This Is CrossFit Burnout (and How You Overcome It)

If you’re a seasoned CrossFitter, chances are you’ve reached a point where doing “constantly varied functional movements at high intensity” can feel a bit … bleh.

You know those days when you walk into the gym and everything just feels super heavy? Your body. The barbell. Even your gym bag?

But it’s more than that. Emotionally, you just don’t feel present and you’re finding that there are more and more days where you’d rather not WOD. Maybe you’re even bored.

The irony is that as “constantly varied” as CrossFit is, you can still grow tired of it.

After five years of being a part of the sport, I’ve been there. I’ve seen my friends go through it, too. I’ve seen them walk into the gym like zombies and do workouts just out of sheer habit.

On the flipside, I’ve seen how CrossFit can give people life.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

I’ve witnessed amazing physical transformations. I’ve heard unbelievable testimonies. People tell me all of the time how they found community when felt lonely and lost. And the other day, one of my athletes said that CrossFit helped her wean off of antidepressants.

I felt so proud I wanted to cry.

We do CrossFit for so many reasons: To lose weight, get over a bad breakup, find new friends, feel like an athlete again, fall back in love with our bodies, spice up the usual gym routine … The reasons are endless. And for some people who see positive outcomes from their commitment to change, CrossFit becomes incredibly ingrained in their identity.

But what do you do when the very thing that bettered your life begins to suck that very life right out of you?

I suppose the simple solution to burnout is this: Take a break and leave the box for a bit.

But I know from experience that that decision isn’t always easy. It’s not like cancelling your membership at Planet Fitness. For some, the thought of leaving their CrossFit gym can stir up a little anxiety.

So to find solutions, I went out to find everyday athletes who’ve been through major burnout and were able to find some solace in the end.

If you’re currently questioning your love for CrossFit or other functional fitness methodologies, I hope you find yourself in one of these stories and maybe find a way to light your fire once again.

Brooke Siem, 32

Brooke Siem was not new to burnout before she started CrossFit.

She was a competitive dancer and when she moved to NYC in 2013 she knew that her love for dance was dwindling. Brooke would go to classes and her body just hurt. She was older and didn’t think she could keep up with the younger girls in class.

Brooke was tired and depressed.

“Dance was the only physical thing that I had really ever loved,” she said. “My whole identity was wrapped up in it. I really didn’t know what to do.”

That was until she started going to CrossFit Fifth Ave. She started going there because she was “lazy,” she said. It was the closest fitness to her apartment. The competition classes were the only ones that fit her schedule and she soon found herself falling in love with the intensity.

“I needed something to work for and I love beating people,” she said. “I kind of got off on that when I was dancing, too. At Fifth Ave. we had coaches who could work on our technique. I wanted to learn CrossFit in great detail.”

It didn’t take long for Brooke to excel in CrossFit. In 2015, she made the cut for the Regionals team. But not long after that, she tore ligaments in her back during a deadlift session. A year of rehab got her back into the box, though her lifts were never the same again.

Then during one work trip to Malaysia, she stopped into a box for a workout and something just didn’t feel right.

“I just remember it was hot and there were thrusters involved,” said Brooke. “And it quickly dawned on me that I wasn’t enjoying myself. I couldn’t do it. I was kind of angry at CrossFit … I felt like the injury had taken something away from me so I was mad.

“I was mad because I had put on all of this muscle to get to Regionals and suddenly I was turning into fluff while I was traveling. I wasn’t able to maintain [everything that had worked for]. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if I look and feel like this for the rest of my life?'”

When Brooke came out of that anger, she realized she was going through a grieving process just like she had with dance. She had lost an identity. She had to be gentle with herself take some time to reflect.

“After a year of traveling, I realized that all of this work that I had put in was paying off in a completely unexpected way,” she said. “CrossFit has allowed me to explore the world in a way that made me so open to doing anything physical.

I might have to climb hundreds stairs to get up the temple or even being in hilly places where I don’t have a car and I have to walk everywhere. I’ve been on tours with people who were complaining about how much their body hurt and how difficult it was to get up the stairs. They’re huffing and puffing. I would get to the top and I would be fine. I realized I was doing CrossFit to maintain my lifestyle.”

Brooke’s burnout melted away once she found a new “why”. But she says becoming a coach is what really motivates her to be in the gym.

Best Piece of Advice:

“Transferring my energy to coaching CrossFit part-time has been really important for me. When I get to help someone get their first pull up and I see them get so excited about it, I get excited. It’s just a way for me to pass on the information I’ve learned and the accomplishments that I’d achieved all of these years without having to constantly be having to tear my own body apart.

Putting myself on the pedestal is no longer the most important thing in my life. When something is that important to you and you lose it, you’re setting yourself up for a huge letdown or burnout. So never letting it get to that point helps to keep yourself as flexible and manage the transition.”

David Blackwell, 39

If it were ever possible to overdo it in yoga, David Blackwell knows how to do it.

Before he stepped into his first CrossFit box, he spent years perfecting his practice as a yogi. But even after all that stretching, he still felt his body was out of whack. He says his muscles felt tight. He had low energy. On top of that, David was going through a tough breakup and was looking for ways to release.

It wasn’t until he found CrossFit in 2014 that he discovered the right outlet for his physical and emotional needs. David found that when he pushed himself to exhaustion and got stronger in his lifts that he began to feel like himself again.

“I was gaining my flexibility back. I was feeling more energized,” said David. “CrossFit became my balance in life.”

