Six Warning Signs
In our own delusion, we believe that we can sustain driven effort without reprieve. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim to improve our self-directed outcomes, it’s to think that we won’t pay the cost of burning the candle at both ends.
At age 32, I experienced burnout through overtraining. In its manifestation, I lost the vigor to pursue my deepest passions and was forced to surrender into seclusion. Once I realized how exhausted I truly was, it was too late: I should have seen the signs to led to my demise.
But with the unbridled enthusiasm of an excited young man, I relied on heavy strength training as therapy. Fueled by cortisol and adrenaline, I put myself through punishing workouts that submitted my negative self-image.
After accomplishing a triple bodyweight deadlift of 500lbs, my body failed me. I could no longer muster the energy to practice my passion. It was then that I realized I needed to rest.
At the start of my burnout, I prioritized eight consistent of hours of sleep each night. But without fail, I would awaken with an anxious mind and stiff body. I felt like I could not face the challenge of the day and hit the snooze just a few more times. My bed offered a comfort that I could not refuse.
I felt like my once limitless vigor had morphed into disconcerting sloth. I had taken a hit mentally, but the physical also manifested. I noticed my sexual energy had taken a dive. A man at 32 should be entering their reproductive peak, but my body needed to prioritize healing.
My body’s inherent wisdom body had differed testosterone production to heal my injured HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) axis. And shortly thereafter, I noticed a loss in muscle mass and overall strength. Since my whole life had been dedicated to my craft of strength training, this was ultimate blow.
Even with these physical changes, I still tried to reason with myself: “I am a young and healthy man. Maybe I just need to double down on my athletic goals? ”But when one searches for their limits, they eventually find them. What would I do to get back to my former self?
Ease > Dis-Ease
I consulted my mentors and finally checked in with myself: I was exhausted. I was pushing my physiology for egocentric goals that I thought defined me. But I spent hours meditating on the bigger picture. I realized that my god-given gift was in being a teacher: I would need to show others how to avoid the pitfalls of burnout.
Since then I have devoted my career to helping my clients find the balance between their training and lifestyle. And although this is a delicate equilibrium, our bodies possess an innate ability to heal. But we must be careful to match our overreaching efforts with abundant rest, or we will succumb to exhaustion.
Now five years later, I have healed and am far removed from my prior “dis-ease” state, I aim to use my experience with burnout to help you recognize and tackle your own. In this essay, I will show you how I realized I had reached burnout with six warning signs.
Life is a grand equilibrium: We need proper rest and recovery while also making positive strides toward our goals. At certain times during our lives, it is completely normal to be more tired than at others. It only becomes a problem when the body can no longer maintain its homeostatic balance (maintaining its internal stressors).
If we continue pushing our bodies without proper rest and recovery, we will maintain heightened arousal: the heart rate stays elevated, the person feels “tired but wired,” cortisol becomes acutely and chronically elevated, and mental and physical adaptations manifest.
When I burnt out in 2017, my life felt like it lost purpose. The things that once excited me were instead met with perpetual loathing. I didn’t want to work with new clients, I didn’t want to step foot inside the gym, and even the thought of lifting a heavy weight set off alarms in every joint of my body.
Although my burnout manifested from physical movement, it was a product of my body’s hormonal systems, my nervous system, and my mind that had reached their final impediments. We must remember, our bodies don’t differentiate physical stress emotional stress.
Testing My Cortisol, Hormone Balance, and Gut Health
Results: Chronically low cortisol at waking sample, midday sample, afternoon sample, and nighttime sample. This is burnout.
However, DHEA-S average was in range. The Cortisol:DHEA-S ratio came out to 2.1:1 – meaning that my higher levels of the mother of the sex hormones (DHEA) was balancing out the chronically low cortisol.
During this sample my estradiol (main estrogen) was in range. My estriol (weakest estrogen) was on the low end of the range (not a huge concern), while my progesterone was slightly elevated (which likely correlated with my burnout and associated fatigue).
My melatonin was in range, and my testosterone was in range. Since my testosterone came out to 86pg/ml in a reference range of 40-130pg/ml, it would likely improve with proper rest and recovery. 86pg/ml is not ideal. I would have liked it to have been closer to the 120pg/ml mark.
Upon taking a GI Map as a window into my gut health, I found that my microbiome was out of balance. In the above results, you can see that I had high levels of Opportunistic Bacteria that were preventing solid digestion: this manifested in chronic bloating, irregular and loose stools, and recurring skin fungus. This equates to more STRESS.
Since my body was constantly in a sympathetic state (fight or flight mode), my gut microbiome couldn’t populate the proper microbes for my own health and instead allowed “invaders” to colonize my colon. In the Potential Autoimmune Triggers section, I was trending high in Klebsiella Pneumoniae – which if left untreated can cause pneumonia, urinary tract issues, or even sepsis.
