Many of you know that I have gone back to school to study psychology so that I can become a better resource on the topics of Overtraining Syndrome, Exercise Addiction, and mental health. I chose to study psychology because I truly believe that the root of all athletic evils begins with the mind. What we do to ourselves with exercise is less about what is happening on the outside than what we’re trying to prevent from happening on the inside. Buuuuut….let me not get too far down the rabbit hole before I share with you some of the things I learned while writing my latest research paper.
As I started to dig into the studies, I was blown away by the actual parallels between exercise addiction (a behavioral addiction like gambling or shopping) and drug/alcohol addiction. If you or someone you know suffers from any substance addiction, the following terms will look familiar to you. Unfortunately, if you are a highly-dedicated athlete who has a questionable relationship to your sport, the following descriptions of the terms will look familiar to you.
Remember that a lot of this stuff starts as a healthy behavior. STARTS. Also, one of these things being off may or may not indicate an issue. But, when you have the perfect storm of excess participation, emotional compensation, neurochemicals flooding in, and now several of the following things are going on at the same time...you might have to really wake up and see that the boundaries of “healthy” have long been crossed.
So, here’s Five Characteristics of substance addiction that are the damned same thing as exercise addiction:
1.Salience- Salience just means that something begins to occupy brainspace as a highlight of the day. With exercise/training, it’s when the person comes to believe that doing the sport or following the training plan is the most important part of their life and they begin to direct all efforts to that end. They will change schedules, diet, relationships, sometimes even change their work environment, sleep, sex life, or basically anything and everything.
So, yeah, that’s you with your fitness magazines strewn across the coffee table, the plastic buckets of protein powder and pre-workout on the kitchen counter, and staying home on Friday nights because it’s not a cheat day and you can’t have a beer. That’s you asking for only running stuff for Christmas, already planning your 2019 races, and holding family meetings to let everyone know you’ll be gone on Sunday mornings until at least 2pm from January until next October. Yeah. You.
2.Mood Modification- This one is easy. You’re a bitch until you get your exercise in. In the world of Psychology, we politely call this “negative affect”. But, it’s just you being a bitch. This is what happens when people rely on training as a method of coping with their emotions because it’s guaranteed to bring a better mood. And you’re not wrong! It works! But guess what...the monsters are still under the bed. You didn’t clear them out with the exercise...you just squatted and deadlifted on their heads. So, you know what happens again tomorrow? More monsters! More squats! More bitch!
When you get into a a kerfluffle with a loved one do they look at you and say “Why don’t you just go for a run?”. Is your response to or anticipation of a stressful day “I need to get to the gym”? Have you blurred the line between reward and punishment with getting your training in? Is this actually helping? Think about it.
3.Tolerance-This one cracks me up because most of us are actually proud of the fact that we need more and bigger to get the same the same pop in our cork. There’s two reasons why this happens. One, is that it actually does take more and more for our brains to produce the “Runner’s High” chemicals that we are so hot for. Two, is that it is an annoying characteristic of humanity that we get habituated and just want to keep pushing it. I’m not sure if this is an evolutionary benefit or just evidence that our pea brains get bored easily.
The problem comes when we bump into the stark reality that benefits we experience through do not continue to increase as we also increase mileage/distances/hours/weight-lifted indefinitely. NEWS FLASH: Humans DO Have Limits! In fact, according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, there is no such thing as benefits that increase to infinity. Instead, we reach an apex where everything is balanced and we’ve gotten to the maximum of our ability without bad things happening. After that point, there is a drop off of benefits, performance, health, etc...and then you’re really in a pickle.
4. Withdrawal- If and when you stop exercise, you feel like crap. Whether or not it’s forced, you are miserable. It might be because you’re sick, injured, or it could be because you have some kind of family or work obligation that does not permit you to get your training in...or anything else. You. Are. MIZ. You’re grouchy, your legs hurt, your appetite is either raging or non-existent, and you might feel exhausted, yet have insomnia. Some of this is physical and some is mental. All of it feels like death.
By the way, this is why people hate tapering for races. When they back off a bit, they still get all of these withdrawal symptoms and more. The only thing that consoles them is knowing that it’s temporary. But, if you’re injured and don’t know when it’s going to be over. Shit. Look out.
5. Relapse- Simple. You tried to stop, but ya can’t. Oh baby, I’ve been there. I’m that person that didn’t believe in “off-season”. I used to pride myself in being able to run a marathon at any point, 12 months out of the year. Back off for a bit?? Why would I do that when it feels terrible? Wait how about this: that person who gets told by their doc that their injury/illness requires that they do ZERO exercise for a certain number of days/weeks and the next thing you know, they are posting pics on IG of themselves in a cast, on a rower, and pulling the handle with their teeth… Yeah, I’m not sure we should be proud of this.
In fact, I’m not sure we should be proud of any of this.
But let’s get real: You will either be ready to look at this list and figure out that something might be wrong...or you won’t. If you had shown me this several years ago, I would have sheepishly laughed and probably thought this meant another notch in my belt signifying my “dedication” and “discipline”. If I knew then what I know now, I would have wiped the smirk off my face and paid attention.
To make it extra simple, you don’t have to pay attention to anything but this: There is no such thing as ever-increasing benefits. It may not crash today or tomorrow, but it will at some point. Don’t get mad at me, that’s just science. If you do read this and get freaked out, it’s ok. That’s the first step. Like any addiction that promises to keep you safe while destroying you, it’s hard to recognize that the thing you think you need is the thing that you need to back away from. But when you do, there’s so much more to life. I promise.
If you don’t believe me, go ahead and send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org