Exercise Addiction in Runners?
April 6, 2009 by Elyse Braner · 13 Comments
A few weeks ago, I was on the metro dressed in the usual running skirt and pearls, when a guy in his early 30’s turned to me and said, “I really like the title of the book you are reading. I wish I had that problem.” I was reading Diary of an Exercise Addict, the story of author Peach Freidman’s struggles with eating disorders and exercise addiction. Those who know me know that I am always up for an impromptu conversation; however, in this case I just smiled and continued reading. Had I continued the conversation, I probably would have told him that the average person tries thirteen times before he or she develops a regular exercise routine, that being addicted to anything is not healthy, and that he should sign-up for a local 5k to motivate himself. I probably would have told him all about my running and how I was on my way to my weekly chiropractor appointment that helps me prevent running injuries, because I am always in training. He probably would have responded that I look like a runner. This would not have been an atypical conversation in our appearance conscious society. Often, looking the part is perceived as more important than accomplishment. As a society, we often value people for their bodies over their minds.
In Diary of an Exercise Addict, Friedman gives a very personal and powerful account of what it is like to struggle with body image to the point of physical harm through eating disorders and exercise addiction. On the road to recovery from her eating disorders, Friedman developed exercise bulimia, an addiction to exercise through a desire to purge excess calories. This means that she wasn’t exercising for the pure enjoyment of the activity, to better her health, or to train for a sport, but out of a sense of fear-driven compulsion, as if exercise was a matter of life and death. She was truly addicted. She had a hard time functioning without exercise. Little research has been done on the adverse effects of the growing disorder of exercise addiction, but it is a problem that is gaining attention in the medical community and fitness facilities throughout the nation.
Reading Friedman’s account made me reflect on the training that we do as athletes, and left me with many questions. As long distance runners, our sport requires an amount of training and exercise beyond what the average American should be doing. But when does our obsession with our training become a problem? How do we separate work that needs to be done to better our sport and exercise that we want to do just because we can’t stop? What happens when “runner” becomes our whole identity and we can’t separate our training from the rest our life? And is this really a bad thing? When you have big training goals, isn’t it okay to avoid the rest of life, things that can really be cut out, like dating, relaxing, reading a book, going out on a Friday night, and maybe for once, not challenging your friends to an ab off?
Friedman notes that, “Running is a popular sport for compulsive exercisers. It’s addictive, it’s efficient, and it’s accessible.” As runners, we become attached to the way running makes us feel. I remember my first run ever; I could barely get 200 meters around the track, but as I finished my very short workout that day, I remember feeling a sense of relief, like no problem could affect me, and that everything else I had done that day didn’t even matter, because I had done that run. Eleven years later, my run is still the most important thing that I do each day. But am I addicted to it? No. It is simply something I am passionate about and something I do each day. Just as some people enjoy reading the paper and drinking coffee in the morning, I enjoy my run and protein shake.
I think we can all relate. Many times our friends, co-workers, and family cannot understand why we are on the trails, at the track, and in the gym so often. It is true, compared to the average person, we are exercising a lot, but unlike the average exerciser, we are training for competitive, long races. We have time goals, place goals, or other personal running goals to fulfill. For us, that sometimes means passing up on those on social activities, and really prioritizing our lives so we can train as much as we need to. And really, it can provide a great excuse for wanting to avoid major time eaters that could take away from our running. It isn’t that we are trying to let life pass us by; we just know what is important to us. Those who think we are sacrificing a lot for our sport wouldn’t understand. It isn’t a sacrifice if we are doing what we want on our terms. I personally think having “fun” in the traditional sense would be more of a sacrifice than getting in a quality workout and followed by an ice bath.
For distance runners, often the label “runner” is our identity. When meeting new people, we often want to introduce ourselves as runners before letting them know anything else about us. We hope that they are runners too, so we can have yet another excuse to go through the details of yesterday’s tempo run, split time for our next trail race, a new line of run skirts, or the newest must-do workout. Unfortunately, this label we wear like a badge of honor, often gets us into trouble. We end up not listening to our bodies when we need rest because we crave that feeling we get after an intense speed workout. This leads to injury, which leads us into a tailspin, because we can’t train. In my experience, I find that runners often train harder during times of injury, beating up their legs with hours of spin classes and intense weight sessions. These same runners come back post-injury with no spark in their legs and wonder why! I believe that many runners do display unhealthy behaviors towards exercise during injury when they feel their identity as runners has been taken away.
As athletes, it is acceptable for us to focus more of our life around workouts than the average American. There is also nothing wrong with structuring our lifestyles around our training goals; it is what we love. However, it is still important to keep control of our workouts, and do only those workouts that will enhance us as athletes, not extraneous workouts that will cause injury and lead to decreased athlete performance; because we feel that we need to or are trying to look a certain way. In this sport, speed, endurance, and strength are the only things that matter—and these things can only be achieved at their highest level through smart, sensible training!
- Have you ever dealt with exercise addiction?
- Do you ever train more than is likely necessary to maximize your fitness?
- Do you ever have to sneak in a run and not in the sense of get a run to fir, but so that other’ won’t know about it?
- For those who have read Ms. Friedman’s book, what did you think?