Diary of a Mad Runner
By Lilly Hsu
The arrival of the New Year inspires people to make resolutions for better behavior — to quit smoking, to read more books, to be a better spouse. My resolution is to be a less obsessed runner. I have been a long distance half marathon and marathon runner for several years. Ideally, my goal is to run 30 to 35 miles a week, with specific runs such as speed work, hill repeats and long distance to increase speed and endurance. Running has been a habit that has evolved into an obsession, a priority not far behind my kids and significant other. Having an obsession with any form of exercise may not seem negative on the surface; many people would love to commit to a long term physical activity without a second thought. Exercise obsession can become harmful when it controls other aspects of one’s life.
One benefit from running is reaching the mind state known as the ‘runner’s high’. Miriam-Webster defines it as a “feeling of euphoria that is experienced by some individuals engaged in strenuous running and that is held to be associated with the release of endorphins by the brain.” To me, it is the melding of the physical pleasure from running with a mental state of mind where one reaches another dimension. The runner’s high almost (but not quite) comes comparably close to “the other pleasurable physical activity.” To reach that plateau, it does not hurt to precede a run with a heavy dose of caffeine (Starbucks’ Caramel Machiatto is my drug of choice) and having one’s favorite rock song blaring full blast on the iPod. Songs of choice are change frequently, but for now include “Message in a Bottle” (Sting), “Tell Me Baby” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Sultans of Swing” (Dire Straits) and “Mr. Jones” (Counting Crows).
As a full-time working mother, planning to squeeze in the next run is always a challenge. Running at 5:00 a.m. before the kids awake or at 7:00 after dinner is normal for me as well as for other serious runners. When a planned run is missed, life seems incomplete and thoughts of failure set in. Not being able to run for more than two days causes anxiety.
Active.com recently published a checklist from the American Running Association that gives warning signs indicating obsession with exercise. If three or more items apply, one may potentially have gone over the edge. (1)
- I have missed important social obligations and family events in order to exercise.
- I have given up other interests, including time with friends, in order to make more time to work out.
- Missing a workout makes me irritable and depressed.
- I only feel content when I am exercising or within the hour after exercising.
- I like exercise better than sex, good food, or a movie — in fact there’s almost nothing I’d rather do.
- I work out even if I’m sick, injured, or exhausted. I’ll feel better when I get moving anyway.
- In addition to my regular schedule, I’ll exercise more if I find extra time.
- Family and friends have told me I’m too involved in exercise.
- I have a history (or a family history) of anxiety or depression.
At least two of the above warning signs apply to me. I will run more if I have extra time, and I’ve run when sick, injured or exhausted. A low point was reached two years ago when spraining an ankle and running through the injury for weeks, delaying any recovery. Wanting to maintain my endurance, I somehow ran 17 miles on the treadmill. Even when injured, being able to run (with a limp) was a gift.
Becoming Less Obsessed
Perhaps this year I can find a balance between running and other priorities. I have been making small steps towards that end. In past years, training for a marathon has required increasing mileage and running twice on certain days. Since being in a healthy relationship this past year, the desire to run twice a day has gone by the wayside, as well as the urge to run a marathon. As I get older and thus slower, I have made peace in scaling back my training. The desire to run full marathons are replaced with goals for half marathons (13 miles is not that far, right?).
Olympian Jeff Galloway has inspired millions of Americans to become recreational runners through his books and articles. Galloway writes about the five stages or phases that serious runners go through to becoming mature, socially well adjusted individuals. The stages include The Beginner, The Jogger, The Competitor, The Athlete and The Runner. It is the last stage that runners should aspire to become, as it is here that The Runner has matured to a mental state of mind where it is an important but not sole component of one’s life. (2)
The runner balances the elements of fitness, competition, training and social life and blends running with the rest of his or her life.
As a runner, the primary focus of your life is not running. It may be family, friends, work, and is often a blend of many things. Running is now a natural part of your daily program — as is eating, sleeping or talking. You know you’ll get in that daily run although you may not know when. When you do miss a run you aren’t in agony.
(Sharon Stoliaroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase, MD, developed this checklist.)
Volume 18, Number 6, Running & Fit News – The American Running Association
2) Galloway’s Book on Running (2002 Jeff Galloway)