The Sandman is on a roll!

My Running


I love sport and have participated in various sporting activities for as long as I can remember. For the last couple of months, I have been exercising more than usual. After a workout I feel so good, but I get depressed if I miss a morning run when, for example, it rains. It plays on my mind all day and after work, I hit the gym to make up for lost training time. Many of my friends say I am overtraining. My mom has mentioned that I might be suffering from exercise addiction. What is the difference between overtraining and exercise addiction? – CINDY KRUGER

Overtraining and exercise addiction are two totally different things. Nevertheless they could be considered to be related in the sense that, if someone is ‘exercise addicted’, it is highly likely that they are training so much that they have a good chance of becoming physiologically overtrained, especially if they are not following an appropriate training programme.

Exercise addiction is difficult to define precisely, and there has been much debate in scientific literature as to its nature, and whether or not the condition even exists as a true addiction. It may well be that some runners have another psychological condition, such as obsessive compulsive behaviour, and that this is taken by others to be an addiction to running. It could well be that there are elements of both true addiction and obsessive compulsive behaviour in some runners.

A feature of an addictive state is that there are withdrawal symptoms if the addiction cannot be indulged in. In the case of runners, psychologist William Morgan listed this, in 1979, as depression and anxiety accompanied by restlessness, insomnia and generalised fatigue, tics, muscle tension, soreness and decreased appetite.

I have dealt with many runners over the years who have had to stop running temporarily due to injury, and they tend to display symptoms of depression, but not the other withdrawal symptoms listed. Although not a psychologist, my observation is that runners who find themselves in a position where they cannot run for some reason become somewhat depressed, because they see their hard-earned fitness from hours of training disappearing.

Obsessive compulsive behaviour, on the other hand, is characterised, amongst other signs, by a rigid, intensely-focused attitude, preoccupation with technical detail, and a constant need for routine activity. Running is attractive to the obsessive compulsive because it ’provides‘ all of these characteristic features, such as training with a specific goal in mind, having a rigid training schedule to follow, and it allows for attention to detail, such as improving the training schedule, paying attention to diet to improve performance, and noting what to drink during races, etc. Thus when unable to run, the runner is deprived of all of these.

It has been argued that running is addictive because it stimulates the release of endorphins, which cause the so-called ’runner’s high‘. When we can’t run, we do not get this effect. Indeed, some research has shown that blocking the release of endorphins reduces some of the euphoric feelings experienced after running. However, many runners have never experienced a ‘runner’s high’. Also, it is now known that any stress causes endorphin levels to increase, not just running, and there are many stresses to which we are exposed that we certainly would not become ’addicted‘ to. Thus the effect of endorphins on the ‘runner’s high’ is not entirely clear.

Adding more and more running, harder running, or both, to the training schedule brings with it the danger of over-reaching or overtraining. This happens when runners push their bodies beyond their individual breaking points, that is, the point at which the physiology of the runner can no longer keep pace with the training-induced physiological damage, such as damage to the muscles. At this point, instead of running performance improving, it actually starts to get worse. Eventually this presents as poor race performance, and a variety of other symptoms including excessive fatigue. While it is normal to have somewhat tired legs when training hard, there comes a point when this tiredness is excessive and the legs constantly feel ‘heavy’. If a day or two of reduced training is implemented at this point, then the runner should recover; however, if the athlete continues to train hard, the overtraining syndrome will establish itself to the point that weeks or even months of rest are needed to recover.

It is not clear exactly what may constitute a running addiction, but certainly, if one becomes obsessed with training more and more, the potential exists to eventually be training so much that rather than improving your running, you develop over-training syndrome.

Modern Athlete Expert –
Associate Professor
University of Cape Town/MCR Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine
Sports Science Institute of South Africa