Saturday, August 4, 2012

Burnout

Old Schwinn by the Water
It used to surprise me when cyclists talked about burnout. Oh no, it could never happen to me. Cycling is my refuge. I need it. I crave it. But of course, that's just the thing: When we feel that way about something, we want to do a whole lot of it. And when we do a whole lot of something, it is possible to overdo it - to burn out.

It's happened to me three times so far. Each case was fairly minor, but felt catastrophic at the time. To look at my bike and not want to ride is a dreadful feeling. What if I never want to ride again? I cannot continue that train of thought. 

The first two times it happened were nearly identical. They were working vacation type of situations at the end of summers 2010 and 2011. I could only take one bike with me - a bike that would be used for everything from recreational rides, to commuting, to hauling equipment. I took the touring bike I owned at the time. Diamond frame, drop bars, racks, bags. Technically speaking, it did everything I needed it to do - from metric centuries to schlepping equipment back and forth over hills to riding through dense in-town traffic. But after a couple of weeks of this... It's hard to describe the feeling, but it was as if cycling felt heavy and tedious instead of light and liberating. I didn't want to look at drop bars or a diamond frame again. I didn't want to ride up hills with heavy bags again. It was just too much, I was sick of bikes! This state of mind lasted no more than a few weeks, but still it was horrible. After the second time I vowed not to repeat whatever had caused me to feel this way. Clearly riding a loaded touring bike long distances is not something I enjoy. Commuting on a diamond frame bike with drop bars is not something I enjoy. Combining the two, day after day, for weeks, is not a great idea. Lesson learned.

But then it happened a third time, and it was entirely different. Roadcycling. In retrospect I was probably pushing myself too close to my limits, but whatever warning signs there were I missed them. One day I was on an ecstatic high after yet another draining ride, and the next day I suddenly crashed, emotionally - exhausted not so much from the riding itself, as from being in pain every single day and realising that it would never, ever get easier. Suddenly the eagerness to ride just was not there, and in its place was depletion. I know, I could have used self-motivation tactics. But that is not how I view cycling. It should not get to the point where I need to motivate myself to ride. If it does, I don't ride. And so I didn't: For an entire two weeks. Then the sense of depletion left as suddenly as it had set in and I was back on the bike. But the experience changed me; I am more cautious now. How far is it safe to push myself without this horrible thing happening again? This is always in the back of my mind.

When cyclists talk about dealing with burnout, it is mostly about prevention. Some try to identify what it is that makes them overdo it, so that they know what to watch out for. Others take intentional breaks from cycling altogether. Once the burnout sets in, the solution is less clear. For me, focusing on a different type of cycling and/or bike does the trick - that and trying to remind myself that it's just a temporary state! 

56 comments:

  1. I burn out a lot, but thankfully I am a quadruple sporter: runner, swimmer, cyclist, snowboarder. So as one sport gets to seem dull or like a chore, I phase in whatever I feel excited about. Being cyclical seems to make sure that I'm never burned out on the best part of cycling: commuting on my bike.

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  2. Great Article!

    You can sometimes get too much of a good thing, and cycling is not exempt from that statement. The weather here locally where I live from August to September is one of the main reasons I stop logging miles on my bike for weeks at a time. In Texas it can get as hot as 110 degrees during these months. During that time I may ride on my stationary bike or just tinker around with old bikes in my garage. I may also do other indoor activities such as rock climbing to keep my fitness up. I always want to ride, but sometimes that body and one's emotional state isn't ready for it. Enjoyed the article.

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  3. Grant Petersen recently remarked, during an interview about his book "Just Ride", that a bike is just a "toy". This elicited cries from the cycling fraternity that their bikes aren't toys.

    I think, however, that Grant really had in mind the observation that bikes should be fun. This is, in my opinion, a very cogent statement. If it isn't fun to ride a bike, why else do it?

    Oh, sure it's environmentally healthy to ride a bike, especially if that avoids using a car for some errands or shopping. But the ride can still be enjoyable.

    I think over stressing on personal performance is the death of really liking to ride. At least, that's the truth for me. I don't ride with a cycle computer or try to improve my performance when I ride. It ceases quickly to be fun if that becomes my primary focus.

