Running: Just Another Addiction?

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by Rachel Nypaver

Running is often called an addiction – both by the running critics (aka wannabe runners) and by runners themselves. They say you can even get “high” from the pure act of running. So is running a drug? And should it be classified with addictions to sugar, crack, sex and alcohol?

Then again, don’t doctors recommend some physical activity, like running, each day? Twenty to 60 minutes of activity a day with a healthy diet should lead us to optimal health, but what happens when those 60 minutes turns into two hours? What about when it turns into 20 or more?

Where is the line between good health and crazy? Is it definable? Can you really be addicted to running? And if that answer is “yes,” can addiction possibly be a good thing?

The balance of this article is my own account of some of the answers I have unearthed for myself in the first marathon of life (I recently turned 26).

Rachel Nypaver chasing sunspots with a friend on the trail. Photo: Steve Hawthorne

Rachel Nypaver chasing sunspots with a friend on the trail. Photo: Steve Hawthorne

If truth be told, I know several runners…actually, “quite a few” may be more accurate… who are recovering addicts, whether from drugs, alcohol or a past life of bad choices. Actually, I myself am a recovering addict of a young girl’s need to feel good, mixed with an obsession with food, that led me to restrict calories and drop well below the recommended weight, mixed with symptoms of OCD, perfectionism, anxiety and depression. Yes, I am an anorexic turned ultrarunning, plant-food junkie (and I’m not alone in the arena of former eating-disorder runners either). I very well know that some people, and probably quite a few psychologists, would consider ultrarunning a regression into my past symptoms.

But that’s not how I see it.

At least that’s not how I see it now. I would be lying if I said I never transferred “my addiction” into exercise and running in a not-so-positive way. Yes, I have crossed that very fine line in the ultra-trail world of taking my running too far, training too much, ignoring my body and the little voice in my head telling me to rest.

However, I have been able to take a step back and onto the other side of the line again and pursue my personal path of well-being, running for the same reasons I started in the first place: to feel free and to see where my potential lies. Running 45-75 miles a week (plus my various cross-training activities and dog-walking) has been my version of health this year, letting my body stay strong and, more importantly, letting my mind stay well.

In the sport, we say that running is 10% physical and 90% mental. I’m not sure if that is totally accurate, but I agree with the basis that running is very much a mental thing. A race isn’t so much proof of the physical shape we are in, but how mentally prepared we are to accept the pain and discomfort in our bodies and break through perceived limitations. On the other hand, our mind may also tell us it hurts too much and we slow our pace, only to finish knowing we could have pushed harder. The mind can certainly be a beautiful or a very destructive thing. It really depends on how we listen and respond to it.

Oh, and don’t forget your heart…to get the best performance out of your mind, you must use your heart. That part is key. My biggest female- runner inspiration has always said “when your legs get tired, run with your heart.” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have survived my 100- mile races without a strong heart. I believe that it is not simply the mileage we are running each week that defines the crossing of the line from health to addiction, but the commitment and heart we put into our training.

When training, do you listen to your body when it says it needs a rest, or does your mind push it to complete that 100-mile week, no matter what? Do you run on an injury because you can’t bear the thought of taking a few days or weeks off? Or, when you become irritable and find yourself becoming short-tempered with loved ones, do you still head out the door at 5 a.m. to get in your run instead of getting that few extra hours of sleep so you can show your family the loving compassion they deserve? When is the decision to skip a party to get sleep before a long run worth it? When is it not?

As you may be beginning to see, I believe this is all a very personal thing. My 70- mile week would definitely seem like nothing to some people, but it could put someone else way over the edge of being healthy.

In the end, those are some of your basic overtraining principles. They are still only touching on my question of whether or not running is actually an addiction. So what is my answer?

Yes, running, for me, is an addiction.

But I don’t believe addictions are always bad either. When I was overtraining, yes, that was very bad…there was absolutely no good reason for me to be short-tempered with my boyfriend, family or the children with whom I work. None. However, I have since found my balance, and when you find that balance, running once again becomes a beautiful thing. Because of running, I know what it is like to live and be free.

It is in the search to live meaningfully, to experience life at its fullest, that running has become my sweetest addiction and one that I hope to never quit.

In a way, running is like an art. The movement of my body running through the trees, over rocks and splashing through creeks has let me see my own beauty and strength. Before, I had trouble seeing my body this way. It was always being judged, and ultimately found profoundly lacking. Now, as I run through the woods I feel a connectedness to the life around me, to the breeze in my hair, to birds singing in the trees and even to the other sweaty bodies I sometimes run with. I am part of the bigger picture. I am part of the extraordinary, complicated and yet simple work of art the Creator continually strokes with Her light and brilliance.

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s something like that that draws in my former drug, alcohol, sex and food addicted friends. It is not that we have covered up one addiction with another, but that we have gone from something to cover up the misery in our lives to fully loving and experiencing life through our desire to be free in the act of moving our bodies amidst and among mother nature’s wonders. In essence, our addiction is not to running, but to living.

As for getting high and sinking deeply into the darkness? Well, somehow that “runner’s high” thing always seems to elude me. However, I do often get a spark like the one I did this morning as I was running with my dog. We were chasing sun spots in the dirt, running to the shining, golden spaces where the morning sun was coming through the trees and just trying to soak it all in. And I do feel pretty happy after some of my races, but not a drunken kind of happy. It’s more of a happiness filled with pride and joy for what I accomplished and what I have been blessed to do.

And then there’s the darkness. That’s probably what most non-runners don’t understand. Why do something that will take you so far down into the depths of pain, fear, misery and the dark places of your mind? Well, I think it’s when we fall deep into the abyss that we learn the most, get stronger and come away a better person for it. Plus, if it wasn’t for knowing darkness, would we really be able to fully appreciate the light? Because of all my bad runs, I am overjoyed in the good ones. I have surely crashed hard in some of my 100-mile races, but I truly believe I have become more beautiful for having overcome and survived those scary places.

So there you have it. Yes, I am addicted to running. And honestly, if I had to quit I probably would go into a slight withdrawal. Still, it is a very different addiction than one that leads to a path of self-destruction. As long as you maintain a strong balance and always refer to your heart for guidance, this addiction is a good thing. This addiction leads to happiness and freedom. My running addiction is an expression of my love of life.

(And if I had to, I suppose I could always take up cycling or some other sport…)

Run Free,

Rachel

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2 Comments

  1. A beautiful article. Thank you for this. As a cancer survivor, running has helped me immensely to, as you say, “live and be free”. Through chemo and all the surgeries, the one thought that kept me up at night was when would I be able to run again. Yes, I suppose it is an addiction — one that I am thankful for.