As runners, we’ve all gone through periods of intense training, when our focus is laser-like and we work toward personal records with rigor. I’d been following strict running schedules and ambitious competition goals since I was a in middle school. I ran at Butler University, thriving on the structured habits of an NCAA Division I athlete. But when I graduated, I wondered: What now?
Like most people facing big life transitions, I struggled. My natural instinct was to increase my mileage and train for a half marathon. That’s how I believed running would fit into my post-collegiate life; it was a natural next step. The long miles and solo workouts were what I knew, providing a comforting routine in my new life.
I had recently moved three hours from home, started my first full-time job, and moved into a new apartment. Despite how exciting these changes were, they still represented a large shift from what I knew. Running became my way to cope with the change. I covered up loneliness and stress by crushing a workout or long run. And as I used the sport to cope with those emotions, I quickly developed an addiction to exercise.
I’d wake up at 6 a.m. and run eight or more miles, rain or shine. Always alone, I’d pound the pavement and pass the time by calculating the minutes and miles I needed to complete before feeling like it was okay to stop running. My training superseded all else. If friends wanted to hang out in the evening, I declined for fear of staying out late. If the weather was bad and I had to move my run, I would cancel all commitments in order to do so. Running became my life.
I knew I had a problem when I found myself six miles into a long run in an icy, pouring rain. Every single inch of me was tired and before I knew what I was doing, I stopped my watch and stood in the middle of the street, tears streaming down my face.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I sobbed. After a moment, I restarted my Garmin and ran toward home. But by the time I got close to my apartment, I’d lost my nerve. Three more miles didn’t seem that bad compared to the mental agony I’d go through if I quit. I kept going.
During my ongoing recovery, I’ve realized how common my problem is. Many run through injuries, obsess over workouts, and plan their social lives around their training schedules.
The most common sign? Guilt. According to Colleen Christensen, a registered dietitian, feeling guilty when you can’t or don’t complete a run is one of the most glaring indicators of exercise addiction.
“Ask yourself how your day would look if you didn’t run,” she says. “How would you feel? Would it be no big deal or would you feel guilty, stressed, or like you need to change the way you eat because of this missed run?”
Christensen, an avid runner, speaks from experience. She struggled with an exercise addiction and an eating disorder for six years. Now recovered, Christensen works with other women, helping them learn to love and listen to their bodies.
“[Running] can…make women feel like they aren’t doing enough,” she says. “Sometimes, women put this pressure on themselves to do things they don’t enjoy because they see others doing it and think it’s ‘right.’”
What are the signs that exercise has become an unhealthy addiction? I found myself trying to mentally check out during my runs because I was so miserable. I structured my entire life around running, although I didn’t find it fun anymore. It wasn’t normal put running ahead of my health (adequate recovery wasn’t part of my training plan), my social life, and my job.
What’s more, it was never enough. Much like any addiction, my “need” to run turned six miles into seven, eight, and then nine. Suddenly, running six miles made me feel guilty. It was too easy, too short. I had to go the literal extra mile.
When I realized I was in an unhealthy place, I uncovered the anxiety driving the compulsion. I started writing what my motivators were for each run. Turns out, I was lonely and scared and felt inadequate in life. Uncovering those feelings—whether through a journal or a confidant—is the first step.
“[Exercise addiction] acts as a band-aid,” Christensen says. “When you’ve really dealt with your feelings and emotions, you can slowly reintroduce exercise as at a pace that is right for you.”
Whether you’re aiming for first-place or a simply to finish, running should be a joy in your life—not a stressor.
For a long time, I forgot what it looked like to run with freedom. I was consumed with speed, distance, and calories burned—so much so that I didn’t realize how miserable I truly was. It wasn’t until I crushed my half marathon PR that I felt the weight of my self-imposed pressure.
Why was I running? I wasn’t sure anymore. Christensen says asking yourself, “Why do I run?” is crucial.
“Are you doing it because it makes you feel good? Because it is relaxing?” she says. “When you keep these positive reasons in your mind, it’s easier to identify when your reason for exercising and leading a healthy lifestyle goes astray.”
I had to let go of the rigid standards and rules I had set for myself, knowing that I’d perform better in the long-term and my overall health would improve. When I embraced those truths, I knew I wanted to make a change.
To do so, I began working with a counselor. With her help, I laid out clear goals. I looked at why I enjoyed running and then I envisioned my future as a runner. How did I want running to fit in my life 10 years from now? Those questions uncovered a clear, if not difficult, path.
In a culture that applauds extreme exercise, decreasing my activity was challenging. I did it incrementally—one mile less or a little bit slower each day. I also had accountability. I deleted my mileage tracking app and relied on trusted friends to check in on me and call me out if they noticed I was canceling plans in favor of a run. I also found fun, unmeasured ways to enjoy movement, like walking, playing soccer, and elliptical sessions. These activities helped me decrease anxiety in a less-structured way.
Ultimately, as Christensen says, recovering from an exercise addiction is challenging, but it is worth it. I can attest to that, a thousand times over. As I make progress toward exercise freedom, my life is more satisfying. My mind is more at peace.
I am rediscovering a healthier love for running. But, more importantly, I’m rediscovering who I am.