In today's post, I'm sharing with you the Recovery Spectrum Framework, what it is, how it works, and why it's important to go through it in order to recover from overtraining and under eating — or, in one word, burnout.
There are three steps that we go through in order to truly recover from burnout. In this article, I'm going to describe each phase in detail and offer solutions that help you move on to the next phase, allowing you to eventually find true balance.
What Is Burnout?
I use the word burnout to describe the state of our health where we're extremely exhausted from overtraining and under eating and where we have developed several problems with our physical and mental health. It makes a lot of sense to put it together under the same umbrella term — burnout.
One of my clients once told me that she feels like she's living her life in a “grandma mode”.
Don't get me wrong — there's nothing wrong with grandmas, I love grandmas. But here's the way she described her “grandma mode”, which is the way she lives her life every day. It looked like this:
“I wake up, having very low energy already in the morning. I get through my workday although I need a lot of coffee to stay awake. I'm exhausted but after I'm done at the office, I still work out. I know that it doesn't even do anything for me at this point because my body is exhausted from never taking a break, but I just feel like I have to do it. And then I just crash. I don't go out or do much else because I have no energy left. I often eat the same things day after day, and although I'm bored, I'm too scared to change anything either. Every day is the same.”
Does it sound familiar to you?
Even if it doesn't describe exactly you, you may have been getting signs of your metabolism slowing down — you notice how your energy is low, your sleep is bad, your periods are irregular or missing, your bowel movements are less frequent, your libido is gone, your hair has started falling out… You're also more tired and less excited, and you don't quite understand why…
How I Went From Burnout to Healing and Balance
I had always been very active and athletic, but at the end of 2016/early 2017, I was starting to get so tired that I had to cut my workouts shorter and shorter. In addition, I was losing my workout motivation — huge signs that something was seriously wrong with me. After all, I had always loved fitness but now had to push myself out the door to get my workout done! This was new to me.
You can read my full story of burnout and recovery HERE.
After my healing process, I can happily say that I'm completely recovered and healthy, can work out again, and I even set new workout goals — something that I couldn't do for a long time because I wasn't physically and mentally ready for it.
Sounds good? It is! But here's the important part: It's impossible to jump from being completely burnt out, to start feeling like a rockstar and setting new workout goals, in a matter of weeks!
In my case, the full recovery took probably over a year. My period came back 5 months after I started recovery, but full mental freedom, and full physical healing, took a little longer.
Today I'm going to share with you the 3 phases of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum. This is the spectrum we all have to go through, in order to fully recover from burnout that's caused from too much exercise and food restriction.
Here are the 3 phases of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum:
- Burnout. This is where we are when we're overtraining, under eating, and obsessively focusing on your bodyweight, shape and size.
- Healing. This is our next and absolutely necessary step in order to start feeling better. This, Healing phase, is critical if we want to reverse the Burnout phase.
- Balance. This is where the true magic happens — we've been through the previous phases, we're no longer doing anything extreme, and we've found our happy balance, hopefully for life.
3 Phases of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: Physical and Physiological Changes
Next, we're going to discuss each phase of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum separately. First, we're mostly focusing on the physical and physiological changes that we go through in different phases of recovery.
Phase 1 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: BURNOUT
Here's what the Burnout phase looks like:
- We're working out a lot, doing 5-10 workouts every week
- We're restricting calories, often severely, and we're always careful not to eat “too much”
- In many cases we're restricting certain macronutrients, most commonly carbs but sometimes also fats
- We're doing everything we can to keep our weight down, even if it means starving ourselves and doing multiple workouts a day
- We're very attached to the number on the scale, weighing ourselves obsessively, sometimes multiple times a day
- Every decision we make revolves around the following question: How is it going to affect my body, meals and workouts?
- We're often mentally exhausted, irritable, and rarely happy with the way we look — no matter how lean or skinny we are or how much weight we have lost.
As a result, we may have damaged our metabolism and developed some, many or all of the following issues:
- Poor sleep: We're either having insomnia or we're sleeping 10+ hours a night but we're still not feeling rested
- We have irregular periods or they're missing altogether
- We have low body temperature, we're always feeling cold
- We're often constipation and/or bloated
- Our sex drive is gone
- Our hair is falling out, nails are brittle, skin is dry
- We're anxious or depressed
- We're often in a bad mood.
