BURNOUT: Why it happens and What we should do

October 04, 2016 5 Comments


If the first rule of CrossFit is to tell everyone how much you love CrossFit, then the second is to never admit when the last thing you want to do is CrossFit. CrossFit is great. CrossFit is how we move, it is our community, it is our (somewhat) secret language, it is our safe place, and conveniently, it is our vehicle for looking and feeling damn good. And for a lot of us, it is inextricably bound to who we are.

We are CrossFitters.

We have said “no thank you” to hours at the gym connected only to our headphones. To women being small and slight. To quantity being forever greater than quality. To the designation of athlete in adulthood being limited to the professionals. We eat (mostly) Paleo. We don’t really drink. We love talking about the general wreckage that occurs from combining thrusters with pretty much anything. And we usually travel in nano, lulu sporting mass. We’re a unique bunch. And we don’t care. CrossFit is what fits.

But what happens when it doesn’t?

What happens when our shoulders hurt all the time? Or when the idea of picking up a barbell with any degree of intensity makes us want to binge watch Netflix until the world seems lighter? Or when we stop being surprised by how our body moves? When it all starts to feel the same? What happens when we lose the spark…?

Burnout is real.

And it sucks.

And it’s totally necessary.

If you’ve been doing CrossFit beyond the period in which you PR every single time you touch a barbell, you’ve felt it. And probably judged those feelings. It usually has to be uttered in hushed tones and in full confidence. We rage against it. We try and go harder to see if we can break through it. We are CrossFitters! We are tough! Doing more not less seems like the only viable solution.

But that is not sustainable. And in fact, that is not CrossFit. CrossFit is all about moving in different and unexpected ways. Not just harder and heavier in exactly the same way over and over again. It is about having this beautiful base of general physical preparedness so you can go out and do cool shit. CrossFit is about giving you your power, your strength and your life back. So why not take it?!

Whenever I’m wrangling with burnout I also struggle with the logical course of action. Do I need to quit? Do I need to pull it together and back squat my way out of this…?! Burnout doesn’t need to be that drastic or binary. You have options. In fact, you always have options.

Five things to consider when dealing with burnout.

1) Look at intensity.

When I first started CrossFIt I thought that I had to give 100%, 100% of the time. That is exhausting, FYI. And probably the fastest way to kick yourself in your well-meaning, intense pants. Seeking out that iconic, lying on the floor searching for your identity, post WOD scenario is too much every time you walk in a box. In fact, that may be too much more than once a week.

We have a limited physical and mental capacity to go that hard. Use it with reckless abandon and you will get burnt out. It’s only a matter of time. Save it. Use it when it counts. Pick one WOD or one day every week or every two weeks you can just go for it. And do. Challenge yourself. Go stupid hard. But on all those other days be intentional about the work at hand. What does this WOD actually call for and what would do you need to do to walk out of this space feeling more full and more energized?

Think about operating anywhere from 60 - 80% capacity most days. That doesn’t mean that you don’t leave the gym tired or like you had a workout. That means you leave the gym with space. Space to come back and work tomorrow. Space beyond exhaustion.

2) Do something besides CrossFit.

The quintessential addition here would be yoga. Which is great. Do yoga if that makes you feel supple and dynamic and perfectly flowy. It can be  a gorgeous balance to the hardness of CrossFit. Grab a heated or a yin class and let that business nourish you. But yoga doesn’t need to be your thing. Honestly, it isn't usually mine. Get outside. Walk your pup. Climb mountains. Go to a spin class. Go to 24 Hour and do bicep curls in front of a mirror if that makes you feel good. Follow your heart.

Your something else should be like therapy. And not just in the way that it makes you feel good. Start it before something goes horrible awry. Preemptive action here. Add in diversity of movement before you need it, because eventually you will.

3) Ask yourself “is it mental or physical” burnout?

It could also be both, but this is a crucial distinction when creating a course of - let’s start to like CrossFit again - action. To gain any semblance of an answer to this question you have to honestly look at your life. Where else are you stressed? That is essentially what training is - it is stress via the fine-tuned sword of physical adaptation. However, we have a finite resource for handling stress. If we aren’t sleeping enough, if we aren’t eating well or enough, if we’re hating all things work, if we’re fighting with a partner - all of these things pull at our overall stress resource. Too much in any or all of these variables and we will get to the gym already tapped out.

So how do we navigate this stress / resource problem? We need to change our lifestyle or how we move in the gym, or both. If we can’t drastically alter our lifestyle, or at least not immediately, we have to bring the intensity down in the gym. Modify. Change whatever you need to change so that you leave the gym feeling better, not worse.

If your burnout is predominantly mental, WODs can’t be a profound, mental struggle. You don’t have the capacity for that. Do movements that you like, and modify the crap out of ones you don’t. Is this the most balanced approach: no. Will it keep you coming back in and start to make you feel better: definitely. Is that what actually counts in this scenario: absolutely.

