Burnout: Taking A Step Back From Elite Triathlon Racing
"Don’t ever be scared to take a day off or allow yourself time to relax, I’ve learnt that the hard way."
It’s no secret that training for multi-sport takes a lot of hard and time-consuming training, often meaning multiple training sessions per day. I started my multi-sport journey in 2014 when I joined the University of Birmingham’s Triathlon Team and my training load increased pretty quickly when I realised how much improvement I would have to make (especially in the pool) to be competitive in my age group, let alone amongst the elite field.
It took 6 months for my training load to progress to around 25 hours a week alongside my studies, as well as working as a fitness instructor and coach, and 8-mile commute to university by bike (which I stupidly didn’t factor into my training). I became fixated on the magic ‘25 hours’ and unsurprisingly I picked up niggles, injuries, and illnesses. Rest days were something I feared and the more training that I could do, the better.
I somehow managed this manic routine for three years while I was at Birmingham university and I had some amazing opportunities and experiences, including meeting my partner of 4 years and the selection for my first professional racing team, but I was not being kind to my body in the process.
In July 2017, I graduated from Birmingham with a BSc in Biochemistry and could focus all my attention on racing until I started studying Dentistry at the University of Manchester in the autumn. My season went well but as always, I wanted more. When the time came to take an end-of-season break, it triggered a pretty big relapse of an eating disorder which had been lingering in the background. Because I wasn’t training, I thought that I didn’t need to fuel and when I started Dentistry, things progressively got worse and worse. I won’t go into the specifics, but I lost a lot of weight and became quite unwell both mentally and physically. As always, I carried on training.
I had my best result to date in the April of 2018 and secured a bronze medal at the British Duathlon Championships, thus qualifying for the World Championships that summer. The combination of not properly fuelling throughout winter and a highly demanding race caused my body to break down. The next day, I couldn’t even walk… I had what presented as a stress fracture in my hip and I spent the next month on crutches, unable to get into university, let alone train.
Once I was able to train, I got back to it and focused on regaining some form of fitness for the World Championships. I knew I wouldn’t be going to Denmark in great shape, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to represent GBR in an elite race. It didn’t end particularly well as I crashed during the bike leg and ended up being taken to A&E. I suffered pretty extensive trauma to my shoulder which took a while to heal.
Again, as soon as I could, I was back training and focusing on the next venture, but this time determined to do it the right way. I decided to seek out professional help and a coach that I trusted to steer me in the right direction. My training became more effective thanks to Dave Newport despite the quantity decreasing and my relationship with food improved. Although I was now training smart and fuelling well with the support of a nutritionist, I had already accumulated over 5 years of self-destruction and my body just wasn’t playing ball. For every two weeks of consistency, I would have two weeks of reduced training due to an injury or illness. It felt like a constant battle of one step forward and one step back. Physically, my body needed a break and mentally, I was losing the love for my sport. So, I made the difficult decision to take a step back to allow my body time to heal and my mind to reset.
I’m not quite sure how long my break from multi-sport competition and training will be, but when I do return it will be with a healthy mindset and recovered body. At the moment I am just enjoying fitness and incorporating activities like boxing, Olympic lifting, pole fitness, and yoga into my schedule.
I wanted to write this blog because I think that so many athletes can relate with the fear of rest and recovery. I know first-hand how easy it is to obsess over training hours and continue no matter what the consequences, often ignoring the indications of over training or fatigue. Illness, injury, loss of menstruation, sleeping difficulties, disordered behaviours around food and exercise, and a negative mentality are all warning signs that your body may need time off to heal and recover.
Don’t ever be scared to take a day off or allow yourself time to relax, I’ve learnt that the hard way. Your body is with you for life so take care of it!
About the author: Laura Rose Smith has been a Sundried ambassador since 2017. She was awarded the Yellow Jersey University Triathlon Scholarship and has competed at an international level in both triathlon and duathlon.