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The Thrills and Spills of Training Addiction

Sounds familiar? Can’t imagine that this is the thing? 

Part of my series ‘The Dark Side of Fitness’ looks into the topic of training addiction and trust me, I can tell you a thing or two as well. 

No matter if you can relate or not, training addiction is an actual thing. And it can, ultimately, have some serious mental and physical consequences.  

What is training addiction?

As the name pretty much says it, training addiction – or exercise addiction – means that your relationship towards physical activity and your time in the gym or on the field or wherever you do your training, goes a little too far. You become obsessed with it! Training determines your daily life. 

Extensive training sessions. Intense training sessions. Over and over again. It gives you a fix, it’s like a drug

When a healthy exercise routine turns into a compulsive behaviour, when you start to neglect other parts of your life because all you can think of is training and your performance. When the once so positive and beneficial physical activity suddenly shows negative impacts on your life. 

When does healthy turn into an addiction?

I think we all can relate: we wouldn’t be doing all this hard work if we wouldn’t love it. How many people in the gym do you know that absolutely hate what they are doing and turning up every day is an absolute torture for them? Guess not that many! 

If we then also work towards a goal – we want to lose weight, we want to gain muscle, we want to become faster, stronger – then it is super natural that we have to, and that we want to push ourselves to our limits. This is sometimes easier, sometimes harder. 

Let’s say we train for a race, a competition, a marathon and we want to win, we want to make ourselves and the people around us proud. We want to give it our all. We want to train as much as we can, we want to train every single day, for hours, we don’t want to stop until we get better. For obvious reasons, constantly training without any proper rest won’t improve our performance the slightest bit but our brain is already beyond that point and won’t admit that a day without exercising would actually be beneficial. 

On the other hand, maybe we want to get bigger and gain some good muscle mass. To achieve this, we start weight training, we see results, and we like what we see. But we want more. So we train more. We show up every day, our workouts are getting longer and longer, we fatigue the hell out of our muscles. 

THIS! is training addiction.

But don’t think these are the only reasons why someone may become addicted to exercising. There are also a lot of external factors, like with everything. The world we live in, the society we live in, and the expectations we live in, all contribute. 

  • societal pressure and meeting expectations of what other people think 
  • the desire to look a specific way (leaner, more muscular, bigger)
  • perfectionism (always thriving to be better, to look better but it will never be good enough)
  • the need to have control over your life 
  • social media and the promotion of thousands of workout routines you can’t keep up with anymore

All those aspects can play a part in why we may be prone to become addicted to the training we do and go too far. 

What do I mean when I say ‘too far’? How do we find out if we have crossed the line?

The signs.

Simply said: our number one priority is exercising and we do a lot of this. We go for longer, we go harder. We train in ‘secret’ and cover it up in front of others – hiding that extra session we just got in. 

What happens when we overtrain and completely ignore what our body needs or doesn’t need? We injure ourselves. 

What happens when we injure ourselves? We keep going and train through those injuries and make everything even worse. Or, we have to take forced rest because we hurt ourselves so badly. 

What happens when we can’t train?

We feel guilty. Our head keeps telling us that we didn’t train today, we feel awful, we think we will lose all our progress, we think we will put on 5 kilos, we think it is all for nothing. We are miserable, we starve ourselves to make up for the calories not burnt earlier in the day, we become depressed and anxious. 

What happens when the gym, the training and everything that comes with it become the most important part of our lives? Then there is no space for friendships outside of this, there is no way we can have a dinner out or a late night, there is no time to go on a holiday because we would miss out on the training. 

There is no chance of spontaneity because this would mean giving up our routine, this would mean giving up our control

Sounds crazy? 

I know. But it isn’t too hard to get sucked into this. 

I can relate to every single sign up there.

Training has become my absolutely everything. I was always really into it and very dedicated, I always trained 4-5 times a week, I loved a good sweat, I loved pushing myself. But I had work on the weekends so I missed out then, I went out for dinner and it got late so I didn’t bother getting up the next day. I trained a lot but in a healthy way. 

