Why some people can’t stop running, according to sport psychology

Dr Andrew Wood and Dr Martin Turner, lecturers at Staffordshire University, write for The Conversation

Alex has a problem with running; he has become addicted to it. “I have to get out and run, whether my family like it or not,” he says. “It’s just who I am.”

Running three times a week has become ten times a week, and when life gets in the way of his running, Alex becomes irritable and racked with guilt. He has gone from what was a healthy pursuit, to an unhealthy overindulgence. His body is shot to pieces and is mentally and physically exhausted. But still, he keeps running.

The physical and mental benefits of running are indisputable. But runners can have too much of a good thing. This is especially true for long-distance runners as they tend to increase their training loads and become increasingly competitive. They’re at risk of making a shift from healthy perseverance (“I want to run”) to unhealthy and pressured overindulgence (“I have to run”).

Here’s how it happens

Say you start running because you want to get fit and be a healthy weight. You try it and you like it, so you stick with it. After a month, you notice that your clothes fit better. Then colleagues and friends comment on how healthy you look lately, and your running buddies comment on your improved technique and speed. Your times are improving. You’re achieving things, beating others, and you get a rush when you run.

But it’s not enough. Five kilometres no longer gives you the same rush, so you move to ten. This added time means you no longer have time for a lunch break where you normally chat with colleagues. But who cares? People are saying that you look great, you are getting quicker, and you feel amazing. This snowballing can continue. Why not go from 10k to a half marathon?

The danger with this situation is that your self-worth is becoming attached to running. Running is now part of who you are. If you don’t run, who are you? If you quit or reduce running, then all of those nice things you are experiencing will drop away. People value you and you value yourself because of your running. Now you have to carry on running to maintain your self-worth. It makes sense to you that the more you run, the better you feel, you have greater social standing and with it more self-worth. A belief forms: “I have to keep running or I’ll be a worthless nobody.”

Research suggests that people who strongly identify with being an exerciser (including runners) and who are anxious about their physique are more likely to become exercise dependent. In our work as sport and exercise psychologists, we often come across people who become overly consumed by an athletic identity and who form the idea that their success as an athlete reflects their worth as a human being. So, I succeed as an athlete, therefore I am valuable. I fail as an athlete, therefore I am worthless. So I have to succeed because my self-worth is on the line.

Runners can’t guarantee success, so they put themselves in a precarious position. Our research shows that people whose self-worth depends on success or achievement are more likely to have poorer psychological well-being.

Read the full article on The Conversation