Finally, the GI Map showed me some pertinent information on my Intestinal Health. Having suffered from IBS-D my entire life, the low levels of elastase made sense: I couldn’t properly digest or assimilate carbohydrates. The high levels of steatocrit showed that I was unable to digest fat.
My Beta Glucoronidase was trending high (showing that I wasn’t properly eliminating estrogens and was in need of liver support. Finally, my immune response was weak: my Secratory IgA was a 93 with normal levels between 510-2010. The practitioner who led me through this test told me that 93 was the lowest level he had ever seen…
All of these tests pointed to one thing: I was exhausted and my body couldn’t maintain its homeostatic balance. I needed rest from training and I needed to balance my constant sympathetic nervous system with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Are You Exhausted?
Perhaps if I were made aware of the physical and mental changes leading up to my burnout, I could have course corrected. But hindsight is 20/20. Now I try and recognize these warning signs in my clients and coach their exercise and lifestyle routines accordingly.
With proper guidance and radical self-awareness, you might be able to rectify impending burnout by backing off from too heavy of workouts, long hours in the office, or whatever unique stressor is introducing mental and physical turmoil. But since each situation is variable dependent, I will attempt to generalize these warnings.
Finally, you might actually feel good from overreaching (temporarily stressing your body for a certain outcome). But, one can only maintain this phase on a short term basis. Our hormonal systems are remarkably unique at adapting to stimuli, but we must be careful not to go beyond our body’s natural ability to adapt to imposed demands.
As the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
So with balanced healing in mind, let’s be adamant in our recognition of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. These parameters will help illuminate the path.
In an age of hyper stimulation, overwhelm has become our quotidian experience. When a person becomes bogged in the mire of menial tasks, life’s stressors surmount. And although it’s become normal to be “busy,” we can recognize that certain days require harder effort than others.
So if there is to be balance, there must be days where our obligations are lessened. This might be the weekend, time planned off with your family or loved ones, vacations, or time when the phone is on airplane mode.
Are we doing too much to keep up with goals that we don’t truly care about? Have you taken the time to reflect on your purpose on earth and your true desires? We have the freedom to choose. We do not need to live to others standards.
- Maintain a calendar of important to-dos, obligations, and scheduled time off.
- Begin a mindfulness practice with box breathing or other basic breath work.
- Take things one step at a time: accomplish the hard-to-tackle-items first.
We have all experienced someone close to us feeling irritable at seemingly menial things. It might be a new mother or father, a busy entrepreneur, or even our own spouse. If we step into their shoes, we might see that they are overwhelmed and in need of simplification.
When we notice our mood is in polarity with our normal disposition, we must analyze what’s happening: What is triggering our feelings? Are we taking things personally? Are we tired? What is actually going on?
Our reaction is often something we feel we cannot control. We feel helpless and out of sorts. But unfortunately, this further deepens the problem. So if we are to develop and maintain equanimity, we must balance responsibilities with deep emotional work.
- Practice daily gratitude: list three things daily that bring joy to your life.
- Realize the power of being non-reactive. We are not our emotions. We may recognize triggers and instead choose to not take things personally.
- Journal the things that cause irritability and correlate where potential negative emotions and actions occur
3. Weight Loss or Gain
As a strength coach, monitor the appearance of my clients of a litmus test of the bigger picture. Is the program working? Have nutrition guidelines been followed? Or is there a trend that’s leading to weight loss or gain?
Weight loss or gain is an important performance marker because it represents the perils long-term stress and associated hormonal burnout may bring. Depending on the constitution of the person, hormonal disruptions may cause marked weight loss or weight gain.
Even when calories are accounted for, the body has a remarkable way of reacting to chronic stress. So at the first sign of weight loss or gain, I will have a conversation with my client: Is stress acute or chronic? Is weight gain or loss unexplained? Are there other associated changes in the body?
- Take a salivary or urine based hormone test to check cortisol rhythm and sex hormones. I recommend the DUTCH Test. Test findings will allow a practitioner to recommend healing practices.
- Reduce strength training to Minimum Effective Dose methodology. I recommend MED Kettlebell Chains.
- Monitor and track: sleep, macronutrient intake, stressful events, joyous occasions, and maintain a mindfulness practice throughout the day focused on diaphragmatic breathing for stress reduction.
4. Loss of Performance
The most dramatic change I noticed during my burnout were in my declining athletic performance. For months, I felt like nothing I did in the gym would bring me gains in muscle mass, strength, or power. So I did what any stubborn man would do: I doubled down and hit my program even harder!
