4/18/17

When training becomes excessive and obsessive


Every athlete needs a high level of dedication, passion, desire and commitment in order to perform at a high level in training and on race day. For many athletes, the motivation to athletically succeed is borderline obsession. Since training for an athletic event may resemble excessive exercise, an unhealthy obsession with exercise may go unnoticed by a coach, training partner or friend. You may even think that your commitment to training is normal and even encouraged by your coach and those who look up to you as a fitness role model.

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.
Whereas many athletes take diet and training to the extreme in order to improve performance, other athletes may use exercise to feel better about body image and weight, thus creating an addiction to exercise, often along with calorie/food group restriction, in order to boost self-esteem. Athletes may even use words like "eating clean" or "getting back on track", never realizing that there is an underlying issue that needs to be explored. 

Understanding that it is very difficult to define "excessive and obsessive" exercise among highly competitive, dedicated and motivated athletes, I encourage you to explore your current lifestyle to determine whether your current eating patterns and training regime is helping you achieve (or move closer) to an optimal level of performance and athletic readiness without sabotaging your health and quality of life. With far too many coaches wrongly encouraging athletes to lose weight and increase training loads in order to become faster or stronger, you should never ever have to take extreme measures to become a better athlete. 

What you believe about your appearance, how you feel about your body and how you feel in your body are important components to athletic success. Exercising more, adhering to rigid food rules and restricting calories will never help you appreciate and feel proud of your body. To get to the root of your exercise addiction issues, explore your feelings of self acceptance and athletic worthiness to understand if your dieting desires and inner belief that you are not training "enough" are tied to your body image and poor self-esteem. 

Training for an athletic event should be a challenging, fun and enjoyable experience for your body AND for those around you, who care, love and support you. Sport does not discriminate among body types or fitness levels. If you have recently found yourself paying more attention to your appearance than to your own health and/or performance or comparing yourself to other athletes, never feeling fast, strong, lean or good enough, your desire to become a better athlete may have shifted into an unhealthy obsession. Too much of anything can be negative so it's important to be able to differentiate between an unhealthy addiction to exercises versus a healthy desire to perform at your best, with great self-esteem and a great relationship with food and the body.