Exercise Addiction in Runners?

Elyses ClosetA 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!

Discussion

  • 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?

There are 14 comments

  1. Madel

    Great article! And so true! I think many non-runners (including my family at times!) would think of us as exercise addicts, but in the running community what we do is completely normal. It's very interesting how that perception of what is normal and healthy shifts based on the group.

  2. SPA

    Great article, per ususal! As a non-runner who supports her running friends, this is a helpful insight into the mind of runners. Keep up the terrific work.

  3. Kelly

    Well written and insightful, Elyse! I can relate to this article as a former competitive runner who took a hiatus to recover from injury. A few years ago, I recall feeling guilty about my running when asked by my former boss, "How much did you run this weekend?" When I told him I had ran 22 miles, he tried to imply that I needed to focus more on my career and less on my running (despite my never having let running interfere with my job). He even insisted that I join his church so I could meet people and have more of a social outlet. (Ultimately, it was not the nay-sayers, but sickness and injury during NYC Marathon training that forced me to let up on my running and focus on my studies and career). However, I have found that running regularly and incorporating yoga into my fitness schedule has helped me maintain better focus on my career. For example, during bar exam study, I would feed off the endorphins from running, and off the calm and clarity from yoga. The combination of the two relaxed my nerves and energized me, helping my brain absorb a ton of information over a short time. So the ultimate lesson for me was to learn when to listen to my body and know when to cut back on intense exercise. Now that the hard part of career track is over, I am looking forward to racing competitively again this spring! (And I hope the time off pays off!)

  4. Dane

    Excellent, Elyse. Being attuned to your body is necessary as one gets more and more fit. Not only to become a better athlete but to ascertain when you need to rest, which is definitely the trickiest part. As people become more and more obsessed with the answer to the question: "How many miles did you do this week?" the need to make sure it is quality of workouts and not quantity becomes paramount.Long distance runners train a lot because lots of miles are needed to do what we do. Most of us are not here just to "complete" a check on a bucket list but rather to "compete" – be it against ourselves, the clock or some other arbitrary thing.I do bristle when non-runners say "So what else do you do besides running?" as if running is not enough. I want to reply "Well, you don't run so what do you do at all?!" There is a line to be crossed between committed and obsessed. Unfortunately for this sedentary culture we live in, most never even get close to obsessed and think that those of us who are committed are the obsessed ones.

  5. Anne

    Once again, you've provided an interesting article, Elyse. Compared to most people who visit this blog, I'm not a "real" runner – I just integrate running (well, jogging) into my workouts to change things up and speed up the effects of exercising daily. Your article provides great insight into how my running friends look at running and other forms of exercise. I also think your article brings up some interesting issues for all people who exercise frequently. There are definitely times when I think I've been too obsessed with exercising. In college, I would feel guilty if I skipped any part of my exercise regime. I think a lot of it had to do with the people around me – so many people in college were at the gym all the time, exercising to maintain or (more likely than not) lose weight. Now that I'm a little bit older, I'm able to take a more balanced approach. I still exercise almost every day, but I recognize that sometimes, a day or two of rest isn't a bad thing.

  6. Run Home Pam

    Great article. Thanks for bringing this up. I will definitely look for that book.I go back and forth on this all the time: I jokingly tell friends and family that I am a running junkie, that I cannot function without my daily (or sometimes twice daily) "hits." Addiction is a language many people understand. I guess it's close to how I feel about running, but not quite right.I home school 3 kids ages 4 – 8, write for the local paper, help coach my daughter's swim team, and still manage to get in at least one run every day. Granted I get up at 4 in the morning. To Average Joe on the street, I know this sounds insane. But it is so very sane for me. And people close to me totally get that. Some even envy my "running drive."So, I agree with you, Elyse, I don't think I'm REALLY addicted in a harmful or dangerous way. But I also think very few people understand me. And many would call me addicted. And I guess that's okay. Maybe its just close enough.

  7. Run Home Pam

    One other thought: I wonder what the correlation is between exercise addiction and age? When I was in college and in my twenties I was much more concerned about body image. I ran to stay fit and healthy and because I loved it, of course, but there was a bit of vanity tossed into the mix.But now that I am middle-aged and sporting a hard earned "trophy" belly from three relatively late-in-life pregnancies, the quest for the perfect body has become something of a lost cause. And good riddance!

  8. Sara

    I think exercise bulimia would be quite difficult to spot, because on the surface someone training in a healthy way and someone with disordered thinking about it may look and act identically. The tortured thoughts behind the bulimic's actions are the difference. And probably the bulimic doesn't fuel as well as they should, even as they think they eat a lot compared to being anorexic. Eating disorders are really sad, and such a waste of someone's energy/life to be trapped in.As far as friends and family not understanding why we workout so much in a healthy way (and confusing it for a problem)….I say who cares what they think, just be happy living your life. It just validates their position if you try to argue with people like that. Nod, smile, then go for a run!

  9. Sara

    I'll add…for practical advice on how to nod and smile when someone is essentially stepping on your toes and you could just as easily tell them to shove off…when someone says "You exercise too much", pretend that they just in fact said, "All dogs should wear helmets".

  10. Danielle

    Elyse- this article was of particular interest to me because it was the topic of my senior research during undergrad. I spent many hours studying exercise addition and surveying all of the athletes at my undergraduate institution. Very interesting!

  11. Nellie Parker

    Great article. Your sincerity really shines through in your writing. Thank you for writing from your heart – your story will definitely promote others to share their common experiences.

  12. Hong

    Totally make sense to me! Set a priority is necessary in oder to get somewhere! However, it's the matter of how much we do and to what extend! Exercise is very important to me, I like to improve my knowledge level of it, therefore I can spend my time more effeciently, which should imporve my overall fitness. Besides, I am happy after all! Thanks for put your thoughts out there!

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