    So, as Grant has said "Just Ride".

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  4. And here I am, awake, waiting for a bit of light to get in 30 miles before the rest of the family wakes up. I can imagine burnout but haven't had the circumstance to get there in some time. Riding to work, riding out to Concord, it all seems good. For me the burnout is trying to arrange the rest of life to get a chance to ride.

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  5. Interesting thoughts,
    and I have a contrary experience.

    I have loved riding bikes at every opportunity
    for about 40 years now and never
    suffered a burnout. The feeling of freedom
    never leaves me, strangely even when I am
    very tired and sore.
    I just need a good sleep to recover
    and then I'm off again. It does not really matter what bike it is.

    You mention different bike types, but
    I don't care much about the fine
    nuances of steering or gears, as long
    as the bike is comfortable I just ride.
    It is being out there in the world that matters
    to me and the bike lets me travel
    further and explore the world, while keeping
    in close contact with it.
    Speed or the destination does not matter.
    Like beautiful music, it is still beautiful whether played on the best hifi,
    a crystal radio or just in my head.
    The bike (and the world) is beautiful.

    John I

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  6. It's actually dealing with the ridiculous marketing onslaught, worrying about equipment choice, just looking at a triathlete, commuting with ambivalent pedestrians or drivers who are dangerous in their ambivalence, lazy or ineffective animal owners who cannot control their pets, and getting a flat tire just when I'm in the middle of no where in a rain storm, that wears me down mentally.

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    1. I hope not all at once!

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  7. Could part of the problem be that as a bicycle blogger, you are required to repeatedly buy or obtain new bicycles to write about; so you tend to become a consumer of bicycles, instead of getting to know one gradually, which is the usual natural process? Most of us don't try out bicycles to judge them, and then discard them because we need something new to write about.

    If they are treated as disposable objects I could see how you could get burnt out with the whole thing.

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  8. When I first started cycling the burnout was physical, not mental. I had to be on a bike every day. I'm really glad to say I haven't experienced emotional burnout yet. Perhaps its that I have several different types of bikes and I rotate riding them. If I travel, its just for a few days. I have never wanted to group ride on a regular basis and push myself to keep up with others on a road bike. To me that isn't fun and at my age it probably isn't safe. Knowing your limits and keeping to them in order to enjoy cycling is enough for me. If I were younger, I may have a different opinion.

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  9. Long distance tourers often plan a rest day or days every week or so. Get out and visit the places and people where you are touring.

    Organized riding - be it road, cross or mountain - would seem especially vulnerable to burn out. Along with the physical stress of riding, you have to deal with the rules, schedules, and personalities of the other team members.

    Of course if the bike is your sole mode of transportation, you have a powerful motivating factor. Literally ride or stay home.

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  10. The best prevention for cycling burnout is having children and a demanding job! (There are non-cycling burnouts, though...)

    Back to cycling, rest is important, not just for burnout prevention, but also for training. I rarely ride two days in a row, and when I am training, every 4th week is a rest week. Before big events like PBP, I usually rest for two weeks. I find that after the rest week(s), I am eager to get back onto the bike. Furthermore, I take at least one month off over the winter. I still ride for transportation during the rest periods, but without pushing the speed.

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  11. Are you cycling every day, whether for errands or road riding? If so, I can understand the burnout. I ride 5-6 days a week, but never 7. That would burn me out. So, on a regular basis I build in a day of rest, or use that day to swim or walk.

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    1. I have been doing that over the past year, sometimes walking instead of riding intentionally. It does help.

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  12. Never had burnout myself, or come across anyone who has experienced it. However, your description of touring as "heavy and tedious instead of light and liberating" matches my experience exactly. Many years ago I toured France on a fully loaded bike thinking it was going to be a cycling dream realised but it was just a long, spirit-sapping slog. It was joy to ride an unloaded bike afterwards. Since then I've done loads of Audax rides and a bit of "credit card" touring with just a saddlebag for luggage and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
    How far is it safe to push yourself? Dunno, I like to mix road with offroad stuff, mix it up to maximise my enjoyment of cycling: nothing like ploughing through mud on a freezing cold day, riding a vintage MTB; puts a big smile on my face, anyway.
    Perhaps if it feels to you like you're "pushing" yourself you should back off a bit or change bikes or do some different riding or none at all. Happy riding.