These signs are telling us that our metabolism is slowing down. If you're interested in this topic and how to heal, please check out this 7-day email series that you can access HERE.
Phase 2 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: HEALING
At one point, the physical and mental effects caused by the first phase, BURNOUT, start getting really bad so that we can no longer ignore them. We start waking up and realize that if we want to stop this, we have to do pretty much the opposite to what got us in here. It looks like this:
- Significantly reduce exercise, especially long cardio and intense training like HIT, HIIT and bootcamps. These types of workouts are really taxing on the body, especially when it's already exhausted
- Start nourishing our body with right foods and increase the food intake to heal the body
- Sleep more, take naps of needed
- Start a mindfulness practice
- Relax our body and mind as much as we can. THIS is a great resource if you'd like to get started with guided meditations.
For some of us, Phase 2 might be the first time in our lives when we're actually starting to listen to our bodies and eating the things that we truly want. There are many foods that we haven't “let” ourselves to have for years. Little by little (or, cold turkey, if you're ready for it…) we start letting go of numbers.
It may be the first time where we let go of structured exercise and even more so, let go of the idea that more is better. We have to stop stressing our bodies with intense workouts at this point. Otherwise, the body simply can't recover.
It's important that we don't get on the scale because it doesn't help us. Most people gain weight in this phase, which is very natural and normal, so if you know that seeing the number go up will throw you off, don't get on the scale.
Other tips: Let's stop measuring our carbs, it's making us more obsessed. Let's put that fitness tracker away and move intuitively, without looking at how many steps we took. Let's let go of our perfect eating times, stop waiting when it's the “meal time” to eat, and instead, eat when our bodies tells us to.
As a result, we start seeing the following changes:
- Our sleep gets better. We should be able to sleep through the night, and ideally, not get up. If you used to get up multiple times a night to pee, these times should decrease
- We should feel better rested when we wake up in the morning
- Our periods come back, or become more regular, or our cycles become ovulatory if they weren't before
- As our metabolism speeds up, our body produces more heat and we feel warmer. Our basal body temperature goes up
- Our constipation should get much better as a result of more regular eating and higher food intake
- Our libido should increase
- We're less irritable
- Our overall mood should be much better.
This is the HEALING phase where we build the foundation for the BALANCE phase.
Phase 3 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: BALANCE
The first two phases, BURNOUT and HEALING, were the opposite of each other. In a way, they were both extremes. The HEALING phase was absolutely necessary to overcome the BURNOUT phase.
Once we arrive in the third, the BALANCE phase, we're no longer in either of the extremes. Here are a couple of examples of what BALANCE looks like:
- We no longer work out 7 days a week which we likely did in the BURNOUT phase, but we can do more than just walking and yoga which was what we probably did in the HEALING phase. We can start working out again, but this time, we do 2-3 strength workouts a week without depleting ourselves. Here's a good example on how to get started. If our bodies respond well and if we want to, we can later experiment with adding a couple of more workouts. Of course, we will have to adjust according to your own needs, but that's the idea.
- We no longer eat 1200-1500 calories a day which is so common in BURNOUT phase, but we also don't have to eat dessert after every meal as we may have done in the HEALING phase. Again, allowing ourselves that food freedom was essential to recover. Eventually, in the BALANCE phase, we'll be able to have some dessert sometimes, not all the dessert all the time, which is really what healthy eating looks like. This is our ultimate goal, and we're in the BALANCE phase when we realize that we can have some dessert sometimes.
- We no longer have extreme physique goals, like having to have a rock solid six pack or get our body fat percentage to single digits. Maybe you had these goals in the BURNOUT phase? In the HEALING phase, we had to intentionally gain weight — this was the way to recovery. Once we're feeling very strong in our recovery, we may carefully set some goals physique goals again, like increasing muscle mass, for example. We know that we're truly in the balanced mindset when we don't get obsessive with it, and we never put our physique goals before our health.
Balance Is Earned
Balance is the ultimate goal, because most of us don't want to be stuck in BURNOUT phase and even the HEALING phase. But here's what we have to keep in mind about the BALANCE phase:
- Balance is earned. It's not possible to jump from BURNOUT to BALANCE! It takes patience and work.
- There's a lot of healing to do in the HEALING phase, both physically and mentally.
- Once we've arrived in the BALANCE phase and been there for enough time to feel strong and healthy, we can challenge our bodies a little bit more if we have performance goals — something that you shouldn't do in BURNOUT or HEALING phase.
