Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Taking the Plunge or Off the Deep End? How to Tell if Endurance Sports Have Stolen Your Sanity

I love exercise.

Exercise makes me feel in tune with my body, with nature, and with my friends. Call it an obsession, but I get jazzed wondering just how far I can push myself. Yes, I am addicted to endorphins.

It's offensive when nonbelievers write off a passion for exercise by negatively referring to it as "compulsive". No great athlete could achieve her full potential without being a little obsessive-compulsive about her workouts.

However, even I have been known to question the motives of some friends and their never-ending need to push themselves mentally and physically. I usually call their sanity into question when social activities, like eating dinner with friends, or family time, like eating dinner with family, gets pushed back indefinitely to make way for massages, ice baths, and the third (or more!) daily workout.

So how can you tell if you or your friends are simply taking the plunge into becoming the best endurance athlete you can be, or if you're sinking fast into the deep end, leaving your sanity floating above you? What could make two people doing the exact same workouts be separately categorized into "Plungers" or "Sinkers"?

Four years ago, I developed a very simple litmus test of athletic sanity that has held strong to this day. Ask yourself this simple question:

Is my passion (in this case for exercise and endurance competition) adversely affecting:
  1. my health?
  2. my happiness?
  3. my relationships?
If the answer is no to all three things, you're doing just fine. Soldier on, Ironman, ultrarunner, ultracyclist, climber, adventure racer, etc! But if you can answer yes to any of these, maybe it's time to take a breather and work something out--without going for a long run or ride to clear your head!

There are a lot of subcategories that might fit in the three listed above. Is your passion hurting your finances? That might affect your happiness and relationships. Are you unhappy? Maybe you overdid your training. Backing off might restore your happiness and save you from wreaking havoc on your health.

Here's where the word "compulsive" truly takes on a negative connotation. If your body is destroyed and trying to tell you so by making you moody and unhappy--and you don't back off out of compulsion--you may have a problem (this being the negatively charged "exercise addiction") that needs to be addressed.

For me, at this point in my life, endurance sports have simply giveth. There has been no taketh-ing away. A love of triathlon has led me to my closest friends, and to my husband. It has blessed me with a sense of accomplishment, love and admiration for my body, and the self- confidence I was sorely lacking before taking the plunge.

It doesn't hurt that coachubby shares my exact same passion. It has made our relationship stronger, as we push each other to achieve more than we ever thought we could. (This includes peeing on the bike.)

Endurance sports have brought my family closer; madre's and padre's role as a perma parental cheer squad means almost every time we see each other, we have something fun to do and something to celebrate--and a reason (besides Jesus-related events) to get our bi-state clans together in the first place. Even padre got in on the action when we did a triathlon relay together last July--and won our division!

However, I know that if I made the same exact choices I'm making now regarding my training and race calendar and I had kids (sorry, Sir Gallahad, you're an independent kitty who can take care of himself for hours on end), I would be a Sinker, not a Plunger. It's all about priorities. And the three golden life factors: happiness, health, and relationships.

Have a kick butt, happy, healthy, friend-filled 2009 season!


  1. Great post! I use a similar scale for my overall well being (Fitness, Family, Finance and Fun). I rate them on a scale of 1-10 to see if my life is heading in the right direction or if I've got way too much invested in one "bucket".

    As I dive into training for my first IM, contemplate a career change and try to maintain some sense of balance in my life, I'll refer back to this post often. Thanks in advance for how much I'm sure this post will help me keep my perspective.

  2. Hi Chris! Congratulations on beginning the journey to your first IM! Because you're already thinking about maintaining balance, I think you'll do great! (Or 'swimmingly' might be more appropriate :)

  3. Well said. The degree to which you can build your training into your life will greatly determine how much you can devote to it. Being able to share your training time with friends and family is a great way to combine both activities into one. I love when I have long runs and my daughter will ride her bike along with me to keep me company. Just me and her and the trail, which often leads to the sharing of her deepest thoughts. Priceless.

    And after years of solitary biking, I've started to hook up with a couple of others for my long rides and am starting to appreciate the benefits of company (and competition!). I'm also still determined to get my sisters out this season to do a relay!

    So, you are right in that it is often a two way street. Your life will shape your training, but your training can also shape your life.

  4. I swear you could publish a book of sports wisdom by now with the most fabulous feedback you've left on my blog! That's awesome that your daughter wants to--and that you let her!--ride along on your runs. I waited until after high school (when I started running more than a mile) to start running with my dad. I think it's my most favorite time spent with him now.