What Would Another Mother Runner Do? Exercise Addiction

How many miles--and crunches--are too many?
How many miles--and crunches--are too many?


Around AMR, we have the occasional What Would Another Mother Runner Do? series, a collection of questions for collective input that are both serious (skipping a marathon you've trained for because you just don't want to do it) and humorous (bringing two left shoes to a triathlon). The next in the series falls into the more serious category: a BRF writing in about her BRF who seems to be overdoing it. (Note: Names have been changed.)

Here's the situation, told from a concerned BRF's eyes: Gina, my running partner, got a new job a few months back. She now gets up way before humans should: 4:30 a.m.. Some days she does a morning workout before leaving for work at 6 a.m., then she will do also a workout before bed, around 9 p.m. She works full time; has a 30-45 minute commute one way to work; is the mom of two kids in elementary school and after-school activities; and is married.

I'm worried she's burning herself out. I've noticed this pattern in her even before she had her new job. I have said something to her, but her response is something along the lines of, “I'm fine. I've got it under control.” I'm not sure what her goal is or what she's out to prove. She was telling me what she ran and what cross-training activities she did over the weekend, and I told her she needed to take a rest day or she would end up getting injured.

Her response was, “I know. I will take it easy.” But I can see her Strava account, and I know she isn’t. Since it's crummy winter weather outside and her schedule has changed, we don't do a lot of together workouts anymore. Read: my keeping her exercise in check isn't so easy right now.

Besides saying something to her husband, I'm not sure what else to do. I don't want her to get injured or hurt, but I don't want to nag her, either. I'm afraid she's burning the candle at both ends and it will end badly. I don't want to lose my BRF if I keep bringing it up, but she's getting out of control with her workouts.

I'm glad she's diligent about her health, but how much is too much? If she was your running buddy, what would you do?

Dimity says: First of all, I love your concern for her. That said, it sounds to me like she has a form of exercise addiction; like alcoholism and other addictive behaviors, the impetus for change has got to come from within—and chances are, you saying anything to her either will fall on deaf ears or, as you mentioned, sabotage your relationship. (I also think her exercising habit is likely one of the only forms of control she has in her hectic life, so, as weird as it sounds, it likely brings some fulfillment and calm to her perspective.) I wouldn't talk to her husband or her again in the near future. Instead, I'd keep the runs you do together as moderate as possible and keep an eye on her from afar. If it becomes too crazy, I'd consult a professional. My hope, though, is that this is just a phase and she'll find some balance in her life sooner than later.

Sarah says: As someone who had a borderline, if not full-blown, addiction to exercise when I was going through marital problems then life as a newly divorced woman, I feel for this woman. I like to think I would say something to her husband and maybe any mutual friends we had, as I think the people in her life need to band together to spur her to take action (or, rather, inaction). I also would tell her I was taking a break from exercising with her as I wouldn't want to be a party to her obsessive behavior. She needs to know her level of exercise (and lack of rest!) is troubling to those around her. It's a tough stance to take with a friend, but I think she'll eventually thank you.

Managing Editor Maureen says: I agree with Dimity in terms of control issues. This is probably one place she can hang on for dear life and feel like she is in charge of the output. I also agree with Sarah: You can't work out with her an enable her behavior. It sounds like she needs a plain old BF more than a BRF right now. Ask her if the two of you can meet for coffee or breakfast on one of those early mornings. Or meet her for one of those early-morning runs, but come with coffee in hand and ask to chill in the car and catch up. Rather than point out her Strava account, ask her about everything that's going on right now. She might be more likely to open up once she covers work, home life, and more.


Now it's time for you to chime in: What would you do? Have you struggled with a similar situation with a friend—or yourself?

21 responses to “What Would Another Mother Runner Do? Exercise Addiction

  1. I missed the part where you report she is unhappy. Implied, but gosh golly, are you sure she’s over doing it? If she stepped it back on exercise, she would still have family and work, right? The real stressors would still be there but sans healthy outlet. Some people, myself included, really thrive on early morning exercise and extremely full days. Balancing a new job on top of a family is a feat, for sure. My hat is off to her for keeping up on her physical and mental health by still doing when she probably needs and loves. Keep an eye out for ways you can reduce her stress or support her without making her feel pressure or guilt to give up a very healthy outlet. If and when she does burn out, and who doesn’t have times like that in life, be there to reaffirm how amazing she really is and to maybe scale back but keep the routine. A couple of years back I was this woman (new job, 3 kids, husband, etc) and I gave up my “exercise addiction” only to look back now and wish I had kept with it but made modifications if anything. Would have made all the difference.

  2. This is really hard. I have had exercise addiction in the past, so this scenario is slightly familiar, but it depends on how much/how long/how intense her workouts are. You say, “some days” she works out early, and some of those days also late. I think when rest days become nonexistent and workouts get more intense and longer, and when she absolutely cannot miss a workout – those are signs of a problem. Right now, you can voice your concern to her, but other than that just watch and listen. Offer for non-running meetings and talk. For me it was certainly a control issue, and slowly grew to take up more and more of my life. Now years later as a working mom, I would not classify myself as an exercise addict, but I still am very protective of my running/workouts and get up at 5am to make sure I can have my time.

  3. I have gone through a few “running/exercise” addiction periods in my life.. If left to my own I would probably exercise all the time….Not healthy for sure… I would be there as a friend and see if she needs anything from you as a friend. I also wouldn’t keep pointing it out to her because she could get very defensive. I would watch for other signs as injury or loss of serious wt. to see if other intervention might be needed.

