There is a thin, red line between training hard and too hard. Dr Josephine Perry considers which side of the fence an athlete could be on

Being focused, dedicated, hard-working, diligent and making the sacrifices needed to improve could quite easily be a coach describing an athlete with an ideal attitude toward their athletics. It could also be a psychologist diagnosing exercise addiction.

It is a thin line to walk, especially if you take your athletics really seriously, put in lots of time and effort, feel guilty for missing training or aimless on rest days. You may be a dedicated athlete doing ‘whatever it takes’ to succeed. But, if doing whatever it takes pushes you into conflict with friends or family, and what you’re sacrificing is more than physically or mentally healthy, you may have crossed the line from dedicated to addicted.

Distance runners are particularly at risk

Exercise addiction is sometimes joked about, worn as a sort of badge of honour to show your drive and passion. However, I recently researched this subject in depth, questioning 255 amateur endurance athletes and interviewing eight of those at risk of addiction. The stories they shared showed it really wasn’t funny. Especially when we discovered that, for athletes doing longer distances, for every 10 marathon runners, four of them are at risk of exercise addiction.

For these athletes their exercise starts out as beneficial but over time gets excessive. Their training becomes a way of changing their mood and they get frustrated and angry at the thought of missing a session. The tipping point comes when exercise is prioritised over everything else. While this is sustainable for an elite athlete whose key focus in life is competing in their event, it can be harmful for those of us competing as amateurs and fitting it in within a busy life full of other responsibilities.

One of these amateur athletes explained the conflict their addiction caused, saying: “I did have a screaming row with my father over it on the phone. My father is probably one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met in my entire life and yet, he sees my sport as an unhealthy obsession. I had an enormous row with him and he just said, ‘Oh, you’re just completely obsessed with this stupid sport’. I put the phone down on him.”

How to check whether you are at risk of exercise addiction

Read the following statements and consider how many apply to you:

• My exercise is important to me

• I have increased the training I do

• I use exercise to improve my mood

• I struggle when I can’t exercise

• I feel guilty when I can’t exercise

• When I stop exercising for a while I always go back to it and often with more intensity

• My sport gives my life a focus and I can feel aimless without it

• Competing in my sport has caused conflict with friends, family or work

The key area is the one about conflict. If you have very few responsibilities, rarely get injured and are only doing short distances or events then doing lots of athletics wouldn’t be classed as addiction. The addiction issue arises when someone is finding their athletics is dominating their other responsibilities and causes injury, burnout or conflict.

If you recognise yourself in a significant number of these (particularly the point about causing conflict) then it would be beneficial to seek treatment with a psychologist – cognitive behavioural therapy or motivational interviewing are the suggested routes to try.

If you realise that technology is exacerbating the problem, writing yourself a strategy to use it less can be beneficial. So, perhaps on a weekly basis go for a technology-free run or turn off your notifications if injured.

Our research found that the level of potential risk of addiction increases the greater the amount of technology is involved with your training. Specifically, technologies such as GPS watches (used by 93% of those questioned), fitness trackers (used by 84%) or social media (used by 70%) are so ‘sticky’ that athletes using them in training have increased risk of becoming addicted to exercise.

The technology and data tracking can become absorbing and can make us inflexible in our training. We can get fixated on the numbers and lose sight of our real goals. This harms our performance and increases our chances of getting injured.

An athlete in the study was clear how it fed her addiction. “With social media, there is always an article or a link to something telling you how to get faster, quicker, leaner, stronger … tapping into the insecurities of athletes and constantly reminding them of how much better they could be. There is a danger of losing the focus of one’s own training and specific programme as you try to match what 20 other strangers are doing.”

When we add data into the mix, the technologies mean athletes can compare themselves against other athletes easily. But these comparisons cause them stress and pressure, increase their chances of injury, reduce their potential performance and can crush their love of athletics.

A pretty tough position to be in.

It is even tougher if the athlete relies on this online community for support and then gets injured. One of the athletes I interviewed described the bluntness of the reminders.

“While I was injured, I kept getting notifications from Strava to say someone had broken my course record for various segments. There is nothing worse than not being able to run and receiving a notification saying: ‘Uh-oh. So-and-so just broke your record’. It’s a very brutal reminder of inadequacy.”

It exaggerates feelings of isolation, jealousy and despondency. If you use your training as a coping mechanism for other things (such as stress or mental health issues) then not being able to train, and losing your online support at the same time, amplifies the original issues.

So, while dedication to your athletics is fantastic watch out for any times when your dedication starts to cause conflict and consider the impact of the tech you use. Being self-aware and catching risk indicators early on should keep you the right side of the line, so you remain an athlete not an addict.

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