Relationships — even healthy ones — don't come without at least a few complications. This is true whether you're talking about your best friend or running. But how can you tell if you have a healthy relationship with the sport or if things are turning toxic?
There's no one right way to run — and there's a fine line between sticking it out when things aren't always fun and an obsession that impacts your mental wellbeing — but there are a few ways to tell if things are problematic — one obvious and a few other less so.
1. You Hate Running But Can't Quit
This sign should be the most glaring: If you no longer enjoy running but also can't bring yourself to stop, that's a huge red flag. It would be unreasonable to say that every run is going to be great and leave you feeling on top of the world (it won't), but overall, you should be able to say (truthfully) that you enjoy running.
"You may not enjoy every day, but if you dread it, begin to adapt your world around running and have running impact other important aspects of your life, then we can see problems arise," says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, director of performance services at Texas Optimal Performance and Psychological Services.
Consider whether you want to run or you feel like you have to run. Cauthen says that once running becomes a "chore or a must-do," it can add stress for both the runner and their social relationships. "One of the first indicators may be social relationships shifting due to [the need] to 'get that run in.'"
2. There's No Flexibility in Your Training Schedule
While training plans are intended to keep you on track, if you seriously freak out when last-minute obligations keep you from a run, it's time to take a step back. Here's the thing: life happens. Sometimes that will mean altering, postponing or skipping a session you had planned.
But if you find yourself skipping a rest day in order to make up some extra mileage, you may have a problem. "Athletes need to be comfortable taking time off," Cauthen says. "It's essential for athletes to be able to test themselves and adapt to new training plans to assist in reducing the risk for emotional distress or 'obsessive' behaviors."
In other words, runners should be comfortable switching training plans or reevaluating goals based on outside factors (illness, weather, etc.), especially if they're out of your control.
3. Racking Up Miles Is Your Only Goal
You should go into a run understanding why you're doing that specific workout and what you're hoping to get out of it — increase speed, boost endurance or improve your form. But you shouldn't be racking up miles for the sake of a big number at the end of the week, says Andrew Simmons, head coach at Lifelong Endurance.
"The obsession with hitting a certain number of miles comes from either a past performance and how you trained at that point in time, a preconceived notion that you must do X to get Y based on what other people have told you, and finally, a comparison trap of what others are doing on social media and social training sights," Simmons says.
But pushing yourself to you limits (or beyond) in the name of logging lots of distance as quickly as possible won't get you to any meaningful goal. "What we do know is that one single workout won't get you a PR, it's the culmination of the work that elicits the result you want," Simmons says.
4. You're Obsessed With Burning Off What You Eat
If you're going for a run because you ate (what you've deemed) a "bad" food, take a look at your relationship with food and how it's impacting your relationship with running. "Food is rarely the underlying issue, but in some cases, athletes have to look at how they interpret food and their relationship with it," Simmons says.
Remember: Food is fuel, and you need a variety of nutrients and types of food in order to maintain a balanced diet.
How to Rebuild a Healthy Relationship with Running
The first step to repairing what may be a broken relationship with running is to identify anything that may be holding you back. Simmons suggests reaching out to a professional if you think your relationship with running is becoming problematic. They may be able to see things you can't.
"There is no single silver bullet when it comes to dealing with an exercise addiction or unhealthy running habit, because we can't always easily see the underlying issues or environment that are causing these compulsions," he says.
Next, determine whether you need to do some shifting to your training or maybe even take some time off. "If an athlete is having health issues, emotional distress or concerns about injury, then recovery and rest is essential for healthy return to the sport," Cauthen says.
Cauthen suggests tracking your progress — both physical and mental — with a training log, setting clear goals and varying your workouts so running isn't your sole focus. If all of this seems daunting, a coach can be a valuable resource in helping you maintain a healthy relationship with the sport.
Karen Dunn, a running coach, personal trainer and owner of Strengthen Your Stride, says coaches are there to help you understand how each workout is part of a bigger picture. You can focus on doing what you love — running — and they can handle all of the details.
"The relationship we each have with our running is different — and that is the beauty of this sport as well," she says. "There isn't just one way to look at the sport as it provides a multitude of benefits, along with a healthy mind and body. […] As long as we aren't damaging our mind, body or relationships and still enjoy lacing up each day, I think we are in the right place."