- If we want to set physique goals, we have to be very, very aware that previous eating disorder habits may trigger old behaviors again.
- That being said, if we really want to set some physique goals, we want to achieve them reasonably. It's only possible when our relationship with food and our body is rock solid, and that we don't do anything too extreme or unreasonable to achieve those goals. We would never go back to doing the things that we did in the BURNOUT phase.
Phases of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: Mindset Changes
Thus far, we've been mostly talking about the physical changes that happen when we go through the different phases of burnout recovery. But there's also another part which is as important, and that is, our mindset — our thoughts and beliefs in each phase. The changes that I've seen both in my own and my clients‘ mindsets as we've been through different phases, are really significant.
One of the most noticeable things that describes the first two phases is judgement. In both phases, we tend to think that our way is the only way and everyone who does things differently “doesn't get us” and is doing it “wrong”.
In Phase 3, there's much less judgement as we're able to see food, fitness and health from a much more balanced perspective and no longer have the need to be “right”. We don't expect others to “get us”, all that matters is that we get us!
Our Mindset in Phase 1 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: BURNOUT
When we are in this phase, the words black or white and perfectionistic describe our thinking the best. Here's how our thought process often goes:
- I have to work out hard and eat according to my rules. There are no excuses!
- More workouts and less food is always the best way to go
- I have to be perfect
- I have to run 60 minutes; 55 minutes is not good enough (or, I have to do 20 reps, 18 isn't enough, take 12K steps, 11K isn't enough etc)
- I should never leat myself to eat dessert (or any food that is in my No list)
- People should exercise more, I can't believe how lazy some people are
- People should really stop eating those things, I can't believe how they don't know it's bad for them
- If you don't work out at least X days a week, you're not dedicated enough
- Rest days are not allowed (or only 1 day is allowed)
- I always push through, no matter how tired or hungry I am.
There are more examples of how the person in Phase 1 thinks, but the main keywords are perfect, more is better, and no excuses.
Because our thoughts create our actions, these actions develop the health issues we talked about before. They all stem from perfectionism!
Our Mindset in Phase 2 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: HEALING
Once we start healing, slowly but surely, a lot of these thoughts and beliefs that we had in Phase 1, will simply die.
As we immerse ourselves in the messages of the anti-diet culture and body positivity movement, we notice a shift happening. This is a good change, because it helps to take the focus off from our physique and teach us that it is possible to feel confident about ourselves also in a larger body.
It will also help us turn inwards and explore what are the reasons for our perfectionism, and help us realize that we do have a lot of worth and value outside of our physical looks too.
So, in this process, here's how our mindset usually shifts:
- I let go of all the rules that I've had about my food and fitness and I surrender completely
- No matter how much food I end up needing, this is what I have to do right now and I surrender to it
- I'm going to eat a lot of dessert! Yes! I'm going to eat everything that I've wanted for a long time
- I have many days when I simply lay on the couch and do nothing
- I let go of tracking numbers and try what it feels like to be intuitive
- Instead of being mean to myself, I talk to myself kindly and learn to accept and love myself.
All this is exactly what we should in the HEALING phase. I have many clients who have told me that this was the first time in their lives when they allowed themselves such freedom, when they didn't have rules and restrictions around food, and where they realized that resting is actually good for the body.
There's one dangerous side of it, which is this: We end up judging others for their choices just because they are different from ours:
- No one should ever run or do intense training
- Wanting to change your body composition is a bad thing and means you're not body positive
- If you order a salad instead of pizza, you must be body-obsessed
- If you turn down a dessert, or eat a low calorie ice cream instead of regular, it means that you're promoting diet culture
- If you work out on a vacation instead of lying by the pool most of the day, you have a workout addiction
- No one should ever want to lose weight, it's s wrong
- This person is so skinny, she must have anorexia and she definitely doesn't get her period
- Elimination diets are never necessary, and they are only used as a way to cut calories and diet
- Food intolerances are all made up; I don't believe anyone who says that they can't eat gluten. Those people just want to lose weight.
Statements like this actually reflect the same black and white mindset that we talked about earlier, but now, it's just the other side of the coin. It's not fair to project our experience on someone else who might be perfectly healthy, so I really encourage all of us to not do that.
We have to be where we have to be, and not judge others for where they are.
