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Trail Running and Addiction—Staying Mindful

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Editors’ Choice: April Blog Symposium on running addiction

Photo courtesy of BigStock Photo

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Running the Cascades, and was our top pick among entries into the April Trail Runner Blog Symposium: Can trail running develop into an unhealthy addiction? To browse other entries, check out our April Symposium Highlights. Next month’s topic: Social mediabane or boon to trail running?

I’m a psychotherapist who works with people struggling with addiction, and I’m also a long-distance trail runner. I’m reluctant to apply a clinical word like addiction to a generally healthy pursuit like trail running. Trail runners, like all runners, are often healthy, happy, functional and well-respected people. That being said, any activity can lead to addiction if that activity results in a feeling of elevated affect. In other words, if I get a pleasurable feeling from participating in an activity, I’m more likely to repeat that behavior and could become “addicted” to the feeling it provides. If I continue with that activity despite negative effects on my life and the lives of those I love, an unhealthy addiction has developed.

On a personal level, I don’t like considering the possibility that the positive feelings I obtain from trail running might lead to an unhealthy addiction. I’d rather move on to a different Blog Symposium question, thank you very much, and honestly hope that next month’s question is less personally challenging. However, my aversion to openly and candidly answering this month’s question makes me think there must be some truth to the possibility that trail running can become addictive in an unhealthy way. My hesitation to answer points to the possibility of denial, and denial is a common attribute of (an unhealthy) addiction.

I think it’s important to point out that people also have healthy addictions.  We feel compelled to breathe, eat, sleep, drink, clean ourselves and procreate in our everyday lives. Of course, these activities (with the exception of breathing) have the potential for abuse and can become problems in our lives. That being the case, it seems silly to assume that trail running couldn’t also become problematic in practice.

It would be easy, and far more comfortable, to take a narrow view of this month’s question, and to arrive at the conclusion that trail running, even in excess, doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria considered to constitute an addiction.

  • Trail runners don’t develop tolerance, as drug users do. Or do they? Many ultrarunners I know start with 50Ks and slowly move up to time-consuming 100-mile trail races, presumably responding to an inner need to cover more distance in order to arrive at a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
  • Trail runners don’t have withdrawal symptoms. Or do they? Personally, I feel drained and a little depressed for a day or two after a trail ultra.
  • Trail runners don’t keep running, even when they know running causes physical or psychological problems. Well … I can recount several stories of runners I know (myself included) who ignored medical advice and resumed running too quickly after incurring a running-related injury. And, let’s face it, many of us long-distance trail runners cut back on time that could be spent with family and non-running friends due to our adherence to training or racing.

There are also neurological factors to consider when answering this month’s question. Trail running, like other aerobic activities, results in an increase in endorphins. Running can elevate the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. The combined effect is multifold—runners report feeling that famous runner’s high, and may experience a reduction in anxiety and depression, as well as a sense of satisfaction and consequent relaxation.

Personally, during my trail runs, I’m often aware of feeling more connected to nature, less worried about day-to-day life stressors, and often drive home feeling very satisfied and more centered overall. My anxiety lessened, my restlessness diminished and feeling generally content—it’s hard to spot a problem.

I like to think of myself as passionate about my trail running, and I suspect nearly all of my running friends do the same. Can passion become addiction? According to Dr. Gabor Mate, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, “Any passion can become an addiction; but then how to distinguish between the two? The central question is: who’s in charge, the individual or their behavior? It’s possible to rule a passion, but an obsessive passion that a person is unable to rule is an addiction. And the addiction is the repeated behavior in which a person keeps engaging, even though he knows it harms himself or others. How it looks externally is irrelevant. The key issue is a person’s internal relationship to the passion and its related behaviors.”

Perhaps trail running, like other recreational pursuits in which we engage passionately, exists on a continuum. On one hand we have passion and moderation, and on the other end, excess and addiction. I think the question of where we are on this continuum is one we can either answer honestly after thorough consideration, or one we can dismiss out of hand as being inapplicable.

Speaking for myself, I’ve noticed that I can, and sometimes do spend too much time online reading running-related articles and social-media posts. I feel compelled at times to buy more running gear when I know I don’t really need, so much as want the gear. At times, I can be inflexible with family planning, as I feel a need to get in more time on the trail prior to a long race or self-supported ultra. In her book Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth, Alice Miller asks us, “What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress.  It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.”

My personal intention is to be as mindful as possible of the internal relationship I have with trail running. When I feel compelled to run or pursue running-related activities, I hope to be aware of that felt need, and to respond by dialing back my level of involvement (at least on an emotional level). Running should be joyous and generally pleasurable for a runner (well, most of the time anyway), and family and friends should be able to look toward a runner’s passion with appreciation and respect. When these conditions aren’t present, I think we can safely assume that something is amiss and we’re sliding toward the wrong end of the continuum.

Ben Luedke, 40, a psychotherapist in private practice in Bellevue, Washington, can often be found running or hiking with his family in the Issaquah Alps or the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. He is the founder and manager of the Seattle Mountain Running Group.