But I was digging myself into a deeper hole. Only the thought of sustained rest brought me reprieve. Just visualizing my favorite lifts sent shockwaves of warning in my body to stay away from training. I felt like a junkie in need of a fix. I ultimately knew that if I didn’t abstain, I would never find my health again.
So when my clients show a loss in performance, I correlate that with their strength litmus tests. Depending on the person, this may be a certain number of push ups or pull ups, a certain weight used in a trap bar deadlift or backs squat, or even an endurance goal of running one mile at a certain pace.
An acute loss in performance might be explained by acute stressors (vacation, sickness, work stress), but losing benchmarks (like those listed above), might represent a bigger problem and impending burnout.
- Use benchmarks in training: pick certain exercises that you want to own throughout your life and test yourself against these numbers once per quarter. (My benchmark is to be able to completed a 5×5 clean + press with double 24kg kettlebells into my 70s).
- Use a fitness tracker like a Garmin watch to analyze sleep, stress levels, and overall trends in fitness markers. I check my sleep quality and stress levels daily. I do not course correct. I use these markers as trends.
- Keep an exercise journal. Use the journal to correlate exercise trends with daily stressors or other activities which may be interfering with your progress.
5. Loss of Libido
I’m sure no one wants to hear this, but burnout results in a loss of libido. How can the body think about reproduction when it’s consumed with a need of deep rest? It cannot. Our inherent programming needs low stress to optimally maintain sex hormones and engage in sexual activities.
Unfortunately for many of my male clients, long hours at work, pushing it too hard in the gym, and not addressing chronic stress wrecks libido. They might believe their “lack of performance” is a “one off,” but these issues can become chronic with associated and listed signs of burnout in this blog post.
- I advise Minimum Effective Dose Training for power, strength, and hypertrophy. For cardiovascular needs, walking reigns supreme. Aim to complete 10,000+ steps per day for cardio and add a 14lb-20lb weight vest if needed for more challenge.
- Using either the DUTCH Test or a standard blood work test for: free testosterone, sex hormone binding globulin, DHEA, esrogens (E1, E2, E3), and liver health. Performance Supplements like creatine and organ capsules may help regulate sex hormones.
- Reinforce what it takes for self-love and to be in a loving relationship. Increase intimacy, go on frequent dates, write love notes, and connect with your lover. This is the most important recommendation.
6. Deep Fatigue
I would argue that a certain level of fatigue is reached daily by those working toward their physical, mental, or career goals. Acute fatigue is a normal byproduct of diligent effort. However, when one reaches a state of deep fatigue, defined as lethargy and lack of motivation that can’t be restored by proper rest channels, you’ve come to a fork in the road.
In my career I’ve had clients who just seem to get worse and worse. When confronting these clients about their lifestyle, they typically claim that their activities are abnormal, and a break is around the corner. But I’ve noticed trends with these clients; burning the candle at both ends is their normal.
Deep fatigue can be scary: lethargy that causes frequent sickness or entire days in bed is a telling sign. Oftentimes, rest and discipline can fix these problems, but those in a burnout state must be careful to seek advice from their family, friends, and therapists to address potentially deeper mental health issues.
- For those in an exhaustion state, ensure normal sleeping hours (like 10:00pm to 6:00am) and adhere to these times. This is important to get the individual in a routine state so they can adhere to a healing protocol.
- Put activities that are exhausting on the back burner, but still schedule them. The person might need to abstain from normal extracurricular activities for a period of time, but they should still plan them in advance so that they don’t become a shut in.
- Believe in rest. The power of the mind is perhaps the ultimate force in our world. If we are to heal, we must believe that our protocol is working. I recommend journaling and meditating on the belief that we are healing through our rest and that we will overcome our burnout.
I am Healthy and Have Abundant Energy
I advise all of my clients to repeat a daily mantra. For me, I wake up and tell myself, “I am healthy and have abundant energy.” Is this true all the time? Not necessarily, but each time I repeat this saying I know that I put myself in control of my health.
To nail down this point, I have coached myself and my clients to not speak in the negative. I would never want to say, “I am sick.” Oh no… “I am healing.” If there’s a skill I don’t own yet, it’s not, “I can’t do that,” it’s, “I’m making steps toward mastery.”
A practice so small like repeating mantras pays dividends in the long run. Will this work for you? I am not sure… but it doesn’t hurt to try. So with some practical warning signs and recommendations to monitor your own health, I will say in conclusion, I healed myself from backing off from exercise.
I never wanted to admit I needed this, but it was the ultimate tool in fixing my exhaustion. So what is the big thing that you need to do to amend this situation? I’d love to know and keep you accountable.
May 17, 2022
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