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!