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Health & Fit When Does a Run Streak Become an Unhealthy Obsession?

18:27  25 june  2020
18:27  25 june  2020 Source:   runnersworld.com

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Brian Schroder had run 5 kilometers per day for over 700 days in a row—almost to his goal of a 1,000-day run streak—when he set out into the blizzard. He wasn’t going to let one blustery afternoon stop him.

a man riding a skateboard up the side of a road: Rest days aren't just for physical recovery. © Matt Nager Rest days aren't just for physical recovery.

It was January 2019. Schroder, a 43-year-old accountant from Denver, Colorado, was on a ski trip with his family when a sudden snowstorm trapped them at the lodge. When Schroder realized he wouldn’t be home that night to fit in his usual run, he laced up the only pair of shoes he had brought—a worn out pair of Vans—and ventured into the gale.

“As I was running around this resort in my ski clothes, I realized, I want to do other things,” Schroder says. “I am a runner, but I don’t just run. I want to ski all day and not have to run. I want to spend more time with my wife and son.”

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a man standing next to a body of water: Brian Schroder runs through City Park in Denver, Colorado © Matt Nager Brian Schroder runs through City Park in Denver, Colorado

Schroder’s 1,000-day streak began on December 31, 2016, but he started running in his 20’s as a way to stave off weight gain. It wasn’t long before he became consumed with the sport. He embraced trail running and 50Ks in his 30’s, but after he and his wife welcomed their first child just before he turned 40, he wanted to bring consistency and structure to his running without sacrificing results. He decided to try a run streak.

But just two months into the streak, in February 2017, Schroder developed Achilles tendinitis. He went to a physical therapist for treatment, but didn’t stop running. Sometimes, Schroder even ran to and from PT to fit in his daily 5K. In April of that year, he ran a half marathon in 1:59, and by May, he thought he had fully recovered. The rest of the year, he started piling on miles, upping his pace, and competing in longer and longer races, including multiple 50Ks. His goal for 2018: a BQ.

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Schroder decided the 2018 Colfax Marathon would be his Boston qualifier, but a few weeks before the race, he started to develop plantar fasciitis. On race day, he was on track for Boston through seven miles when a plantar flare-up wrecked his pace. He finished in 3:42:56 instead of his 3:20 goal, but he still had the streak. Schroder ran the day after Colfax, “slowly and painfully, with sort of a limp,” he says.

a man looking at the camera: brian schroder © Matt Nager brian schroder

A return visit to his physical therapist after Colfax confirmed the plantar fasciitis, but Schroder was hoping to hear he could recover from the injury without putting his feet up. Could he at least jog his daily run? “I told my PT I’d feel really bad if I missed a day,” he says. “He’d be exasperated, telling me ‘You really should rest.’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t. My leg isn’t falling off, right?’”

Schroder’s PT didn’t say no to more daily runs, but did explain to Schroder he would be aggravating his symptoms and prolonging his recovery. Schroder kept running. Sometimes he’d go out at 1:00 in the morning, or when he was sick, or in the middle of a storm. He says the streak brought friction into his marriage, cut into the time he spent with his 2-year-old, and encroached upon vacations and other family events. “I just had to get my run in,” he says. “I’d run through anything.”

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Running Through the Shame

For many runners, feeling guilty about the possibility of missing a run is enough to make us weather almost anything to log the miles.

Guilt and shame attach themselves to things we find important, says Mitchell Greene, PhD, sport psychologist at Greenepsych Clinical & Sport Psychology in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Once we assign value to something, guilt—the discomfort we feel when we think we’ve failed to meet an obligation—manifests if we behave in a way that doesn’t reflect that value. If you miss a run, you might feel like “you broke from your values or what is important to you,” says Dr. Greene. “It can be hard to give yourself permission to [take those breaks].”

You might have experienced this tension inside a run streak, training plan, or quest for a PR. It can dictate your emotional life, whether you missed a run by choice or because of circumstances outside your control, like an injury or unsafe running conditions.

One word often associated with guilt is “should,” says Justin Ross, PsyD, clinical sport psychologist in Denver, Colorado. “‘Should’ is a cognitive catalyst for internal scrutiny,” he explains. “It targets your identity, and that can set you up for an emotional rollercoaster.”

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Schroder’s identity was rooted in his run streak. “People in the running community are always talking about ‘what’s next,’” he says. “Whenever I meet other runners, it’s always, ‘Hey, when’s your next race? What are you training for?’ With my streak, I felt like I was embracing that identity.”

a person wearing a costume: brian schroder © Matt Nager brian schroder

Jonathan Levitt is a sub 3-hour marathon runner, but in January of this year, doctors told the 29-year-old sales manager and For the Long Run podcast host to delay his BQ training plan due to grade 1 bilateral bone stress of his tibias. Levitt had been running six days per week. After his diagnosis, he was told to take a month off. “I used to be allergic to rest days,” he says. “I thought taking a day or two off was the worst thing possible.”

Ross says this way of defining yourself can lead to feelings of self-betrayal, questions like: If I don’t run, who am I? “It’s shaky ground if you only feel worthy if you hit certain benchmarks,” he says. “Runners attach meaning to attaining numbers. It proves you’re good enough.”

The Personality of ‘The Runner’

Sport psychologists speculate runners in general share personality traits that make us more prone to motivation through shame or embarrassment.

“Runners tend to be persistent, type-A grinders, so rather than feel resignation [to a setback], they may feel guilty instead. Giving up isn’t a quality that often defines runner-types,” says Dr. Greene.

