Question: Can Trail Running Develop into an Unhealthy Addiction?

(This post was written as part of the April Trail Runner Magazine Blog Symposium - they provided the question, the blogosphere provides the answers.)

 Can trail running develop into an unhealthy addiction?

This question gives me a lot of thoughts and feelings, and I have three answers to it.  They aren't mutually exclusive:

Answer 1: Heart Disease and Diabetes asked me to tell you that the world would be a much better place if trail running (or really any kind of exercise) were quite a bit more addictive.  Duh. 

Answer 2 Yeah, Trail running can become an addiction.  Sometimes it's a bad addiction, but sometimes it's a good addiction. 

I spend my working life on an inpatient pediatric psychiatric unit with an excellent eating disorder treatment program, and I know that, for a percentage of the population - probably in the 0.5 - 1% range, a compulsion to exercise excessively can be part of a larger pathology driven by anxiety, trauma, a need to control one's situation, and an unhealthy body image.  At its worst, it can be a genuinely heartbreaking thing to observe - skeletal 13 year old girls sneaking out of sight to do lunges to try to work off calories that they had to be forced to take in through a feeding tube.  And there are a percentage of endurance athletes who are motivated by that kind of psychological pressure, rather than primarily a love for the sport itself.  In her autobiography (and this article) the great Ironman triathlete Chrissie Wellington wrote really interestingly about her struggle with eating disorders and the relationship between the factors that drove the disorders and the factors that have driven her to become one of the most impressive athletes on the planet.  The vast majority of people will neither develop Chrissie Wellington's level of disorder, nor her level of awesome.  But some will.  Exercise addiction is a thing, which probably has a basis in body chemistry, and it can lead to damaged health and social relationships, among other things.  Sometimes it accompanies an eating disorder, sometimes it doesn't. 

Outside of the psych unit, it's more interesting and inspiring that some people figure out how to take control of their propensity towards addiction to improve their lives using running and other forms of exercise.  I've linked here before to my friend Craig's short, stark, and compelling account of his transition from substance abuse and addiction to ultrarunning, and the reigning champ and record holder at the Western States 100, Timothy Olson, put out a fantastic article last year on iRunFar about his experience making a similar journey.   Without minimizing the life- and health-threatening complications that can accompany the kind of extreme compulsive exercising that we see on the psych unit, as Chrissie, Craig and Timothy's cases show, some level of exercise addiction can be adaptive, or even redemptive.  Wikipedia says that people with addictive personalities have a tendency towards "excessive, repetitive use of pleasurable activities to cope with unmanageable internal conflict, pressure, and stress".  They probably all have that tendency, but have been able to channel it, such that running was a way for all of them to use an element of their personality that had the potential to ruin their life to commit to a set of habits that improved their health, and in at least Chrissie and Timothy's case, made them some level of famous.  Addiction, I think, isn't always destructive.

Answer 3Get off my back TrailRunner Magazine!  I'm fine!  When people who aren't runners ask me about my training or races, my instinct is to downplay or minimize the amount of time that I invest, and I sometimes wonder if there's some truth in the occasional incredulous "That's crazy!" response people give when they find out about weekend 7 hour trail outings and such.  I just finished a 50k and have a 100k and a 50 miler on the schedule in the next month and a half, so I'm only being a little bit facetious when I say that this month's blog prompt makes me feel similarly defensive.  Is the amount of time I personally spend running unusual?  Yeah.  But unhealthy?  Personally, I don't think so.  I do spend an inordinate amount of time on the trails, but I feel like I have good reasons: it's an activity I love which has strengthened my marriage and other relationships (I'm thankful for a tough-as-nails ultrarunning wife and nature-loving trail-buddies), improved my mental and physical health (three years, no injuries worse than a pulled muscle), increased my self-confidence, and allowed me to have experiences that have ultimately made my life more meaningful and enjoyable (Mountains!  Water!  Forests!  Beer with friends!).  I've given up some things for running's sake, but I have yet to regret a decision to spend a day on the trails. 

From that personal perspective, the way I would answer that question for myself is also the way that I would answer it more generally, to say that - addiction or not - the important questions related to running are always about balance.  Is trail running taking away from parts of your life that are important?  Is your wife pissed that you spent the day running around in the woods?  Did exhaustion from that 100 miler cause you to make dangerous mistakes at your job?  Are you going to be able to pay the interest on the payday loan you took out for those Hokas?  Are you running through an injury in a way that will legitimately compromise your future health?  If running is a net positive in your life (which I think it almost always is), the issue of whether it is an addiction is not particularly relevant.  


Good to see you participate in the blog symposium again Tim.

One question - if you like this activity so much, why is the amount of time you spend doing it self-described as inordinate?