When I agreed to join my community to run a charity half-marathon in Miami last winter, I was wary of several things. The actual training: how was I going to find the time, motivation and energy to train during the winter? I am very aware that running is very hard on the body. I care much more about being injury-free and being able to exercise in my old age than achieving some great time or long distance in my 40s. Raising a minimum of $3600 was also daunting. While I believe wholeheartedly in the charity, fundraising isn’t my thing. I hate asking people for money.
But perhaps the biggest concern of all, was whether a long-distance run was going to hook me into compulsive exercising. Performance athletes such as gymnastics, synchronized swimming and dance have a higher risk for eating disorders. Similarly, exercises that are focused on numbers such as speed, frequency, distance and heart rates are also high risk sports for compulsivity.
After all, athletes, eating disorders and compulsive exercising have many common features. A workshop that I heard many years ago by Dr. Ron Thompson, identified the similarities between athletes and eating disorders’ sufferers. I distinctly remember a slide that was shown (Thompson and Sherman; 1999):
|“Good Athlete”||Anorexic Patient|
|Commitment to training||Excessive exercise|
|Pursuit of excellence||Perfectionism|
|Performance despite pain||Denial of discomfort|
It’s not so easy to differentiate will power and focus (Nike’s ‘Just do it’) from compulsion. The exercise addiction inventory (EAI) is a screening tool for professional use. It looks at 6 key components:
- How important exercise is in one’s life
- Whether exercise creates conflict in relationships. For example, running to the gym everyday instead of coming home after work.
- Using as a way to cope with emotions – relying on exercise to feel better or ‘escape’
- Continually increasing exercise goals.
- Guilt if an exercise session is missed.
- Inability to reduce exercise.
There is a seemingly fine line between desirable activity and compulsion. Isn’t it good to have exercise in one’s life? To squeeze it in even if busy? To consistently aim to improve one’s fitness?
So back to my run…. I loved it! I had a running partner and we ran 1-2 times per week. It was a particularly mild Toronto winter and we ran throughout. I tend to suffer from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I was in a great mood. I was motivated and my work and family improved.
The big distinction for me, was whether my activity was self-care or a dissociative, obsessive habit that undermined me, my loved ones and my work. There were a few key guidelines that I followed:
- If I was tired, I rested
- I remembered that I was not aiming to be an Olympian runner or break any records. I was running this for charity and hoped to finish it. I kept my values front and centre. I love fitness but it doesn’t define me. I never stole excessive time from my family or work.
- I truly appreciated my body. I was acutely aware of how much I was demanded from it and knew that it deserved TLC. I ate more, went to physio and massage and focused on injury-prevention.
- I never actually met the marathon training goals…. and it was fine!
- I remembered that if I decided not to do the race or didn’t finish… it wouldn’t be a failure.
It was difficult to be immune from the competitive group mentality amongst some of the runners, so my running partner and I intentionally selected to not be part of the training programs or too many discussions about training objectives (time, distance and frequency).
It was a great weekend and I felt so grateful for having the ability to run as well as the privilege of being part of the amazing charity. While I am tempted to join my friend on her bucket list full marathon goal, for now, I am not convinced that I will be able to follow guidelines of training for a marathon, so I’m enjoying some running, swimming and stretching… and watching the fall leaves while enjoying my book!