Our Mindset in Phase 3 of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum: BALANCE
In this last phase of the Burnout Recovery Spectrum, the BALANCE phase, we're able to see all the aspects of food and fitness, in a balanced way. We understand that not everyone is going through the same thing. Many people are in different phase of their recovery than we are, and many people have nothing to recover from because their relationship with food, exercise and their bodies is already good!
Here's how we know that we have, also mentally, arrived at the BALANCE phase:
- We're not thinking anymore that weight loss is the most important thing, as we did in the BURNOUT phase. But we also no longer judge people who want to lose weight — something that we probably did in the HEALING phase. In the BALANCE phase, we understand that people may want to lose weight for their health or their looks, that it can be done in a responsible and reasonable way, and our negative experience doesn't mean that everyone will have the same negative experience.
- We don't have to be perfect with our food the way we thought we should in the BURNOUT phase. But we also may not want to have no structure or guidelines as we did in the HEALING phase where we learned to eat freely. In the BALANCE phase, we realize that we may do well with some guidelines — for example, eating protein at every meal, eating vegetables at most meals, etc. It's okay to bring some guidelines back in the BALANCE phase, but it should never get obsessive.
- We don't restrict foods the way we did in BURNOUT phase, but we also don't judge those who may have to restrict — which was hard to understand in the HEALING phase. In the BALANCE phase, we know that sometimes restriction is necessary for some people and that it's not ours to judge.
- In the BURNOUT phase we may avoid foods and even come up with “sensitivities” that we actually don't have… In the HEALING phase, we sometimes blame people for dieting even if they actually do have sensitivities! In BALANCE phase, we don't make up sensitivities for ourselves, but we also don't judge others for lying if they say they have them.
- In the BURNOUT phase, we always pushed ourselves hard in our workouts because no pain, no gain was our mantra. In HEALING phase, we thought that no one should ever push themselves — just because we weren't in a place where it was appropriate for us. In BALANCE phase, there are days where we want to push harder and days where we don't, and that comes down to trusting our bodies and being honest with ourselves. We also understand that people have different goals and reasons for exercise, and what they do, shouldn't affect what we do.
This phase represents true freedom and open-mindedness, and knowing that all that really matters is what works for us.
Why Balance Is The Ultimate Goal
It's important that when we're burnt out, we go through the HEALING and eventually end up in the BALANCE phase. Why is arriving in BALANCE so important? For several reasons:
We make better fitness choices for ourselves. The purpose of exercise and movement in general is to improve our health and enhance our lives in an enjoyable way. When we know how to listen to our bodies, figure out what works best for us, and avoid doing anything extreme, then we make fitness sustainable for ourselves.
We make better food choices for ourselves. Food is fuel, medicine, and a source of joy too. We have to avoid any extreme diets or weigh loss tricks because those will send us back to unhealthy eating habits and obsessive behaviors. But we also want to learn what works for us, and that comes through knowledge and experience. Finding that balance is important in order to make choices that support our health, performance and physique goals.
We have much more acceptance for others. It doesn't matter what other people eat or don't eat, how they move or don't move — when we're balanced and happy with ourselves, it's not our business to police them. Let's accept others, and only offer our advice when it's asked.
We're spiritually better aligned. Anger, preaching and judgement keep our minds and hearts closed. By making choices that are truly good for us, and accepting others for doing what works for them, we keep our minds and hearts open. As a result, we're much better aligned with ourselves spiritually.
We grow. Being stuck in old thought patterns and refusing to see things that are uncomfortable, keeps us small. It's important to expose ourselves to new perspectives and understand that our truth is not the only truth. When we keep our minds open, we're challenged to think differently. Maybe even this article challenged you a bit, especially if you're currently in Phase 1 or 2!
I hope that this article helped you to understand where you are on The Burnout Recovery Spectrum. The goal is ultimately end up in the BALANCE phase and never go back to BURNOUT.
The BALANCE phase is the phase where the real health happens. We can think about it this way: Phases 1 and 2 are the black and white, and Phase 3 is the grey area. There are different shades even in this area, so don't expect nothing to ever change one you get here. Fluctuations are normal and healthy, but we can only realize it when we let go of the black or white mindset.
Where are you on this Burnout Recovery Spectrum? Are you currently burnt out, healing, or found your balance?
We work on your behaviors around food and fitness, improve your body image and if needed, create your unique training plan that supports your health and wellness goals.
Get in touch here if you're ready to take the step towards food freedom true physical and mental health, and BALANCE.