For every athlete, it can be difficult to understand whether or not your motivation and commitment to your sport is "normal", especially since many athletes are interested in diet and training strategies in order to improve health or performance.
Excessive exercise has many health consequences, such as bone and muscle injuries, hormonal issues, cardiac and other organ problems. On the mental side, the addiction to exercise may cause withdraw, isolation, loneliness, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and guilt.
Since the need to train (or exercise) is necessary to help you mentally and physically prepare for your upcoming event(s), all athletes should recognize that something is not normal when training becomes unenjoyable and instead feels like a chore or obligation.
Athletes who tend to overexercise will use exercise as a way to feel a sense of control over their body. In other words, life feels so out of control that diet and exercise need to be tightly regulated to avoid feelings of guilt and anxiety. For the athlete who is seeking performance gains, it's completely normal to want to become more dedicated to training and healthy eating, in order to feel athletically ready for an upcoming event. Persistence and consistency are two sure ways to gain fitness and confidence for race day.
However, now a days, it seems like more athletes are tying self-worth to physical performance and/or a body image, while obsessively comparing to a "successful" athlete or a past version of themselves. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, coaches can add fuel to the obsession by encouraging the athlete to train harder or longer or to adhere to a strict, rigid or controlled diet in order to reach x-goal by race day. When a coach (or magazine article) suggests that an athlete can become a better athlete through training and nutrition, it's easy for an exercise addicted athlete to exercise more and to restrict food and create food rules, in an effort to perform better.
As a sport dietitian who often works with athletes who are experiencing the negative mental, emotional and physical consequences of severely altering the diet and training excessively, it's important to explore the shift, when a natural desire to be better turns obsessive and excessive.
For example, here are some symptoms of Anorexia Athletica, which co-exists with disordered eating patterns and is characterized by obsessive and excessive exercising and often co-occurs with calorie restriction, induced vomiting and body image issues.
- Overexercising to the point that fulfilling sport-related goals become more important than almost anything else in life.
- Exercise is specifically used to control body weight.
- Exercise provides a sense of power, control and self-respect.
- Constant obsession with food and weight.
- Refusal to miss a workout.
- Difficulty scaling back workouts due to sickness, injury, fatigue or poor sleep.
- Conflicts between family, friends, kids and/or training partners or feeling alienated.
- Anxiety and guilt when a workout is missed or if exercise volume isn't "enough".
- Little to no enjoyment for exercise but continues to train/exercise.
- Haphazard training with little structure/quality.
- Self-worth is tied to physical performance and body image.
- Constant comparison to other athletes.
- Lack of satisfaction with personal achievements.
- Rigid food rules and dietary restriction
- Feeling out of control in many areas of life.
- Denial that there is a problem.
- Never feeling good enough.