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  13. In addition to changing directions or ways, as you did the first two times, I have found a couple of remedies for the immediate symptoms on the alternative medicine shelf. One is Dr. Bach's Rescue Remedy. Another is a herbal blend called Adrenal Health made by Gaia herbs. They work differently. Rescue Remedy is quickly soothing and calming. Adrenal Health works over time. When I find myself in an overloading situation I use both. They don't replace the importance of changing paths. They make the process less difficult.

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  14. I ride for transportation and recreation, this past year I realized I'm not very fast in comparison to other roadies. I decided to just ride at my own pace, who cares how fast I'm going. I'm pushing 50 and try to ride as much as I can while I still can. I have a couple of iffy discs in my back and the knees will probably be a problem down the line. Sometimes coming home from work is much less fun than going into work, I suspect it's just tiredness after a full day.

    This past week I rode 3 times in the heat and humidity, Last night I decided I would drive to work today take a break from the uncomfortable weather. I said to myself if its not fun whats the point. Tomorrow I plan to ride early before the heat sets in. Also rest days are beneficial to the body, the muscles need time to repair and rebuild.
    The point is its good to ride different bikes and take breaks both from a mental and physical stand point. Finally our bodies and our tastes change over time and we have to stay aware of that. Cycling is still my passion, if I didn't have it taking a large chuck of my life I don't know what I would do.

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  15. Oh my god, I'm so glad I'm not the only one. It makes me feel so guilty when this happens. It usually lasts just a couple hours or a day, but I develop some sort of dread that I'll never want to bike again.

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  16. I rode with a bicycle computer once - I hated it. The entire ride (110 miles) I was focused on "How much is left ???" That put me as close to burn out as anything. I never wanted to do it again.

    But as soon as I tossed the computer things returned to normal. I brag that I'm the slowest guy on the road - I'm not but it's fun to pretend that I am. I also stop and smell the flowers - a lot (it's California after all).

    The worst time for burnout is at the beginning of a ride. It takes a few miles to get in the rhythm of the ride - after that it's never too far or too long.

    The other thing that helps me continue to ride is keeping it simple. Simple pedals, being able to bicycle comfortably in street clothing, stopping for lunch, a snack or beer frequently, singing (I'm awful!), that sort of thing. Enjoy the trip and the rest will take care of itself.

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  17. everything in life needs to find its equilibrium.... i guess that's both physically and mentally. expectations will eventually meet reality. for me burnout with regard to bikes had nothing to do with riding them but, rather, thinking about them....

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  18. Clearly, you need to get out the ice skates...or maybe sea kayaks :)

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    1. Hey, right now I am swimming AND riding my bike every day; no complaints!

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  19. I know exactly how you feel. Solution: stop for a while, or slow down, or ride an entirely different kind of bike, and, especially, repeat incessantly the mantra that "I'll ride as and when it's fun and stop when it's not." Despite Grant Petersen's sometimes hyperbolic manner of speaking, I give him great credit for trying assiduously to destroy the "racing-speed-fitness-technology-calibrated-measured-duty-duty-duty-goddamned-duty" model of cycling.

    Ever since I started riding "enthusiastically" at about age 16 I have been obsessed with speed and every ride became a time trial. Now, at 57, I am finally master enough of myself to commit to the mantra above -- well, at least I am beginning to commit myself to it. At this very moment I am hesitating to ride the 8.5 (!!) miles to church (for volunteer cleaning) because of my 40 years of memories of the pain of speed. But now, at least, I can reasonably tell myself, "Just go out and ride slowly, smell the flowers, watch the joggers -- riding slow is better than not riding at all." It is beginning to work.

    This also helps: http://www.jimbeam.com/

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    1. I prefer: http://www.hendricksgin.com

      Although I don't dislike whiskey and bourbon as much as I used to.

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  20. It's training 101.