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Adds Ross: “Dedication and commitment are the most important factors for improving in sport. Runners typically aren’t lacking in those departments. We tend to be highly driven and ambitious people.”

These values can be incredible strengths, says Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, certified through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Kerulis explains high achievers often have precise, individualized strategies that have helped them attain success—strict schedules or routines. “These leave little wiggle room for unexpected interruptions,” she says.

Feeling stress over such an interruption might be an indicator of exceptional focus and perseverance, which can inspire runners to stay on track despite a setback. On the other hand, Kerulis says, when fear of failure is our primary motivator, it can be difficult for us to acknowledge success. That’s when rational anxiety about an injury, for example, becomes runner’s guilt. We think we’ve failed if we haven’t “powered through” a health problem that should be giving us permission to rest.

Ross says runners tend to be all-or-nothing about their regimens and routines, which can create a snowball effect for our anxiety. If we don’t hit all our benchmarks right on schedule, we’ve failed. “Deviation in the slightest can spiral into a sense that they are not successful,” he says.

Finding Freedom in Recovery

Jonathan Levitt redefined success for himself during his forced hiatus from marathon training. He shifted his benchmarks from enviable mileage to enviable rest. On his Instagram account @restdaybrags, he posts aspirational photos of killer days off, including rest-day foods like pizza, rest-day activities like Mario Kart, and anyone he spots napping.

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“Connecting with other athletes who share a similar struggle with rest has helped a ton,” Levitt says. He was able to adjust to sitting out after opening up to his friends about his difficulties. He encourages runners to use #restdaybrags on social media to normalize off days. “Seeing all the rest-day brags has been amazing. A lot of people thought they were alone in that struggle.”

Levitt also took his struggle to his coach, who he says has him write reminders to celebrate small-scale victories in his training log, instead of just major benchmarks. ”The affirmation makes the highs balance out the lows,” Levitt says. “Reflecting on mine and others’ speed bumps has helped me understand it’s part of the journey of a runner. I’ve learned to accept that, and have gratitude for when things are good.”

a man wearing a blue shirt: brian schroder © Matt Nager brian schroder

On September 26, 2019—Day 1,000—Schroder ended his 5K run streak. In the months leading up to the finish, he had been consulting with his sport psychologist (Dr. Ross) about how to find more balance with his running and how to deal with the end of his streak.

Dr. Ross had Schroder focus on what his body needed from a run—the exertion and effort—rather than reaching a milestone. “Runners can insert any arbitrary number into our training plans to make our minds feel satisfied—like running 30 miles in a week,” Ross says. “But then you’ll feel dissatisfied when you only log 29.6 miles, even if your body probably got exactly what it needed from that week of training. Reframing your thoughts by asking yourself, ‘did my body get what it needed?’ can help stave off guilt.”

Schroder says this framework changed how he viewed his runs. Today, he says he only runs 3 to 4 times per week, sometimes doing yoga or spin classes to change things up.

“I realize now the streak was the one positive thing I focused on during some low points in my life,” he says. “It was the one thing I knew I was doing well in, and making progress I could measure. But it was also mentally exhausting. Ending it felt like a great weight had been lifted. I feel healthier. I realize my reason to live isn’t to go out and run.” He laughs. “And it’s good to have a day where you can just get a walk in then go watch Netflix.”

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Support For Next Steps

You shouldn’t battle the tensions of your training ups and downs alone. Kerulis recommends struggling runners seek professional help, but barring that, don’t shy away from family, friends, or running communities.

“Specialized counselors can help runners explore why they experience shame and embarrassment,” says Kerulis. “Those feelings might be present in other areas of life, so examining them can help runners feel relief in multiple ways. And though runners might hesitate to talk about their less-than-ideal running situations with others, doing so helps normalize these common feelings among runners.”

Kerulis also suggests that making room for flexibility in your training provides an opportunity to let go of missed runs. Instead of beating yourself up for missing a training run after a four-day run streak, reframe the moment as a success—you ran four times in five days!

a man throwing a frisbee in a park: brian schroder © Matt Nager brian schroder

A simple way to become flexible is to actually plan for setbacks. Make room in your training schedule for injuries, work responsibilities, family responsibilities, and time off. “Realistically, life happens,” Kerulis says. “Acknowledging that setbacks are common among runners of all levels will help ease the blow when they arrive.”

Dr. Greene adds: “You aren’t a robot. You will very likely miss training runs. I will encourage a client to think of guilt as an opportunity to reconnect to why they’re as dedicated to running as they are. It’s an opportune time for an honest self-appraisal.”

Kerulis says the old running adage of remembering your ‘why’ can be a powerful catalyst for self-forgiveness and grace. It recalls what inspires you about setting goals, working hard, and achieving them. It keeps you focused on the destination rather than the speed bumps of the journey.

“Your ‘whys’ can serve as your North Star,” Kerulis says. “They will help you re-center and find your inspiration when you feel lost.”

That was part of Levitt’s process—seeing all his highs and lows as part of being a runner. If running is your life, you can’t expect it all to be a success. There will be disappointments. That’s alright. “I’ve gone from being focused on short term gains to being focused on long term gains,” Levitt says. “I'd rather take a couple more days off now to be stronger later this year. I’ve changed. I now see the bigger picture of improving over the long run.”

Goals tied to run streaks or PRs change with circumstances. They’re always subject to setbacks. But goals tied to longevity last a lifetime of running, and when you take a rest day with that in mind, you’re actually not stagnant. You’re making progress.

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