Burned Before Kona
Jeff Melgaard’s Cautionary Journey from Kona Hopeful to Completely Burnt Out
Jeff Melgaard’s rock bottom moment came after a five-hour training session in his basement. He came upstairs and said to his wife, “I think something cracked in my brain.”
Suddenly, the man so dedicated to the sport that he thought of himself as “Ironman Jeff”, lost all will to train. I can’t do this anymore, he thought. And even more surprisingly, I don’t want to do this anymore.
Jeff was burnt out.
Anyone, from age groupers to the most elite athletes can experience burn-out. Whether warning signs are like flashing red lights or, like with Jeff, a slow build of subtle symptoms, triathletes can learn to predict and prevent burn-out to maintain their physical ability and passion to participate in the sport they love.
In 2019 in his 40’s, Jeff was a high-performing, competitive age group athlete. He spent 20 hours a week training and another 10 hours on recovery. He was down to 7% body fat. He had completed three full Ironman races at sub 10-hours and was training to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
That’s when he hit his wall.
That wall, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association, is a syndrome of “continual training and sport attention stress that result in staleness, overtraining and eventually burn out.” Or in other words, too much training stress and too little recovery.
Athletes experiencing burn out may feel emotionally and physically exhausted, experience decreased feelings of accomplishment and begin to resent the sport they once loved.
You could say that Jeff was a textbook case. He began to feel tired and training was feeling harder when it should have been getting easier. He got the same results, or worse, week after week, but he pushed through anyway. Until that 5-hour session in the basement.
“I had this really, really, really fit body and I had no desire to do it anymore,” said Jeff.
So, about a month before the Louisville Ironman where he hoped to qualify for Kona, he quit training.
BUILT FOR THE SPORT
Everything about Jeff suggests that he would excel at triathlon. He’s one of those people that’s just a natural athlete. He had been an active kid, and as an adult he rode BMX, ran, and swam in the lake he lives on in Montville, New Jersey.
Surprisingly, he was also a smoker. Jeff was having a cigarette outside at a party in 2017 when his friend challenged him to run the NYC Marathon. It seemed more like a “someday” thing than a “right now” thing, but Jeff likes a challenge. So relying on his innate ability, he got in the lottery and ran it in 3:27.
Later that year, at the starting line of his first triathlon he looked around and thought, I’ll be faster than at least some of these other people. He was right. He finished in the middle of the pack for his age group. His next step was the Half-Ironman in Atlantic City, which he completed in 4:32 – one of his best races to date. That’s when he got super serious. He hired a coach and put together a structured, regimented training program.
“When I get into something, I’m horribly into it, much to my wife’s chagrin,” admitted Jeff. “I got really into the nutrition, the training, and in a few years I built a really, really solid base and then it got better and better.”
PUSHING IT TOO FAR
For a while, things were going great. He trained incredibly hard and got incredible results. He looked forward to workouts as a pleasant outlet from the stresses of work and life. But over time, that pleasant outlet turned all-consuming. Jeff found himself dedicating 30-hours a week to training and searching out every piece of research he could find to get to the 1% of the 1% of the 1%.
“I was looking for a 10-level effort too frequently,” he said. “And when I got it too frequently then I wasn’t able to have it in the race. I burned all those matches.”
Looking back, Jeff also realizes he was short-changing himself on calories and that 7% body fat was simply too lean for him.
“Everyone who looked at me knew I was overtraining,” said Jeff.
TAKING A BREAK
According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, intense training stress, like Jeff was enduring, can produce a drop in motivation and performance leading the athlete to think they have to train more. That overtraining only exacerbates the problem, causing the burn out. The only real way to stop this cycle is to rest.
Unfortunately, many athletes don’t recognize this or don’t want to hear it. Sometimes coaches, who witness their athletes making gains, don’t realize they may be mentally on edge and encourage them to push through and go even harder. Jeff wishes he had communicated better with his coach. “Something people need to really understand is that coaches need to hear you and they need to know what you feel,” said Jeff.
By the time Jeff recognized his feelings of tiredness and lack of desire to train for what they were, he was completely burnt out. Luckily, he took the rest he needed. After he quit training for the Louisville Ironman he set aside his goal of qualifying for the World Championship in Kona. Instead, he spent the rest of 2019 moderating between training and rest. He competed in the North American Championships in Texas and in the Atlantic City Ironman, with respectable age-group finishes in both. When the covid pandemic shutdown triathlon competitions across the board Jeff shut down too, and took a year break before returning to compete in the Atlantic City Ironman again in 2021.
Today, Jeff takes a more measured approach to triathlon. He works out, but not at the same all-encompassing intensity, and he has more reasonable expectations of himself. “Where you place, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “”Whether I place 4th or 30th, it doesn’t matter to anyone else other than me.”
Jeff is finding ways to fire up his energy, but in a more sustainable way. He’s no longer micromanaging his nutrition and has gained back weight. Now, he aims for a lower output, but on a consistent level. He plans to save his highest efforts for special occasions, like races and cornerstone workouts.
In moderating his efforts, Jeff says he’s able to enjoy the process more. He’s also moderated his attitude. “This is just a part of me,” he said. “This is just what I do and not what I am.”
According to Jeff, the trickiest aspect of burnout is that it’s hard to tell when you’re getting there. “How do I know if I’m almost burnt out or do I have 10 more watts in me?” he said.
Warning signs that can be easy to overlook include a change in emotions, difficulty concentrating, decreases in strength and coordination, appetite loss, increased resting heart rate and greater susceptibility to illness.
To avoid these symptoms and burning out, Jeff’s advice is to err on a little too little rather than a little too much. “Go under the bar rather than over,” said Jeff. “Because if you go over and you burn yourself it’s much harder to deal with that then it is to deal with going 90% all the time. Save race-level efforts for race day.”
Experts agree that preventing burnout in the first place is easier than treating it once it occurs. Rest, rest and rest are top of the list for avoiding and treating burnout. Stress management strategies like mindfulness and meditation are also important, as are time and lifestyle management techniques.
Most importantly, Jeff believes that athletes need to trust their gut rather than listen to a culture of sports competition where going harder is perceived as being better.
“People need to have confidence in their own ability to figure it out,” said Jeff.
Jeff admits he’s still figuring it out. Whether he wants to compete again remains to be seen. But by consistently working out and building back up, he knows triathlon is something his body and brain will begin to crave. And that craving, that desire, is what keeps him on course.