But then lockdown hit. And while probably 90% of the population locked in at home started sitting in front of the TV and snacking all day, I finally had all the time I wanted to do my workouts. I set up a little room at home, I bought some gym equipment, and off we went. Like a lot of fitness studios around the world, my gym offered online classes. 

Every morning I got up and jumped up and down in front of my computer. Obviously, those workouts weren’t as challenging as actually being out there swinging around the big weights. So, what did I do? I made them harder, I made them longer. I trained multiple times a day. Two hours cardio in the morning, another hour of weights in the afternoon. Well, there wasn’t much else to do so training determined my days. I bought my first Apple Watch, and I became obsessed with how many calories I burned. 

It was the start of my training addiction. 

Once lockdown was over and we could go back to proper classes, it wasn’t enough for me anymore. I either doubled up or I went back home and did another hour in my already little set up home gym. 

I started ‘warming up’ before classes. Stationary cycling for 45 minutes, doing a little HIIT session before the actual HIIT session, I found a way to keep those calories up high. 

I didn’t get out of it. 

I needed to train every single day, I didn’t take many rest days.

I hated rest days. I felt horrible, I became a horrible person to have around. 

I trained for hours. Cardio, cardio, cardio. 

I injured myself. I didn’t care. I kept going. 

It eventually got better, I calmed down. I put a lot more effort into educating myself, I incorporated more weight training into my workout routine. I realised I am doing more harm than good. 

But even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, when you are an addict, you are an addict. And I know that way to well from my eating disorder (read My Recovery Story).

The one thing that made me turn: deciding to get a boob job. And with this, weeks of forced rest. 

It completely changed my mindset about my training – my focus, my goals, my nutrition, my acceptance of rest days. 

The Importance of Balance.

I realised that having a balanced approach to fitness is not only essential for my physical performance, but for my overall well-being. There is so much more than just training, training, training. You will never get anywhere if this is all you do. 

How do we achieve a healthy relationship with exercise?

1. Listen to your body

Push yourself, yes. Because this is necessary to progress. Focus on your training sessions and give it your all. But listen to your body’s signals. Are you sore? Are you fatigued? Take a rest day. Your body will thank you for it and it will come stronger the day after. Recovery is one puzzle piece to lead to success. 

2. Goals

Set realistic goals. No matter what you want to achieve, be mindful of your body’s capabilities. Losing 10 kilos in three weeks? Probably not. Losing 10 kilos in six months? Hell yeah. Thrive for the long-term success as this is the most sustainable approach. Allow yourself something in between and don’t be too strict on yourself. This will help to actually stick to it without failing in between. 

3. Diversity

Mix it up. Getting bored doing the same thing over and over again? Yeah, I would too if I had to do leg press every second day. Find some alternatives. Mix in a day of cardio if you mainly train weights, give your legs a rest and train a different muscle group. If you are a runner, try some yoga and gives those muscles a good stretch. There are plenty of options out there, so why not try something new?

4. Holistic Wellbeing

Exercising is one part of a healthy lifestyle. But there is so much more to it. Get into an overall mindset of living a healthy life. Focus on getting the right amount of sleep, cook some nutritious meals, prioritize your mental health. Practice mindfulness. 

5. Community

Feeling alone? Join a team. Find a group fitness gym and take some classes. Make connections in your regular gym. Catch up with friends, no matter if you share the same passion. Go for a walk and grab a coffee. Be out there, be social. 

What I want to say with this.

Look, I would be the last person saying that training is harmful. Not at all. Exercising comes with so many benefits, physically and mentally and everyone should do whatever they feel like.

But, I want to give you this little nudge to be aware of where too much exercising and becoming obsessed with it can lead to. We don’t want to be depressed, miserable and anxious. We want to walk into the gym with our head held up high, being proud of ourselves and the balance we have created in our everyday life. 

Read Next: Overtraining: When pushing to the limit isn’t enough