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Running On Fumes

By Dr. Andrea Toppin, DC, Webster-Certified Practitioner, Olympic Trials Competitor

After 3.5 years of graduate school to become a Doctor of Chiropractic, 400+ exams later (plus five national board exams), and qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, I acquired mental, physical and emotional burnout both from school and running. (haha, are we surprised?)

Chronic Stress for Runners creates burnout and fatigue

To be honest, let’s add in 5 more years to that of Division I collegiate running. Inadequate sleep and poor nutrition only made things worse. I was a ball of stress, I never took the time to pause, breathe, and just take stock of everything that was on my plate (literally, and figuratively). In the end, major stress, coupled with poor nutrition, little sleep and loads of mileage resulted in increased inflammation, decreased muscle recovery, and injury.

How do you know if you’re simply stressed or burnt out? When you’re stressed, you feel like once things are under control everything will be better. With burnout, nothing is enough. You feel overworked and undervalued.

Typical Signs of Burnout:

  • Almost every day is a bad day

  • Reduced energy and productivity

  • Constantly feeling exhausted

  • Frequent headaches or muscle tension

  • Changes in sleep and appetite

  • Feeling like a failure or struggling with self-doubt

  • Procrastination and or personal isolation

  • Skipping work/school or other obligations

How does burnout even happen?

Well, it all boils down to our nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system to be exact. Our autonomic nervous system regulates our body’s instinctive, involuntary and unconscious actions such as our heartbeat, digestions and basically the function of every internal organ. Ever heard the phrase “fight or flight?"

Well, there are two divisions in our autonomic nervous system: The sympathetic and parasympathetic system. That “fight or flight” is part of our sympathetic system. It’s designed to help us stay alive during life threating situations and designed for short term stress (like running from a lion or any danger).

Our "fight or flight" response should ONLY be short term.

But that’s all it should be… short term. Anything more prevents your body from healing, resting, and recharging. It essentially prevents your parasympathetic system from doing its job, which is to get your body back to a calm baseline and a state of self-preservation. When our autonomic nervous system goes awry, that’s when burnout can come in.

Dr. Andrea Toppin Olympic Trials Marathon Runner facing burnout and fatigue
Dr. Dre competing in the Olympic Trials for Marathon

How can we cure or avoid burnout? Below are four major self-care tips that helped me deal with my burnout:


Sleep is essential to function properly. Sleep and stress are inversely related. High levels of stress are linked to a high incidence of insomnia, but lack of sleep increases our perception of how stressful an event may be. Therefore, the more stressed you are, the harder it is to sleep and the less you sleep, the more stressed you become. According to the American Psychological Association, adults should sleep at least 7-9 hours per night; those who sleep more than 8 hours per night report decreased levels of stress. To get a good night’s rest, I will meditate and work on breathing through my diaphragm with some deep breathes to slow my heart rate before bed.

Other ways to get a good night’s rest include:

  • Turning off your cell phone or putting it in night mode

  • Reading a good book

  • Journaling

  • Supplementing with a blend of adaptogens, like Rightful


Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential for everyone. The fuel we put in our body helps all of the systems in our body function properly such as our brain, mood, energy levels, hormones and performance.

It helps to avoid or limit foods that affect our moods such as alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. Need more direction? Reach out to Kate for a personal nutrition consultation.

Instead, consume foods the nourish your body and provide long-term energy such as:

  • Staying hydrating with water/natural electrolytes

  • Consuming more nuts, seeds, fruits, & veggies, along with whole grains & lean proteins can provide sustained energy.

  • Omega-3s, such as chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, walnuts, kidney beans, and fish give the brain the type of fats it needs to function well plus they help with increased mood, learning, and memory.

  • Boost your fiber in order to regulate your digestion. Complex carbs such as brown rice, wild rice, beans, oats, & whole grain pastas are great for long lasting energy.

  • Dark leafy greens help you take in vital minerals, antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber.

  • Don’t forget about protein. There are plenty of options ranging from plant-based to animal-based proteins which help build and repair muscle as well as regulate hormones such as serotonin that positively influence our brain health.

Nutrition to Support Burnout in Runners and Competitive Athletes for Hormone Support


Slow, controlled, deep breathing can help bring the body out of its sympathetic state and back to its normal resting state decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm us and relax our muscles. Here’s a small exercise to help your body breathe right.

Lay down with your knees elevated and bent at 90 degrees on a stable surface like a chair. Breathe with your diaphragm (your belly, not your chest) while keeping your low back on the floor at all times. Try this 3x a day for 2 sets of 20 breathes.


Meditation teaches you to effectively manage distracting or stressful thoughts by giving your mind something to focus on and filter out those chaotic thoughts that contribute to stress. Meditation can be as simple as taking five minutes each day to focus on the present moment. There are even meditation apps you can use that are super helpful, such as Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace, and Stop, Breathe & Think. Need personalized help implementing a meditation practice? Reach out to our meditation coach, Neil.

Burnout symptoms in a competitive runner and olympic athlete

Wishing you all a burnout free 2021!


Dr. Andrea Toppin Doctor of Chiropractic The Facility Denver Colorado Wellness Clinic Root Medicine Functional Medicine

Need more direction? Are you a runner facing burnout alone?

Come see Dr. Andrea for a personalized consultation to address the physical and mental side of competitive running. She''ll help address the chronic nervous system down regulation with physical medicine and envelope you into The Facility Team for comprehensive health & wellness care.

1 Comment

Apr 19, 2021

Thanks, Dr. Dre! Looks like I've got some work to do to improve my nutrition, stress, and sleep. Sheesh.

MattWeaver_Chiropractor_Sports Rehab.jpg
Dr. Mitchell Rasmussen - Doctor of Chiro
Kate Daugherty - Nutritionist - Function
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