Mike the Psych's Blog

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Running is popular but there’s a dark side

There’s no doubt about it, running is popular. Increasingly you see people out and about clutching their bottle of water and wearing hi-tech clothes and running shoes.

All to the good you might think, and there is evidence of the health benefits of running e.g. enhanced mood and self-esteem as well as the physical improvements to your body – although there is also the potential to damage your health if you go to extremes.

However the evidence about the downside has been largely about physical damage. In the June 2017 edition of The Psychologist, Andrew Wood and Martin Turner, both lecturers in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Staffordshire University, wrote about the psychological downside of running – what they called the dark side such as eating disorders and exercise dependency.

Using rational-emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), which is based on the concept of rational and irrational beliefs, they found that many athletes they worked with did in fact have irrational (i.e illogical, rigid and extreme) views and responses to setbacks and adversity. So in dealing with setbacks, injuries, or rejection and failure their distress was coming from irrational beliefs such as:

  • I want to, and therefore I must exercise (demandingness)
  • It would be terrible if I could not exercise (awfulising)
  • Not being able to exercise makes me a complete loser (self-deprecation)
  • I can’t stand it when I can’t exercise (frustration intolerance)

In turn the athletes who were dependent on running would say things like “I can’t stand missing a run” or “I hate myself for not running” and felt guilty or anxious and in some cases started eating less.

In high performance athletes having irrational beliefs can actually help them to be more dogged and determined to win e.g. “I must not fail and I’m a loser if I do” no matter the cost in injury or pain.

And there’s the rub (no pun intended). Extreme and irrational beliefs may propel these athletes to success but at what cost? Runners pushing their bodies too hard, over-training and ignoring their personal well-being leading to exhaustion and burnout.

Rather than seeking to discourage people taking up what is a healthy pursuit for most people they simply ask you to exercise caution and monitor your relationship with your running: do you do it as a healthy choice or are you driven to run – at all costs?

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Author: mikethepsych

He says he's a psychologist but aren't we all?

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