    Trick is you probably weren't going hard enough and not resting enough alternately.

    Interesting, per usual, the comments advocating Grant come out of the woodwork. I would've thought they'd be in your last post as positivism.

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  21. You have perfectly described a mild case of overtraining. Sounds like you stopped early, which was the correct thing to do. If you have a layoff of a week or two, fine. If it ends up at threee or four weeks that's fine too. When you are just itching to get on the Seven and ride fast and long with the club then it's time. Not before. Get good recovery and the first ride you'll feel faster than you ever have before(endurance may be down slightly).

    This explains why the Mercian needed ever lower gears. When it's time to ride slow and easy there's no such thing as a gear too low.

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    1. The Mercian lower gearing thing is not related; the roadie burnout was a couple of months ago. I am fine now, just feel like trying very low gearing to see how I handle it.

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  22. Having just taken the longest one-day ride of my life yesterday and with more long rides planned this weekend, when I saw your post I yelled "NOOOO! I don't wanna burnout!"
    But I think you're right about how much of a difference having the option of a different bike can make. I love my road bike, but on the day after a long ride, I love my foldie (or my vintage loop frame) even more.

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  23. 'It's hard to describe the feeling, but it was as if cycling felt heavy and tedious instead of light and liberating.'

    This made me ask, 'what is it like in my experience?'.....I mean, as one who uses a bike daily, I've got to admit that more days seem heavy and tedious than light and liberating yet the joy remains, even though I've the one bike..... I picked up a friend's car from the shop, as a favor, drove through the city to return it, and the experience was miserable. Made me appreciate what a bike allows, even on the bad days.

    Burnout happens to everyone with things they care about....just ask any parent :) Joy is meaningless without pain.

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    1. I have not driven a car since 2007/2008. When I ride for transportation my bike is almost always laden with something or other. And of course I put in effort. But still, figuratively speaking I usually feel light and free. Joy is meaningless without pain, sure. But I have enough of the latter elsewhere in my life, and am not seeking more of it from cycling!

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  24. I switch it out too, different bike, different type of riding. That usually does the trick. It always passes, whatever I do.

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  25. for me its about variety too, I accidentally did a century today, on a mediocre road bike, after getting lost after deliberately going far from home, it had ups and downs (moments of gliding along for what seemed forever in top gear, and the dérailleur going out of adjustment and throwing the chain on inclines, breaking rhythm in every horrible sense), having done it I think I'll leave the road bike for a few weeks and do some gentle commuting, or if the road bike ill deliberately take it slow

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  26. I get burned out about once a year. I take a break, 2-4 weeks usually, and it goes away. Think of it as restarting the engine.

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  27. Your journey of the past few years -- from casual commuter to committed roadie -- has kind of gone at hyper-speed, compared to my similar track. Compared to my glacially slow 'progression,' your trajectory seems super-hyper-fast. Plus, you are a cycling industry 'professional' and are always thinking bikes and writing and test-riding stuff, so it's harder for you to take a break. For the rest of us, we just don't ride if we don't feel like it, but to a certain extent it's your 'job', right? Burnout seems natural. I'm in the opposite situation -- I ca't get the time to ride enough, so I wish I could be burnt out!

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    1. Thankfully, riding bikes is not my job. There are those who really do get paid to ride: Racers, coaches, hired demo testers. I respect these professions but could not be in that position myself. I ride because I like to and also because it is my sole means of transportation. This has the fortunate effect of allowing me to write about bikes, photograph them, review them, etc., without getting sick of doing so. While the blog over time has become a part time job, it is such entirely by choice at all times. I am not under contract with any of the sponsors, I have other sources of income to turn to if I end the blog, I have made sure there is no pressure. It would not work otherwise.

      The instances of burnout I've experienced are typical of those who ride a lot/often and have nothing to do with the blog. Oddly, I have not had blog burnout yet. I am sure it will happen though!