But of course, David knows that anything in life can lead to unbalance if you’re not listening to your inner voice.

After four years, David found that his CrossFit engine was starting to fall off. His times weren’t as good. His lifts weren’t as solid.

“That started to affect me a lot mentally,” said David.

So instead of doing the traditional WODs he started to come into the box to do his own workouts. Maybe it was row intervals. Maybe it was an EMOM of heavy kettlebell swings. Whatever his body was calling for.

Unfortunately, he didn’t always feel like that was accepted at his gym.

“People would always ask me, ‘Well how do you know what you’re doing?” said David. “I felt like any deviation from the gym’s programming was looked upon suspiciously.”

David’s burnout led him to leave the CrossFit community altogether. Don’t get him wrong though. He still dabbles in “functional training”. He now follows his own programming at his local gym and he’ll tell you: the most freeing thing for him was learning how to own his fitness.

Best Piece of Advice:

“If you’re reading this, you’ve probably done CrossFit for 3-5 years. Maybe you had minor injuries here and there, and you probably healed from it. You probably gained a ton of intelligence and knowledge. Realize that you have the power in applying what you’ve picked up. So you don’t have to be beholden to someone else’s idea of how you should work out if you’re not very comfortable with it.

I think people are very willing to give away power and give away intelligence and give away their autonomy. Then suddenly they don’t have any energy. They don’t have any interest in it. Find your sense of autonomy in your workouts. Whatever it is.”

Jen Matichuk, 26

Jen Matichuk had only been doing CrossFit for a year when the head performance coach noticed her potential to make the Regional team. She was strong, had the incredible mental capacities to embrace the suck and seemed to be super passionate about the sport.

So the moment Coach asked her to join the performance program, Jen jumped at the bit. She was a former collegiate hockey player and was looking forward to becoming a part of a team again.

Every morning before her 9-5 she’d hit a two hour session with the team and another two-hour training at night.

“They really beat me up,” she said.

And in some ways, that year of extreme training was worth it. During the 2015 Open, she finished 167th in the SoCal region. Jen was one of the top girls on the team. But when the team traveled to Regionals, she was slated as an alternate.

“I was pissed,” said Jen. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I’m so overworked. I wasn’t performing at work anymore. I don’t have friends outside the gym. All of my lifts are failing. I’m eating weird … I just realized everything all at once.”

At that point, Jen knew that she had to step away from the sport — at least for a little while. She gave Class Pass a spin and explored things she never thought she would do, like barre and aerial silk classes. In leaving her box, she was doing something for the sake of her overall health. She didn’t think she would lose friends in the process.

“A few friends that I thought would be friends for life fell off because I stopped going,” said Jen. “I’m still pretty upset that I don’t have them in my life anymore.”

Eventually, she returned to CrossFit. She says she has a much healthier relationship with the sport now and it was all about finding a gym that fit her needs.

“It took me a long time to come to that realization that I’ll probably never get to the Games, but I think I’ve transitioned very well,” said Jen. “Now I have a great gym group where it’s less competitive. We’re not competing with each other, trying to get a spot on the team, trying to be the best. At CrossFit High Voltage, it’s like you come in here to get a good workout in and have a healthy active lifestyle.”

Best Piece of Advice:

“If you’re feeling burnout, just cut down the number of days you’re going. Make sure that you work hard those couple of days that you’re going. If you feel like you need to do a workout every single day then just take it easy at home. Buy a kettlebell and do a kettlebell circuit on your own until you’re getting your lifts back to where they were … until you aren’t struggling to stay awake in the day even though you got enough sleep. I think it’s just listening body at that point. If you have to take a step back on CrossFit, something is wrong. You need to listen to your body.”

Luke Tedaldi, 34

Luke Tedaldi is quick to admit it: He was one of those guys who started to let himself go after college. Once he graduated, it wasn’t so easy to gather the boys and the gals to play football in the park. And after playing varsity tennis at Brown, going to the average gym was boring. Some days it seemed like it was better not to go at all.

But he knew he had to treat his body with more respect.

So in the effort to save himself from the pouch, take care of his health, and look good in his friend’s wedding photos, he signed up for a 6-week CrossFit challenge at WillyB CrossFit. The moment he picked up a barbell he was hooked. There was something alluring about working out in a group setting.

“It kind of reminded me of playing sports in college where you are going through the same tough workouts together, you can’t help but reach out to the person working out next to you,” said Luke. “When you are put through a horrendous physical activity together, you can’t help but bond. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Luke, a two-year CrossFit veteran, has never fully experienced burnout, but he knows when it’s time to shake things up.

If he’s feeling tired, maybe it’s time to switch it up with just HIIT or barbell classes. Maybe it’s time to do the morning classes and meet new friends at the AM crew. (He’s discovered he’s not a morning person, by the way.)

He calls this switcharoo dance his little “chemistry experiment.” It’s not rocket science. Burnout prevention is the name of the game.

But what does he do when he’s burnt out on preventing burnout?

Best Piece of Advice:

“Honestly, trying to self-motivate is a wonderful skill to have and it’s something that CrossFit can teach you. But it’s definitely not sustainable to rely upon yourself all of the time.

What I found to be the most effective was to text my friends throughout the day, banter on forums and get competitive with each other — playful friendly pokes are equally motivating, of course … That would provide the stimulus that I needed and for now I’m quite happy with it.”

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @d__black1 on Instagram