If your burnout is mostly physical look to lighten your load both in and out of the gym. Maybe throw in an extra day off a week. Try and get an extra 30 minutes to an hour of sleep. Perhaps add in a some carbs and take a closer look at your nutrition. And yes: modify!

4) Take a hiatus.

This is terrifying. I will not pretend that it isn’t. Especially when CrossFit is bound to who we are, the notion of not going into that space everyday is daunting to unquestionable, but sometimes it is exactly the space we need to recover and love it again. It may be a week. It may be a month. It may be six months. Go on a trip. Get a class pass. Find an adventure. Do whatever you need to do to be excited about CrossFit again. That’s ok. In fact, that’s completely exciting and glorious.

5) Determine what kind of movement you need in your life right now.

I love this question and I didn’t stumble upon it until I was totally burnt-out myself and looking for answers. When I started CrossFit I was struggling to take up physical space in my own life. I felt invisible and small and thus I sought strength and presence. And CrossFIt did that so beautifully. Now, I’m seeking to fail more gracefully. To be more dynamic and creative and fluid. CrossFit is a lot of things, but not that to me. Currently, that’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I love it. I so desperately needed to be surprised by how my body moves, because after five years of CrossFit it is many wonderful things, but it has stopped being surprising.

What are you searching for or wrangling with in your life right now? Movement has the capacity to parallel that in such interesting and complex ways. Seek out a practice that aligns with that need to shift and that resonates with you.

CrossFit has reached a level of maturity that a huge portion of us have been doing it for four to six years. That’s a long time. And that is enough time to gain solid proficiency. That doesn’t mean that we need abandon CrossFit entirely, but it most likely means that we need to diversify. We need to reevaluate how CrossFit fits into our life. How it makes it richer. Because after that stretch of time our relationship with it should change. Because it is a relationship. And because we would be doing it and ourselves a disservice for not allowing it to grow and shift.

So what do you want it to be?

You get that right to choose. It doesn’t mean that you love it or the people in your box less. It simply means that you are respecting your very nature as a human and an athlete to evolve. We all make CrossFit more layered and more functional as well allow ourselves to be so as well. As we dabble into other movement practice and facets of ourselves.

Honor the burnout.

But don’t let it derail you.

Let it change you.

And come back when you’re ready.


This is a guest post from Maddie Berky. Maddie was a NCAA Champion rower and now coaches rowing and CrossFit atCrossFit Verve in Denver, CO. She is also a writer and holistic nutritionist, specializing in all things food, sex, and worthiness. For more Maddie, check out MadWellness.com or ElevationRowing.com. You can also follow her onInstagram or Facebook -Mad Wellness or 
Elevation Rowing.

5 Responses


July 24, 2017

FANTASTIC article. I’ve been through burnout a couple of times during my 9 years of CrossFitting. The problem is that both times I’ve allowed it to get so bad that I’ve ruined relationships and cut ties with the gyms I was at. Although I could scale my workouts anytime and knew it was “ok” it was mental torture to scale to the extent I truly needed when both gyms changed their programming to something much more hard, heavy, and long. I wanted to continue pushing and since their new versions of “RX” became more than what the norm is or the workouts became insanely harder, I felt like as a Coach I was setting a terrible example for not meeting the new criteria… for scaling. It wasn’t true… but because I FELT that way it was true for me. I was the one judging myself. But in that burnout state, everything is awful… the workouts, the person doing the programming, your body, your mind… everything.

Although I probably didn’t need to cut ties and leave the gyms I was at during my burnout phases, for me I didn’t see another way of handling it because for as long as I was in those places, being a Coach, I couldn’t cut myself the slack I needed to do what I needed to fix my burnout. In the end I’ve been able to find ways to get myself back to that place of being happy with CrossFit. I just wish I didn’t cut ties and ruin friendships in the process. So don’t be me….. people are not as judgemental as you are toward yourself… set a good example by scaling and cutting back and adding new activities. Take care of YOU and help others see that its okay to take care of themselves too.


May 12, 2017

If only EVERY coach would read and understand this CrossFit boxes would be overflowing. So many people miss SCALING in this capacity when 90% of CrossFitters are NOT elite athletes. Beautiful article. I’ve been saying the same in some form or fashion for over 4 years. I’ve been around CrossFit for over 9 years and it takes a level of skill to scale in this capacity. Without it CrossFit becomes another fad…


May 01, 2017

Today is day 1 of my decision to take a month off of Cross fit after 4 1/2 years. Your article touched on everything that I have thought about for the past few months. I chose Yoga and a trip to the Caribbean. I know a month off is just what I need.


March 04, 2017

Well written :-) Introspective and reflective perspective on our path in personal growth. The ways with which Crossfit contributes to fearless honesty and a commitment to living with peace – keeping us in discovery, finding the limits of our mind, and going passed them. Integrating other forms and arts of movement to compliment and nourish our body and spirit……I enjoyed reading thank you for writing and sharing :-), Keren.


October 15, 2016

Well written. Humbly received. Going to implement. Thanks.

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