.."Speaking from personal experience, having an unhealthy relationship with ones self meant I had an unhealthy relationship with fitness".. - Diana (names changed for anonymity)
This is a quote from a runner, I'll share more from them later. It took a few years for this runner to realize their adherence to a training program wasn't entirely from a goal to run faster or be more fit. That's just part of the misdirection they told themselves to make their unhealthy exercise to appear meaningful and justifiable. They didn't see it as unhealthy at the time.
For many active people, from the beginner levels up to pro athletes, exercise causes problems while at the same time providing some positive changes in the body, creating a conundrum that many don't even realize they're in.
If you push your self to new limits, exercise dogma tells us we've done a good thing, even if it means pain, suffering, and injury.
The first part of that is true, after a base is built and the body is more capable of tolerating hard exercise, then sure, if you're chasing peak performance, or simply want to feel the gratification of a new personal best, pushing new limits is a good thing, when done properly.
It's common locker room talk to boast of how sore one is from a killer workout, "I'm soooo sooore! I can barely move! What a great workout!". Is this harmless banter? A benign sign that somebody unwittingly went too hard.. but it's actually no big deal?
Or is this a sign of an unhealthy perspective of exercise?
.."I used fitness as a way to feel I had control of my life. I thought that if I could be a really good runner that I would be a better person worthy of love and acceptance".. Diana
Indeed. Receiving praise for athletic accomplishments is normal. Perform better, and peers, friends, and family will feel proud of their athlete, and it will be happy times to share the good feelings. This healthy praise though, often becomes intertwined with a person then developing an expectation of praise and sense of self worth from themselves, and those around them, to perform. This can cause confusion and unsettled feelings. Intended healthy praise gets muddied with unhealthy feelings and many won’t realize this is happening. We might be congratulating someone who is really suffering inside. We might be suffering ourselves and allow the praise to temporarily appease our inner turmoil.
I've spoken to many runners like Diana. Many bodybuilders, hockey players, gymnasts, cyclists, recreational exercisers. Nobody is immune and it seems to me like this unhealthy attraction to exercise is growing. Many use exercise to gain acceptance, to cover up low self esteem, or help sooth unresolved emotional turmoil. Indeed, exercise is a proven prescription for clinical depression and can be very effective at providing healthy stress relief. What about when exercise is contributing to stress?
We all need exercise, there's no denying that, but when we are motivated by guilt, shame, and compulsive urges, otherwise healthy activity can sink one into a cycle of self destruction.
I've had many a triathlete tell me about how when they say they're tired and sore, that their coaches and peers encourage them to keep going. Feeling ashamed for not trying hard enough, they keep going. How much of this unhealthy encouragement is really the projections of others who share this unhealthy relation with exercise?
Misery loves company. Thankfully though, many are now realizing the signs of compulsive exercise and emotional suffering and are stepping up with support.
.."Certain activities become part of my personality and I feel like I need to keep it (hard training). The importance I place on what others say.. It affects me a lot".. Juliette
Get two or more compulsively driven exercisers together and what happens? From what I've seen they become each others enabler. I've done this myself.
I remember one ride in particular. This was back in the 1980's. I had just finished a typical long Sunday ride with the club. As usual I hammered the hills, threw in some hard pulls, and sucked wheel when I felt spent.
After 5 hours or so of road riding I was knackered. Done. I'm relaxing at home and I get a call, "hey Cris, wan't to go for a short one to spin this crap out of our legs?".
My first thought was no way, I can barely walk. "Come on, it'll be an easy one, just an hour or so".
The truth? I felt like I had to go. I had to "man up". The second ride was crap and I was toast for over a week. I didn't need the extra ride and it took it's toll on my body, and hurt me emotionally too. I entered overreaching. Was it a good idea to associate a ride that harmed my fitness as a positive thing? Is this a good perspective to nurture? No, I was in conflict. My club mate assigned value to the extra ride, it destroyed both of us, but we both bought into the idea that’s what we had to do to be “good”. Really? Feeling this bad, and dreading getting on the bike is what is expected of me? No, this sentiment isn’t held by all people all the time. We’re supposed to have fun out there and often do, for sure.
But for many, that fun often comes and goes in cycles of discouragement, unhealthy suffering, and actual misery.. all of which is rationalized and buried so we can chase that elusive reward of self worth through suffering.
I used to do that routinely. Most of us did, and we would talk about how hammered we were and how great it was to be so tired and sore. Thankfully I stopped doing that (um, for the most part), and now have much healthier training habits. I'm no longer constrained by the traditionalisms of harder is better, and more is better.
A few years ago I had a training session with a young athlete. This was a multisport athlete enrolled in a few different sports at the same time, each with a full training program and competition schedule.
They looked totally bagged when I met them. "You look like you need rest, do you want to skip today?" I may as well have asked them if they were willing to stick a hot poker in their eye.
Needless to say the idea of rest was rejected outright. However, each exercise they tried, they couldn't execute properly, and they could barely do a few repetitions, far less than they can usually do.
"Ok, you gave it an honest try, but it's clear you're really tired. You need rest more than you need training right now. The rest will make you perform better. Take a break for a few days, you deserve it."
The teenage athlete started to cry. To them, they HAD to train. Their parents were present and I explained the situation to them. They were aloof. The idea of healthy rest was not resinating with them. This young person was clearly suffering emotionally and had the distinct misfortune of their parents also trapped in supporting their suffering. Their parents also perceived self worth through arduous and chronic sports training. They were in denial, and viewed rest as something that would degrade their child’s sports experience. They never booked with me again, because the athlete and parents saw me as taking away the very thing that was so eminently praise worthy: ongoing training no matter what.