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    2. for me, my job and cycling have a relationship - at the moment my job is crap, profoundly crap, it's a monday morning here and paradoxically after a long burnout resulting ride saturday, i went for a gentle cycle sunday that turned into a blurry fifty mile dream, that is sustaining me at the moment as i wait for a crap crap crap monday to kick in (as is the possibility of teh serenity and peace and tranquility of tonights cycle, come whatever weather), cycling is meditation, a way to transcend a load of everyday reality crap, for atheists like me its close to religion

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    3. also - apologies for getting obsessed here, clearly i'm either not burning out at all or displaying dangerous prodromal signs of it - a lot depends on the bike, yesterday i was on the sweetest lightweight ever, it felt impossible to do anything but love it

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    4. There was a time, 3 years ago, when cycling was one of the few things keeping me sane as I worked on extricating myself from my last job. Definitely no burnouts, but then I also wasn't doing the same miles.

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  28. When I get tired of cycling, I put the bike away and then take it out for maybe one short little errand to the store or something. Nothing strenuous or time-consuming. Eventually the desire to ride further and faster returns...

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  29. Take it easy and mix it up. Pick up a map and look at an area that looks different that you have never been to and go check it out. It may be only a couple of miles away, You may be surprised. We are so fortunate to have so many places to ride that doing the same ride, over and over really makes no since. Learning while riding with your head up has helped me over the past 45 years of cycling.Finding new roads and combinations of curves keeps me going in our Beautiful New England. Call for ideas of places to explore, I have many.
    Good luck with your dealings and keep up the good work.

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  30. Wow. Burnout from riding has never occurred to me. I usually just get physically tired of it, and that's all. What does happen though is burnout from all the "bikes bikes bikes" talk that goes on when you live and work in the cycling community. Sometimes I just want to run away and hang out with climbers (like rock climbers, not hill climbers!), tea-drinking hippies, or a biker gang (that's motorcycles) for a while, to clear my head. I'm sure these two types of burnout are synergistic - you should factor in all the work you do in the industry into your burnouts, and get away a little. It helps. :)

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  31. Avoid taking anti-inflammatory meds following a strenuous ride unless there is an injury. Practice deep pressure muscle massage regularly, and use a hard, closed cell foam roller on muscles and spine. Nutrient dense food sources are equally important, but if you do nothing else use a foam roller often. If I could attach a dancing banana emoticon to each foam roller mention I would.

    The mind follows the body just like the body follows the mind. Reduce the effects of body fatigue and attitude fatigue will diminish as well.

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  32. i never get burned out on walking. cycling is the same.

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  33. So, are you suggesting this burnout would not have happened had you taken more than one bike with you?

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    1. No idea. It would have been impossible in any case. But maybe I could have focused on one type of riding, and not tried to do everything, every day.

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    2. You could bring one and rent another.

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    3. Have you had luck with bike rentals? If so I'd be interested where. I have not.

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    4. Yes, in Portland, Oregon. I rent a bike each time I visit. Lot's of choices from urban bikes to road to touring. If I go on a long tour I'll ship mine, otherwise for transportation I'll find a rental.

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  34. Whenever I get burn out from riding I take a break and start reading this blog again to get remotivated. Works like a charm every time ... Just sayin :).

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  35. Hmm, was the burnout more physical or psychological? I can't say I've had cycling burnout having biked most of my life. but this past year I got sick in March and pretty much stopped biking for quite awhile. And even though I could more or less bike a bit, I didn't want to. I was burnt out. All that commuting, weighed down with heavy panniers in the dark, in the rain, on a dangerous highway was just a bit much anymore. And always tired and unwell did not help matters. Due to extreme dizziness i could only bike slowly, short distances and on an upright bike. I still have the mysterious dizzies, but manage okay on a bike. Since being liberated from work(lay off!), I no longer have the commute(until unemployment benefits end or am forced back to work), so biking is about going into town, to farm stands, to the beach....and I want a fast bike! Unfortunately the only bike I have running is an old raleigh lady bike which is a bit clunky etc.. Now I finally have the time to go for proper bike rides which I have not been able to do for eons because my commutes have been so long etc.. So, I want to ride again. However, I am seriously considering getting a car because I just don't have the desire to ride daily no matter what the weather.

