Is Your Exercise An Unhealthy Addiction?

Addicted to ExerciseSouth Africa is a country that seems to thrive on sporting extremes. Think of the Cape Epic, Two Oceans, Comrades, Dusi Canoe Marathon, Midmar Mile, Puffer, joBerg2c, Skyrun, Totalsports Challenge and many more. When I moved to this wonderful country from the UK five years ago, I was totally amazed at how fixated people were with exercise volume. I met people who were spending three hours in the gym daily, runners who did 30-40km pack runs on a Sunday, cyclists who would think nothing of a six hour ride and triathletes who would try and cram all three disciplines into a day.

Coming from an elite middle distance running (800 and 1,500m) background in the UK, my ethos was always quality not quantity – this had worked for me through my athletic career and there were times that I even needed to reduce my quantity in order to bolster my quality – this at the end of the day is the meaning of a good athletic performance. Although my focus was on the track, I could still do a decent 10k and half marathon and fellow runners who focussed on these longer distances certainly knew how to run fast and would mostly also consider quality before quantity.

In South Africa, though, I didn’t feel like a runner at all when I came here because I’d never run a marathon. Instead of comparing five and 10k times, as happened back home, runners here compared the number of Comrades and Ironman finishes that they’d achieved – time (quality) almost seems irrelevant.

Now, apart from my obvious dig at the lack of quality training in this country, the number of people who actually do daily exercise is far superior to other countries in which I’ve lived. It’s actually very impressive and I love to see runners of all shapes and sizes (and speeds) running around my neighbourhood during the Tuesday night time trial and mountain bikers heading along the spruit in their hundreds on a Saturday morning.

What does concern me though is the apparent lack of respect for human fragility. It seems to be South African culture to go out and push hard and long – there is a survival aspect to these tendencies that probably comes from years gone by. South Africans are tough, or at least think of themselves as tough – office talk on a Monday morning is not about how many bottles of wine were consumed over the weekend (as back home), but how many kilometres were covered on a mountain bike over tough terrain! And this isn’t just the men – very often the women are either trying to keep up with the men or surpass them in their athletic endeavours.

But what I see in my exercise clinic very often is addictive, compulsive exercise behaviour: when three hours of training are pushed into your life in addition to work and family commitments, which displaces social opportunities, compromises sleep and means no down-time or fun time in your life. I’m going to stretch out on a limb and call it Exercise Addiction. Exercise is healthy – we all know that – but it’s the amount that counts. Repetitively waking three hours before the sun in the winter in order to fit in a bike ride; spending such a long time in the gym in the evening that it ends up being too late to eat a proper meal before bed; rarely seeing your kids waking or going to bed; never lying in with breakfast in bed at the weekend; missing the once in a lifetime ballet performance because you’re too tired and need an early night. These are all examples of exercise addiction.

We need a degree of exercise addiction to accomplish these long endurance events – athletes must be supremely structured and routined to achieve these amazing goals. Ryan Sandes, for example, is a phenomenal example of the South African ideal of bravery and endurance, but we cannot all fall in his footsteps because firstly we need to have his genetic make-up and secondly, we need to work and nurture our families.

So there must be an off button to press. For the sake of recovery, for the sake of health AND for the sake of performance, we need to have time out. Even, or should I say especially, elite athletes take days off, enjoy recovery days and above all else, they periodise their programmes so that they peak for their goal events when they are at their best.

I saw the world famous triathlon coach Joe Friel talking recently in Joburg – one of his most poignant pieces of advice, while talking about Ironman preparation, was this: It is more important to arrive at the start of a big race under-trained but extremely fresh than to be over-trained and exhausted from months of heavy training and lack of taper. On the day, it’s going to be your health that will carry you through more than your fitness.

So often I’m seeing people who are over-trained, adrenally fatigued or exhausted, sleep deprived and under-nourished because they don’t have the time to eat properly. I even see people with Glandular Fever and Chronic Fatigue – these are normally associated with top athletes over-doing it, but in South Africa it’s more to do with over-whelming the body with work, family, social and training commitments, without the recovery that it needs. The below table is a nice and easy questionnaire to assess your body’s health and readiness for training. It’s designed by American running coach and exercise physiologist, Jack Daniels: Check it daily and if you’re not consistently scoring over 20, take a day off and spend some time with your better half or best friend.

Wellbeing Quiz

  1. I slept really well last night.
  2. I am looking forward to today’s workout.
  3. I am optimistic about my future performance(s).
  4. I feel vigorous and energetic.
  5. My appetite is great.
  6. I have very little muscle soreness.

Each question is scored:

  1. Strongly Disagree
  2. Disagree
  3. Neutral
  4. Agree
  5. Strongly Agree

Score >20 okay; Score <20 take a rest!

Key – Each morning before you go training, quickly score yourself on this quiz. It will only take a couple of minutes. As noted, scores under 20 may be an indication of over-training and might suggest that resting or easy exercise would be best. Mark the scores daily in your training diary and talk to your coach or advisor about any deviations from normal.

Originally published in the September/October 2013 issue 61.

Contact Ian
+27 (0)11 326 1243


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About Ian Craig

Ian Craig MSc, CSCS, INLPTA is an exercise physiologist, nutritional therapist, NLP practitioner and an endurance coach. He was a competitive middle-distance runner for 20 years and is now a more leisurely runner and cyclist. Ian specialises in Functional Sports Nutrition, a fast evolving discipline that considers both health and performance of an athlete from an integrative health perspective. Ian is the editor of the UK magazines, Functional Sports Nutrition and Total Sports Nutrition, leads the Middlesex University Personalised Sports Nutrition postgraduate course and the new Functional Sports Nutrition Academy. In South Africa, he is a consultant for genetics company DNAlysis Biotechnology and runs a private exercise and nutrition practice in Johannesburg.

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