How would you define CrossFit? If you told someone that you do CrossFit and they ask what that is, what would you say? If you’ve done CrossFit for any considerable length of time, by now you’ve probably heard some iteration of, “Constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement performed across broad times and modal domains” when describing this way of exercising. As the eyes start to gloss over from your verbose description, you try to correct the boat and blurt out something like, “CrossFit includes everything you can think of within exercise.” But really, when you think of CrossFit, you think of the big sexy metcon. It’s the heart and soul of CrossFit, and it’s most likely what drew you to CrossFit in the first place.
To the newer athlete, they want that fight-or-flight response and the battle that comes with the metcon. It’s a drug and that feeling is highly addictive. You get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. You push harder and harder every day. You start to see results, so you push even harder. You start to climb the leaderboard. Check off “RX” on a workout or two. It consumes your life, and your status updates, and your conversations with friends. You ignore the eye rolls and the feigned interest of your family and coworkers as you ramble on about this chipper that was so tough. Maybe you even learn how to do a kipping pull up, even though you still haven’t gotten a strict pull up and you’re not strong enough to keep your shoulder in a stable position. But whatever, you’re in beast mode and you have the shirt to prove it.
So you keep pushing harder and harder until one day your body pushes back and you don’t feel like working out. And the next day you don’t feel like working out either. Before you know it you’ve taken a week off and when you do come back you just go through the motions. “I’m just not feeling it today,” you tell yourself. “I must be having a bad day.” But that one bad day turns into several and you hit a slump and you don’t understand why something you used to love just isn’t fun anymore. Now you have 1/3 of the intensity and energy you once had. Now, it’s become an obligation. You don’t really want to go to the gym but all of your friends are going to 6 o’clock class, so you have to go to the 6 o’clock class, and when you get there you feel nothing. Your mind drifts off into space and you go through the motions again. Let’s face it: You’ve lost that loving feeling. The honeymoon is over.
In CrossFit, you’re taught how to move better and eat better, but what you’re not taught is what to do when you’ve gotten burned out from CrossFit.
I’ve been CrossFitting since 2005. I’ve gotten burned out plenty of times over the years, so I know exactly how it feels. In broad strokes, the main reason for burnout is because your Central Nervous System (CNS) just can’t handle another metcon. Your adrenal glands are taxed from constantly having to over-deliver and get you fired up. Your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels are probably out of whack, because while exercise does reduce stress, prolonged exposure to exercise is a stressor itself and can have a negative effect on your body. This chronic CNS stress without proper recovery will wreck you in a matter of months.
One of the best ways to recover is to sleep. If you are someone who works out in the evening and doesn’t allow enough time to cool down and unwind afterward, you may find that high-intensity exercise can disrupt your sleep (either trouble falling asleep or staying asleep). If you’re working out at the crack of dawn, you’re probably not getting enough hours of sleep either because you have to wake up early to get to the gym. In a perfect world we’d all work out at Noon or in the early afternoon, but that’s not practical for most of us. You need sleep to function in your everyday life, let alone recover from your workouts. When you don’t get enough sleep it’s a slippery slope of poor-functioning hormones, decreased brain function, and an increased likelihood of eating crappy food.
Next, let’s look at your workout schedule. How many days a week are you in the gym? If your answer is every day, that’s too many. If your answer is 6, that’s too many. If your answer is 5, that’s borderline depending on what those days look like and how many years you’ve been training for. If your answer is 4, that seems to be the sweet spot for most people. Three days per week is good for a beginner until they get acclimated to this style of training. But if you’re doing more than 4 metcons per week at a high intensity, you’re burning the candle at both ends. If you need that 5th day, make it a low-intensity skill-based practice session. That’s right, I’m talking about practice.
Too many metcons and not enough recovery is why you’re burned out. The high-intensity part of CrossFit is what you can’t stand anymore. If you’re pushing hard in your workout, you need to recover twice as hard – especially as you get older. Not respecting your recovery is like constantly taking money out of your bank account without putting money back in. Eventually, you run out of money. That’s what you’re doing to your body when you don’t allow enough time to recover between workouts.
The easiest way to manage your training is with deload days or deload weeks. You can do the traditional method of making every 4th week an easy week – meaning you cut the intensity and weights used in half. Or, you can take it on a week-to-week basis. If you workout 4 times a week, maybe you push hard on 2 of those days and back it off on the other 2. If you redline every single one of your workouts you will be burned out in no time. If you give yourself easy days each week you can continue training for the rest of your life and be a healthy, properly-functioning human being. Everyone needs to deload. Your CNS will thank you.
Your training should be a continuous progression of strength and skills for the rest of your life. With CrossFit that’s not hard to do because there’s always something new to learn and master. Maybe this means taking a vacation from metcons while you focus solely on strength for 8 weeks. Or, maybe you do one metcon a week while you focus on your gymnastic skills and olympic lifting. Or, perhaps you just go for a walk outside every day after work for 2 weeks and learn to relax. Regardless of your approach, trying to get better at everything all at once will only lead to minimal gains and maximum frustration. By rotating the focus of your training to a particular area for an extended period of time you’ll have much greater gains, add variety to your training, and have far less burnout.
If all (or most) of what has been described above sounds like you, start by giving yourself an easy week. Scale back the weight, reps, rounds and duration of your workouts. Move smoothly through the movements, finish your workout standing tall and feeling like you could’ve done a lot more. Try this for three or four days and see how you feel by the end of the week. I realize that this may be difficult to put into practice because a lot of people time travel once the clock starts and forget where they are or even their own name. But give this a try, it will help. And remember: Don’t take yourself so seriously. It’s just exercise.