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  36. Imagine the burnout if you HAD to ride. I messengered for 12 years and for the last 2 years of that chapter I was severely burned out. I got through with a mix of good and bad, by drinking a lot, eating tonnes of broccoli and red meat as well as too much junk food, and with martial arts/yoga/pilates type stuff to try to keep from getting injured; I'd sometimes pull a glute or hamstring by just tying my shoe or something silly. I felt seized up all the time. The martial arts (bagua and tai chi type stuff) and other 'internal' exercise was the only way I think I got through the last few years. I didn't know how else to make enough a living to pay the bills so I just kept hanging on; my city has high unemployment, low pay and lots of hills and wind... curse those three enemies! By the time I quit I was burned out to the pit of my very soul and was a miserable person. It took me years to get over it... years. Sadly I had zero interest in bikes (sad becasue my passion for bikes was what got me into messengering) and though I still sometimes commuted by bike, mostly I'd opt for a skateborad when I could or took the bus and eventually bought a Lambretta scooter which I wrecked by riding on salty, wet roads. I never maintained my bikes... ruined a Dura Ace groupset. I gained a bunch of weight. Other messengers and retired messengers understood but few other people did, and there were only three in my town.

    Now I'm back to bike-loving and riding. The health risks include spending too much money on boutique bike stuff, obsessing about parts and frames, realizing what a hack I actually am for someone who'd spent so much time on a bike, and blog addiction.

    How burned out those people pushing tank bikes with massive amounts of cargo for a living in places like China and India must get astounds me. And I always shake my head when the messenger thing is over glorified or portrayed as some cool, chic extreme sport; I enjoyed it lots until burnout set in - it's part of my identity and I have respect those who do it - but never again no matter what.

    That's my experience for what it's worth. Whenever somebody mentions burnout I'm brought back to it. I was stupid for letting it happen to the degree that it did. I agree with the take a rest and mix it up advice given by others and nipping it in the bud.

    -- Rolly

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  37. Interesting article. I came back to cycling because I was suffering golf burnout. Being a very competitive golfer for 12 or so years had taken its toll. I realised I actually wasn't enjoying the game. So I gave my self a completely different challenge which happened to be bike orientated. 12 months later, bike challenge done and I'm back to golf and, thank goodness, really enjoying it.

    I don't think I'll let golf take over again as I really like the cycling too. So I'll try and mix the two. Hopefully I won't burn out in either; if I do I can go back to rock climbing!

    My take on it is that it is good to have at least two outlets for physical activity (sport, recreation, whatever). Keep them balanced but allow one to dominate for a while if you wish. I think it's a strategy for keeping things fresh.

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  38. In 40 years of cycling I have gone through this numerous times. It always passes. My remedy for cycling burnout is to try to go out and do something I have always wanted to do but never found the time for. Something interesting, something just for fun. It works. I live in a city where winter cycling can be very difficult and I sometimes can't ride. The worst day of the year is the day when I have to put my bicycle away without knowing when I will be able to go out again

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  39. It's interesting, but I had the same experience spinning (the type that uses wool, not bicycles!) I had a very limited wheel and could only spin fine yarns. After awhile, it all seems tedious and boring. The fix for me was spindles, which brought back the fun. Maybe the issue is a combination of limiting the type of cycling that you are doing and doing too many tedious boring things on the bike. I don't think this is something you self motivate. I think any time that you lose the joy in cycling, you just need to put the fun back into it. That could mean switching around to a less serious bike or maybe just some mindless, "no particular place to go" cycling.

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  40. For just that reason, I make myself take a rest day 1 day out of 7. It's difficult sometimes because I love being on my bike but it sure makes a difference. I haven't suffered from burnout in quite awhile.

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  41. I guess it makes sense on many levels that track cyclists are sometimes also speed skaters. Training the two sports would mix it up seasonally, provide varied training for the legs and help keep burnout from occuring.

    The only PBP rider I've ever met personally says he's careful to mix up slow touring, and off-season spinning to keep in shape while not burning out. Sounds like he's found the balance that works for him.

    Mixing it up seems to be key to most, along with rest of course.

    Great subject. It's reassuring to hear othrs' experiences.

    -- Rolly

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