Preventing Burnout In Youth Runners Presented By Mathnasium
If you are involved in youth running long enough, eventually you will come across an athlete who is on the verge of burnout or in the midst of it. As a parent or coach, it is important to understand the reality of burnout and how it can impact your runners. Knowing how to identify burnout, prevent it from happening and how to help runners recover from it, are key skills for anyone working with the youth running population.
Burnout, is commonly defined as: exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration, can be both physiological and psychological in nature. Specific signs and symptoms can include but are not limited to: elevated heart rate, lack of sleep, lack of motivation, change in mood, lack of appetite, chronic fatigue, and muscle soreness. An athlete may have also started the season very ambitious and energized, but now they have a “just get through the season” attitude.
How an athlete gets to the point of burnout can be caused by many factors. Typically, the main reason is too much physical stress in a condensed time period. Too many competitions and hard workouts without enough strategic rest throughout a season can be problematic.
Causes of Burnout
The most common issue I typically see in youth coaching or just coaching is general is mapping out training plans or workout schedules without any context for when the athlete will race. The specific youth population you are working with will determine how ambitious the runner is and what they may be able to achieve in a given season.
Many times parents will ask me about how many miles their son or daughter should run, or what workouts they should be doing to get ready for their season without understanding the context of their racing schedule.
Racing tends to be the biggest stressor for youth runners, both from a physiological and psychological standpoint. It is where they put the most pressure on themselves and push themselves the hardest.
The importance of quality coaching and attentive parenting cannot be overstated. Coaches with good technical knowledge understand that youth runners are not mini adults and can really help prevent burnout. The coach needs to be primarily focused on development and keep kids excited about running versus just focusing on results or “winning”.
Strategically scheduling races and practices is important to allow enough training before a race, as well as enough recovery afterward. It is important to ask: why are your runners racing any particular weekend and how many practices a week can they typically handle? Can you find ways to have strategic breaks around holidays or after races?
Most youth and high school schedules that I see are a bit heavy on races, so scaling back and giving your runners plenty of time to recover after races is critical. You want athletes hungry and excited to race every time.
Coaches need to teach athletes about recovery techniques and how critical not only working hard, but “recovering hard” is. Parents should also be closely monitoring their runners sleep, hydration, nutrition, mood and energy levels. Race times can also be a good indicator of burnout if you start to see a dramatic decrease in performance.
Youth athletes need an enormous amount of sleep (9-10 hrs) as they are training and growing simultaneously. They also have increased nutritional needs. Youth can also get very emotional around race performances. It is important to help them keep their running in perspective and not have it be their identity.
Recovering from Burnout
The good news is burnout does not have to be a chronic condition. Sometimes simple changes in practice routines or race distance can have a big impact in preventing and recovering from burnout.
Change of Venue: Switching up your style of practice and adding variety in your workouts can help keep youth runners excited for the next practice. If you normally train on a track, switch to hills. If you are normally on grass terrain, switch to the track for a speed workout. Mixing it up can go a long way.
Change Race Distance: A change in distance can give a youth athlete a fresh new challenge and get them away from comparing their times from the same distance week after week.
Increased Recovery: Make sure the youth athlete is meeting their nutritional needs and increase carbohydrate and protein intake if necessary. Prioritize sleep and time management so they have ample time to recover.
Promote other activities outside of running: Youth runners should always be looking to develop outside interest. Even if they run at the varsity high school or college level they will need social and academic interests outside of running in order to prevent burnout.
Always keep performance in perspective: Find the good in each race and practice regardless of what the athlete may think. Don’t let youth athletes get too high or too low. It is hard enough at that age going through the maturation process, and dealing with academic and social stressors.
Once you understand the signs of burnout and know how to help athletes prevent and recover from burnout, you are set up for success. Taking a long term view and enjoying the running journey really makes youth running special as athletes grow into healthy more mature runners. Enjoy the process and realize they all grow up fast!
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