Are You Addicted To Training?

There’s a fine line between productive commitment and self-destructive adherence.

Ever wonder when friends tell you they’re addicted to running or another endurance activity if you should be concerned or if it’s simply a colloquial way of expressing their high level of commitment to the sport?

When excessive exercise was first conceptualized as an addiction in 1970, two different camps emerged: one championing the idea of excessive exercise as positive because of all the health benefits it produces, and another, which argued that any excessive behavior is an addiction and by definition is negative because of adverse consequences. Current research still suggests that some endurance athletes risk self-destructing through excessive exercise in much the same way chronic drug users risk overdosing.

RELATED: Are you overtraining?

People who participate in endurance sports often display (perhaps to a lesser degree) characteristics similar to those involved in addictive behaviors, such as substance use, gambling, and compulsive spending. We can draw a fine line between productive commitment to a sport and self-destructive adherence when the behavior becomes excessive.

Endurance athletes often demonstrate excellent time management and pride themselves on having Type A personalities, as evidenced by their task completion, competitiveness and determination when facing challenges. But if such dedication becomes disproportionate and at the expense of other interests, or if problems such as injury, fatigue, irritability and interpersonal conflicts aren’t dealt with, athletes and those around them may suffer.

Exercise does mitigate the effects of anxiety and depression, but if exercise is a person’s only mode of dealing with these uncomfortable states, the anxiety and depression may emerge later or in other areas of the person’s life.

RELATED: Setting Realistic Running Goals

When exercise becomes a preoccupation at the expense of other important areas of life, it can be destructive, both psychologically and physically. For example, in order to maintain their demanding train- ing schedules, endurance athletes often ignore the medical advice to rest while injured. Further, athletes often take it upon themselves to increase their training mileage above that prescribed by their coaches, believing in the doctrines that “more is better” and “no pain, no gain.”

Despite these concerns, endurance training has many benefits, such as cardiovascular health and high self-esteem, and when kept in perspective, training for an endurance event structures exercise into an otherwise hectic schedule. The key is to find balance and remember that exercise is but one element of a happy and successful life.

This piece first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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About The Author:

Florida-based licensed clinical and sport psychologist Jason Youngman, Ph.D., is a two-time Ironman finisher and founder of Peak Functioning, LLC.

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