The dark side of running

It is called many things – over exercising, extreme endurance, compulsive exercising.

The “running high” as it is known, manifests itself after about an hour of training. The body produces endorphins, a type of natural morphine and the immense feeling of pleasure is what can make people wanting more.

As popular as running has become over the last few decades, is there a threshold where long distance running can become too dangerous?

After speaking at length to professional runners in South Wales, the reasons why they took up the sport in the first place and why older runners are still doing it now was mainly for two reasons: fitness and competition. But what I noticed among them, was a recurring concern – that running can become an addiction – and it’s a very easy and sometimes dangerous trap to fall into.

The Science Stuff

US cardiologists have just released a study which claims that intense physical activity can serve as a positive alternative to heroin. The scientists saw a dramatic 50% reduction in rats’ need for heroin once exercise became a daily activity. This, of course, is a good thing.

But what about if you stopped running? Would you get the same withdrawal symptoms as a drug addict would? The experts say yes.

Interestingly, this study led by Dr Kanarek at Tufts University claimed that an “intense running regimen” and opiate abuse have the same biochemical effect on the body, and that the rats which ran harder, experienced stronger withdrawal symptoms. Not only can it lead to mental withdrawals, but it can also damage your body more than improving it. Another study only released a few days ago, claims that marathon running can create long term heart defects and endurance training should be limited to one hour a day (just as the “running high” kicks in) – anything over that, apparently, can “produce diminishing returns”.

The Marathon Culture

I spoke with Jane, a 53 year old woman who has been running for almost thirty years. Jane founded the Cardiff Woman’s Running Network in Penarth in 2006 and is a long-serving member of Wales’ largest running club, Les Croupiers. Despite being a professional racer, track runner and competing for Wales & the World Cup in fell running, she has never run a marathon in her life.

Club track 3000m winnersJane has managed to maintain her running obsession as a positive influence on her life. She told me she wants to “preserve what she’s got” and doesn’t want to trash her body by competing in marathons. “It’s all about experience”, Jane says and people do not realise there are many different areas of running you can explore other than marathons. Park runs are an alternative to having the race day experience without the added pressure of a long distance race.

Bath Gwent League November

Building your stamina and mental awareness of something like the London marathon, is something even Jane is not yet entirely comfortable with. Jane believes she wouldn’t be running today if she didn’t have an eight year break from running due to an injury and bringing up a child and this is what saved her health.

So is it really addiction? Or is it just dependency? People run for social reasons too. And as Jane told me if she stopped running, it would leave a huge hole in her life.

But, hearing one man’s story of how his running addiction forced him to give up what he loved altogether because he became so obsessed does make you sit back and think about it a little bit harder.

Sean, also ran for Les Croupiers. He used to run on average, 26 miles a day – 140 miles a week. Listen to his astonishing story below:

Beating myself was all that mattered

ad·dic·tion n.

1.

a. Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance

The definition in itself carries negative connotations and most would argue there are worse things you could be addicted to.

We all know exercise is good for you. But some runners are on the treadmill and they can’t get off or are on the road that keeps on going. Why this is, is a point of conjecture. Is it personal psyche? Is it pressure of competition? Is it the fact that everybody has to do a marathon these days? Once upon a time, to say you’d done a marathon was enough. Now, people say what time did you do?

Advances in training technology have also enabled runners to be more aware of their performance. Applications such as Nike+ that fit in your trainer and track your running distance without you having to really do anything at all are widely used by runners all over the globe. Being able to upload your progress on social networking sites and measure yourself against other people’s performance has created a global community of competition. Calculate. Compare. Compete is their slogan. Competition is good – but new tech tools like Nike+ focus on how you ran one day and how to do better the next – is this how exercise should really be measured?

Running is one of the few sports that has no closed season. Football, rugby, cricket all have enforced periods when the sport is not played.

The sheer simplicity of running is it’s greatest appeal, but for some, it can also be the greatest downfall…

Please join in this conversation about the dark side of running. Feel free to comment below and please answer the poll. I would love to hear what you think.