Gym burnout: how to spot it, and how to prevent it

Posted by for Strong Women

When it comes to fitness, we are repeatedly encouraged to push ourselves to the limit (no pain no gain, right?). However, if you’re experiencing a lack of energy, trouble sleeping or you’re sick of the sight of the place, you may be experiencing gym burnout. Here’s how to spot it and how to prevent it.

The pubs are empty, the pavements are heaving with runners and you can’t book a spot at your local spin studio for love nor money. It must be January!

Whether we admit it or not, many of us buy into the ‘new year, new me’ concept — be that starting a new fitness regime or resuming one that fell by the wayside over the festive season. Aesthetics and gains aside, it’s so miserable outside that a nice warm gym is arguably the best place to be at the moment.

But while kicking off the year with a bang is to be applauded, you can run the risk of overdoing it.

Last year, I decided to kick off my marathon training with a brutal two-week HIIT challenge. For two weeks, five days in a row, I went to a 6am run-and-HIIT class in the city which involved going between sprint intervals on a treadmill and smashing weights on the floor. Some days, I went twice — once at 6am and once at 6pm — just to get my money’s worth. 

Did I get faster and stronger quickly? Sure. Was I lean AF by February? Totally. Did I feel amazing at the end of the two weeks? Absolutely not. In fact, at the start of the second week, I felt the beginnings of a cold and by the time I finished the whole thing, I was in bed with what I can only describe as ‘gym bro flu’. Oh, and I also had a bumper crop of mouth ulcers too.

 In the end, I had to take a week off altogether — setting me further back in my training plan.

Burnout is such a common issue, both for fitness newbies and old hands who should know better.

“I tend to experience burnout after returning from injury or illness, or if there’s a change that I’ve not thought through,” says Andrew Griff, a runner and CrossFit devotee.

Griff is used to exercising five times a week, but suddenly throwing a cycle commute into the mix completely flattened him.

“This was after a two week bout of flu and time off for Christmas. I experienced complete fatigue to the point that my body just wanted to sleep for hours – I had to work from home the next day because I didn’t have the energy to make it into the office!” he tells Stylist.

In recent times, the fitness industry has clocked onto the fact that rest and recovery are absolutely crucial elements of any regime, and that by shaming people into working out non-stop, they’re doing more harm than good. More gyms are offering R&R-specific classes and more fitness influencers seem to be laying off the ‘go hard or go home’ chat in favour of stretching guides and infrared sauna experiences.

It's important to allow yourself breaks.

Burnout can manifest itself in a few different ways:

Lack of energy

It makes sense that if you’re smashing out gym workouts and runs here, there and everywhere, that you’re going to feel exhausted. It’s exhausting enough making it to work five days a week without throwing excessive exercise regimes into the mix.

You’re getting sick

Too much exercise can result in a weakened immune system, as all your energy is going into repairing muscles that have been overworked rather than keeping your bug fighting capabilities at peak performance.

Trouble sleeping

You may be knackered but you can’t nod off easily because your parasynthetic system is in overdrive. That’s the ‘rest and digest’ system in the body that’s responsible for maintaining a state of ‘homeostasis’ — your body’s natural, every day state of being. When you do too much exercise, that system starts to think it’s normal to have a continually high heart rate, for example, and stops functioning properly.

Apathy towards exercise

Ironically, too much exercise can result in you simply having no desire to do any more fitness. It’s almost like your brain knows you’ve done too much and is trying to tell you enough is enough. Don’t push through that feeling but acknowledge and react.

Mood swings

Snapping at your housemates more than usual? Feel like you’re going between runner’s high and the depths of despair a little more frequently? Exercise can wreak havoc on our stress hormones, sending them out of balance which can result in irritability.

Weight gain or plateauing

You may think that hitting the gym seven days a week will help to carve out the ‘perfect’ body but the more stress you put your body under, the more likely it is that it’ll stop doing what you want. Our hormones are constantly trying to stay in balance but added strain can throw them out of kilter. While our brains know that we’re choosing to go to Barry’s every day, our bodies don’t; for all they know, we’re facing sustained attack or famine and as a result, will stop metabolising fat that we may need in the future. 

So what can you do to avoid fitness frazzle? 

The easiest thing is to simply take it easy. There’s just no need to smash out a workout every day. If you want to keep moving, choose low-impact activities like walking or yoga.

Have a think about why you’re working out and what it is you want to feel at the end of a session or end of a fitness cycle. Are you exercising mindfully or are you trying to block out thoughts/chasing external validation?

Whatever your intention, there are a few key things you can do to make sure that you don’t fall at the first hurdle:

Stick to a timetable

Rather than just throwing yourself into a new regime, sit down and work out how much time you have. Got three free evenings a week? Make those your gym days. Feel tired after work? Try exercising before work instead. Make sure that you’re not sacrificing all your downtime and social life — you need those for emotional and mental refuelling.

Plan rest days

Rest and recovery is as important as working out because it’s only when you’re at rest that your muscles can repair and grow stronger. No rest = no gains. Give yourself a proper break at least two days a week.

Factor in commutes

If you’ve started cycling to work or running home, don’t forget that these are great cardio workouts. Throw in gym sessions on top of this kind of functional fitness and you want to make sure that you’re paying even more attention to how you’re fuelling and recovering.

Eat enough

A big problem that many of us face (particularly women) is that we simply don’t eat enough to fuel our days and workouts. If losing body fat is a goal of yours, then you’ve probably tried to diet while embarking on an intensive exercise regime. To change your body composition, however, you need to be eating enough calories to allow muscles to grow — not starving them. Make sure that you’re eating regularly and that you’re getting enough fat, protein and carbs.

toast bread peanut butter almond nuts granola berries healthy snack food
When eating after a workout, choose protein-rich foods to allow muscles to rebuild themselves.

Choose R&R over gym work

If you want to stay active but need a rest, how about trying a class that is going to help you recover effectively? Try a yin yoga class (like the 75 minute sessions at TriYoga or Blok), or a stretch class at Define for a proper dig into the muscles. Or skip the studio entirely and head over to Glow for an infrared sauna session - known for helping release stress, help with muscle pain and improve blood circulation.

Sign up to an event

One good way of striking a balance is by signing up to an event. That way, you have a concrete goal to work towards, a certain period in which to work and more structure around the sort of exercise you should be doing. Often races like the Hackney Half offer training sessions in the run up to the big day and there are plenty of free training guides for tackling 13.1 miles - whether you’re a novice or a seasoned runner. If you do want to get fit this year, why not sign up to a road race like Hackney (May), the ASICS 10K (July) or Great North Run (September)?

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images:Getty

Join our fitness community and get motivated with the latest workouts, nutritious recipes, expert tips and gym kit inspiration. You'll also receive A Beginner's Guide To Strength Training when you sign up.

Share this article

Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on an old Dutchie.

Recommended by Miranda Larbi