This is a taboo subject. Don't talk about compulsive training. If you do, prepare to be rejected. I wish it weren't that way. It doesn't have to be, and as I’ve mentioned, it is starting to turn around, but such a long way to go ahead of us.
.."My coach didn't respond to any of my complaints of feeling tired, feeling sick every morning, not having an appetite".. Diane
There is great emotional suffering in both the recreational and competitive streams of sport. Feeling obligated and feeling like the only way to be worthy is through demanding exercise is met with misery and suffering during and after an exercise session. But in our often dysfunctional sport culture we internalize the idea that we have to suck it up. We also can receive this message externally, often from those who don't realize they too are affected by distorted reasoning learned through sport culture that places too much emphasis on suffering to be good. Where's the fun in that? Well in this dystopian script, the fun is supposed to be in the suffering.
And again, confounding this issue is the fact that difficult and challenging training is actually good for us, in the right amount and not too much too soon. How do we tell the difference between feeling a sense of accomplishment from reaching a new level in a healthy way versus straining to feel sense of self worth through compulsive training? Fortunately, the answer to this is known and it involves being able to take an honest inventory of our emotions, self worth, motivations, and sense of reward with exercise. I’ll address the antidote more completely in a future post, but for now the basic idea is that if taking a break makes you feel like you will lose performance and that loss makes you feel uneasy instead of looking forward to being refreshed; you most likely have some degree of compulsivity with exercise. If you feel like you naturally rationalize misery as part of regular exercise, it’s time to step back and see whether or not the scale is tipping too far towards the emotional dark side of sport and exercise culture/ behavior.
I'm not sure how much the traditionalisms of the old "go hard or go home" axioms in exercise are complicit in forming these compulsive traits, and how much stems from deep personal issues where exercise is used to suppress hurtful feelings. In my coaching experience both play a huge roll and I would say about 70% of people I coach have at least some degree of making an exercise decision based on compulsion rather than healthy balanced reasoning.
It's not uncommon to find some disordered eating habits along with compulsive exercise habits. Distorted body image is also a driver for compulsive exercise.
Struggling with overeating, Juliette says, "I have emotions like guilt and anger at myself, and when I do, I give up (on healthy choices)"..
"Pain is weakness leaving the body". Or maybe it's actually pain, from doing too much. As a rule exercise is presented as an idilic dream where you conquer personal weakness by conjuring special hidden powers and rise triumphantly. The trouble with unrealistic expectations is the consistency at which one fails to meet them. This often results in feeling discouraged and undervalued, which further results in unrealistic exercise habits to match the unrealistic hype of the ideal uber exerciser.
These exercise axioms are often part of the vocabulary and experience of the compulsive exerciser, but since this style of exercise is so popular, compulsive exercise can be insidious, remaining undetected, hiding behind the facade of "disciplined" training.
.."Many are focussed on pushing while fatigued. Even though this is seen as heroic, it is harming the athlete, promoting compulsivity, and negative mental thought patterns, ultimately causing them to perform subpar".. Dan, triathlete, cyclist
A compulsive drive is when you feel compelled to do something even though it may be harmful. The harm is usually ignored or justified.
Contrary to popular belief, engaging in hard core exercise as much as possible isn't actually a sign of physical prowess to be in awe of, much of the time it's a red flag for an unhealthy drive to exercise.
Mental and emotional health is finally starting being accepted as a serious issue in organized sports of all levels. But we're not all there yet. There are some stand-out athletes who reach out to others who may also be suffering, and there is some support from traditional sport culture. But it seems to me that at least some of the time, there is a media and local community wave of support for one or a handful of people, but ironically most of that support group still engages in the very exercise traditionalisms that caused emotional and physical pain and suffering in the first place.
It's almost as though the sport community is vicariously rationalizing the poisonous traditions through supporting a few athletes who's suffering has become public. There is a denial that this will or is happening to them personally, and tragically only happens to a few. If you're speaking out with support for someones suffering, you don't have to talk about yours. You can feel exonerated by doing good for someone in need, but unwittingly justifying the next "suffer fest" you attach exaggerated value to. The same exaggerated value that caused suffering in the person whom you offer compassion and empathy for. I've seen this in many recreational and elite athletes.
Many find ways of chronically living within unhealthy sport traditions, seeing problems that are products of that culture occurring in others, but “not them”. It's too painful for many to accept their exercise routine as hurting them because there is so much rationalized reward from it and so much peer support for going hard. This is often portrayed as being hard core, something to aspire to.
It's a nasty cyclical problem that still few will feel comfortable speaking about. Many will feel threatened by the topic and under the carpet it goes. Threatened because so much of what we do in sports training is anchored to ideals of gaining peer support and making personal breakthroughs by suffering. Difficult training can help us achieve performance, but for many, probably most, this ideal will be overplayed to the point of feeling a great sense of loss if one were to contemplate reducing training to be more healthy and fit. Many will have their sense of self worth anchored to unhealthy expectations and "going hard". Any contemplation of cutting back is met with feeling distraught about losing their self worth, losing their "fix". Loss aversion takes over, and back to doing too much too often we go.
In my view, getting the uncomfortable details out there and addressing them personally, and feeling emotionally safe about doing so is part of the solution. Genuinely enjoying sports and being active can be partially or wholly replaced with a self deception of enjoyment that is really a rationalization to justify suffering.
We can enjoy our sports and feel rewarded by healthy achievements. Let’s look out for each other, and for ourselves.