Lacing up your shoes and heading out for a run is not only healthy for your body, it’s also good for your mind. But what happens when your weekly exercise routine turns into an unhealthy obsession?
It’s hard to believe that something like running, which is supposed to be so good for you, could actually sabotage your fitness levels, emotional well-being, relationships, and overall health.
But the reality is, anything taken to an extreme can be dangerous for you and your body.
Is overtraining the same thing as compulsive exercise?
Compulsive exercise is different from overtraining. When you overtrain, your body experiences temporary, and often short-term, injuries or fatigue due to an excessive amount of training. But once you’ve been able to identify the issue as overtraining, you typically back off of running and let your body rest and recover.
The central theme of compulsive exercise is prioritizing running or any other form of exercise over many other parts of your life. Over time, running becomes less about fitness, fun, and a form of stress relief, and more about something you have to do every single day.
You may find that your mind becomes obsessed with thinking about running, planning your next run, and looking for ways to carve out time to hit the road. Gradually, your free time becomes filled with hours of training, often at the expense of other obligations. And the pleasure you once experienced from participating in your favorite form of exercise diminishes — and is often replaced with resentment or a feeling of obligation that you “have to” run.
An addiction to running can be difficult to identify because the amount of weekly exercise is not necessarily an indicator of compulsive patterns. Instead, it’s the physical, psychological, and social harm resulting from running that is important to pay attention to.
Most common warning signs of compulsive exercise:
There are several warning signs to be aware of if you’re concerned about your relationship with running. Some of the more common red flags or compulsive exercise include:
- Feeling guilty if you miss a workout or run
- Withdraw from friends and family
- Running takes place at inappropriate times (i.e., early in the morning or late at night when it may not be safe)
- Continuing to run even if you have an injury, are sick, or fatigued
- Experiencing an increase in anxiety and depression
- Being irritated when other plans interfere with your running
- Being rigid with your running routine
- Avoiding social functions in order to run
What you can do if you’re concerned
If you’re concerned about the relationship you have with running, there are steps you can take to help find a healthier balance.
First, start by keeping a journal of your running workouts. Track miles, days, and how you feel each time you run. Make sure and note if anything hurts or if you’re struggling mentally with your running. If your journal is showing patterns similar to the warning signs, it may be time to seek professional help.
Some people will be able to scale back their running on their own, while others may need to seek professional help. You can talk with your doctor about a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders and compulsive exercise.
The treatment approaches for exercise addiction/compulsive exercise draw primarily from cognitive-behavioral principles (CBT). Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the theory that your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected and with help from a trained therapist, can be restructured to support new, healthier thoughts and actions about exercise.
The good news is, with the proper treatment and support, you can develop a healthier relationship with running.