatively high for a decent amount of the year, it becomes more difficult to start each successive year at a higher level than the previous one. More simply, the longer your lay-off, the closer to square one you get.