Hooked on Running
Did you run today? That seems like a fairly innocuous question. How about this one: did you have to run today?
Posted Monday, 7 May, 2001
Did you run today? That seems like a fairly innocuous question. How about this one: did you have to run today? Have to run, as in, if you didn't, it would have ruined your whole day, or worse, rendered you virtually unable to function?
It's certainly not news that long distance running attracts the addictive personality. "The more you run the better you'll be" is one of the first pieces of training advice given to aspiring runners. But with more people than ever running marathons, triathlons, ultra marathons and adventure races, it seems to be an issue that is permeating the sport more than ever before. We are all impressed by the prodigious feats of those we hear about who run races of 100 miles or more, or who run marathons for 52 straight weeks. Most of us are at least somewhat in awe of elite runners, who when asked about their training, reply, "Oh, I've been at 130 or 140 miles per week for the past several months." Who of us hasn't at least been a little impressed by the stories of runners who have not missed a day of running in five, 10, or 20 years?
But stop and think about these accomplishments for a minute. Is there any real virtue in these feats? Yes, setting lofty goals and finding the perseverance and mental toughness within oneself to accomplish them can be a good thing. It can instill confidence that carries over to other parts of life, and in certain instances can inspire others to do the same. But when is enough enough? Does having completed 200 marathons instill more confidence than having completed 100? Once you have run a marathon in every state in the country, does doing it all again offer any more inspiration to others? Does slogging through a half-hour run with the flu just to keep an everyday running streak alive set a good example?
There is no doubting the impact this kind of running can have on one's life. Let's talk about productivity for a moment. One of the first signs of addiction, most often cited in regard to substance abuse, is the loss of productivity. If one is unable to do his or her job due to showing up for work drunk or high on a regular basis, it's a problem. But what if an individual is unable to do the job because of exhaustion from a high mileage regimen or the compulsiveness and rigidity of training that eats into the work schedule? If one is unable to concentrate on the job because all he or she can think about is the next drink, it's a problem. Is that really any different than someone who cannot concentrate on the job because all he or she can think about is the next run?
The line becomes blurred because running is widely regarded as a so-called "positive" addiction. Unlike drugs or alcohol, one can accrue many mental and physical health benefits from a regular running program. We all know what those are. But when does the scale start to tip in the opposite direction?
The crucible for an addicted runner is often injury. Running through a certain amount of discomfort and fatigue is a part of training. Without pushing ourselves every now and then we will not be able to extend our physical capabilities. But running past the point of physical injury is another thing altogether. In his book Running with the Antelopes, Bernd Heinrich, who set a world 100-km record in 1981 says, "The key to great performance is in setting goals and finding the right balance between opposite and equally important necessities. It takes rigid discipline to put in 10,20, or even 30 miles per day, with no excuses allowed, yet you need to be able to let up instantly when further effort might mean injury." That fine line between discipline and obsession is one most all runners must confront and balance at one time or another .
Although pushing through the "niggling" aches and pains that crop up and often disappear in a few days is a part of the sport, running day after day with a chronic injury that hurts with every stride is different. What is that accomplishing, other than satisfying the addiction? Regardless of the common sense advice we have all heard countless times, the pure power of a running addiction can overwhelm even the most rational of individuals. It has been well documented of course, that addictive running is closely related to eating disorders, especially among women. We have all read stories about those who take the physical benefits derived from long distance running to extreme levels. Certainly we can recognize the devastating toll anorexia or bulimia can extract. But again, the line can become blurred, especially with the mixed messages we receive.
Certainly then, personal perspective is not always a reliable indicator that one is headed for trouble. It is easy enough to rationalize addictive running behavior. As mentioned earlier, this kind of behavior is often rewarded in long distance running. A marathoner who regularly logs high mileage is lauded for his or her "work ethic." A runner who travels halfway around the world to participate in a week-long race draws adulation and admiration from others, regardless of the detrimental effects it may be having on his or her life.
Joe Decker from Gaithersburg, Maryland has laid claim to the title, "the world's fittest man." In one 24-hour stretch he completed 100 miles cycling, 10 miles running, five miles power walking, six miles kayaking, 10 miles hiking, two miles swimming, 3,000 abdominal crunches, 1,100 jumping jacks, 1,000 leg lifts, 1,100 push-ups, 10 miles on a rowing machine, 10 miles on a NordicTrack and 278,000 pounds of cumulative weight lifting. This is just a slice of Decker's manic approach to physical fitness and training. Decker has a girlfriend, and for the sake of his personal life, he will sometimes climb out of bed at 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday so that he can finish his running and biking before noon. He admits that his lifestyle isn't for everyone, but adds, "I do this because I enjoy it." I suppose we can take Joe at his word for that, but one man's enjoyment is another's obsession.
I know a long distance runner who became so wrapped up in his own running obsession that it cost him his family, and not long after that his job. This is not the first time running has yielded results such as this, but the truly disturbing aspect of this story is that even after both of those occurrences, this runner was more passionate than ever about his running! The breakup of his marriage was attributed to his wife "not understanding." And besides, he had found a new partner who shared his love for running. As for the job, well, he received a year's severance pay, which would fund his running adventures for a year. What could be better than that? In his mind, nothing, including finding another job.
The line is further blurred in that for some, albeit a rare few, running is their job. With big money purses now offered in marathons and triathlons, a selected few athletes can actually make a living as professional runners. For these elite runners, running to the point of addiction and compulsion is not a problem, it's their goal. When this kind of regimen results in a big victory, as is inevitable for someone of course, we all are subtly given the message that training this much is a good thing. These runners are held up as a role models for everyone who runs, or aspires to become an accomplished runner. What we don't read about are the stories of personal loss and failure experienced others who did not win. What of those runners who were nowhere close to winning, but for whom extreme training led to serious injury or social alienation? There would seem to be less "confidence building" or "physical health benefits" from the stories of these runners, who in truth far outnumber the winners.
One of my first running acquaintances once told me about running, "the more you run, the more you will want to run." There is a great amount of truth in that statement. Overcoming inertia to get into a regular pattern of running can be a difficult task. But once underway, momentum builds and habit becomes a runner's best friend. There does come a point for each of us as individuals however, when it takes more discipline not to run that it does to run. And like it or not, life's circumstances dictate that there will usually come a time when it will be necessary to exercise that discipline not to run. It may in fact, be the best thing we can possibly do for our physical and mental well-being. But finding that necessary balance between the seemingly equally important necessities of motivation and moderation can be the most difficult aspect of running to master.
How Addicted to Running Are You?
Take this quiz to see how hooked on running your are. A significant number of positive responses, especially to the later questions, may mean that running may be controlling you more than you are controlling your running.
___ You frequently find that your conversation centers on your running experiences.
___ You run primarily to deal with tension or physical stress.
___ Most of your friends or acquaintances are people you run with.
___ You prefer to run alone.
___ You regularly run first thing in the morning, upon awakening, before eating.
___ You have experienced physical uneasiness when going without running for even one day.
___ Family members think excessive running is a problem for you.
___ You need to run a certain distance regardless of how you feel, or how much it inconveniences others.
___ You would rather run than attend a social function.
___ You will go to extremes lengths to get your run in, no matter how bad the weather conditions.
___ You hide how much you run from those how close to you so they will not know.
___ Your running has led to conflict with friends or family members.
___ You have tried to cut back, but cannot.
___ You have run for a period of weeks or months with a chronic injury that is painful throughout the run.
___ You have lost a significant number of days from school or work because of running or racing.