  4. I get up at 4 and am out the door by 4:30 as I have to be at work by 7 after a 45 min. commute. If anyone ever says anything to me about my chosen lifestyle (as I love to train and race and win my AG!) I will have to say something not-so-nice back. I am NOT the lady counting “points” or calories at work. I am NOT the lady who is complaining about her thighs, her menopause or her tiredness…if it’s working for her, butt out.

  5. I agree this may represent an addiction, and like all addictions, the impetus to change must come from her. Continuing to give unwanted advice or involving her family/friends without her permission may well only alienate her, and isolation is the friend of addiction. I agree with Maureen that she needs a best friend now, not just a BRF. Be there as a sounding board and let her know you support her needs.

  6. i’m not sure what to say but i think you all were reading my mind. i need to break up with the activity tracker. i am obsessed with hitting the number and it’s not necessary! i have been told i might go overboard with my workouts, but working out keeps my mental health in check.

  7. I agree with Maureen. Be a friend! Sometimes just having someone sincerely ask how life is treating me is huge for my own spirit!

  8. My big question that I didn’t see answered is whether she’s taking any rest days at all. Her schedule looks like mine did when I was losing weight and training for a marathon. It was hard, but I felt soooo good and confident and productive (at home in my role as mom/wife and at work). But…I only did it for that six month training cycle. After that, life resumed more balanced.

  9. If she’s not harming those close to her, leave it alone. A lot of people get up that early for different reasons, and it’s her life!

  10. I think it is important to remember that everyone is an individual and what appears to be over-exercising to one person may be completely do-able by the next. She may be one of those people that thrives on less sleep. I, for one, need a solid 8 hours or I can’t do anything! I don’t see any reason to interfere but i do like the idea of checking in to see how she is doing. Maybe you could open up a conversation that supports both of you.

  11. One person’s idea of too much is not always the same as the next person’s. Based on the criteria you give, any woman with a normally busy life should be discouraged from training for any endurance sports; I know that for Ironman, I had 2 workouts a day most days, and half Ironmans, marathons, and other longer events are not a lot less in training. I agree with those who say her sports are her outlet. If she feels you are not supportive, you will probably see less of her. I also agree she needs one non-workout day, to stay healthy. Maybe if you get that coffee, you can help her brainstorm about her schedule and goals. I don’t think she sounds like she has a major problem other than she just needs to fine-tune the balance… like most of us.

  12. I disagree with a number of folks who have posted – this woman, from what little you have shared – sounds like she is stressed out or depressed. If she is working full time, has a commute such as this, is working out 2x a day and has two kids, she is sacrificing things because sadly, no woman can do it all. You can for a while but at some point things will fall apart. Can you either invite her for an easy going, moderate run and just try to chat? Coffee? I know plenty of focused women who train for iron distance triathlons but if you are concerned and asking for opinions, your gut is telling you something is off. See how the easy runs or maybe coffee go and see if she engages in terms of what else might be going on in her life. I would shy away from talking to her husband for now until you have more time to get a better sense as her friend. Clearly, you are concerned and that is a good thing. Good luck!

  13. I would certainly not talk to her husband for many of the reasons others have listed. I might offer coffee or possibly better, a run at a slower pace where chatting is possible. I have an acquaintance who did things like this. She was coming off an enormous weight loss and headed for divorce. Obviously there were and are a lot of complicated things in her life that I don’t begin to understand. Exercise addiction is a real thing, but it’s a lot better than many of the other ways people choose to deal with stress. What if she said: My life is bat-shit crazy and I”m constantly doing things for other people so I’m adding the extra workouts because I am training for Big Event X, which will bring me a lot of personal fulfillment? Would we see the above scenario differently? Should it matter? I think the most I would do here is say, hey, I bet you are really stressed and crazy and if you want to talk over coffee or an easy run, I”m always here for you. You’ve opened the door then – if she needs to, she’ll come in.

  14. It’s not clear to me from the letter, and perhaps it was edited for length, but I don’t see any examples of how this mother runner is harming herself or anyone else. My own DH had a schedule where he worked out at 430 am so he could get it done before work. Also due to his schedule, he had a chance to nap after work and before supper. There are lots of ways to arrange work, exercise and sleep- unless your friend is clearly harming herself or others, I would proceed with caution.

  15. The narrative doesn’t really strike me like an unhealthy level of overexercising. Yes, it is a lot, but I didn’t read that BRF was showing warning signs that this behavior was dangerous to her (major weight loss, haggard look). Something about this level of concern rubbed me the wrong way. If it were me, I’d make sure to take a very careful, honest internal review of why I felt compelled to interfere. But I identify with BRF. Sometimes your job, husband, and 4-year-old make you want to strangle them all and you just need a good sweat to clear your head.

  16. Unfortunately you really can’t do anything. You can’t control another personas behavior, even when you see how detrimental it is, or potentially is. It is hard to sit by and watch someone make choices that could hurt them, but the reality is, that is all you can do. You’ve shared your concern, and y can let her know you are available to her for any kind of support, but beyond that I am afraid you can’t do anything…and that is the hardest thing to do.

  17. I work out twice a day a few times a week but nothing more than an hour total and if I feel tired than I just take the rest. In response to your question I would talk to your friend and once you did that, the ball is in her court. I wouldn’t talk to her husband. If you were my friend whether you were doing it in good faith or not, I would be upset with you for bringing my husband into it. I feel that talking to him is out of bounds.

  18. As a mom, you need to find time for exercise when you can. When my son was young, well, when my son was home, I usually got up before work to exercise, and had a standing Wed night running date. I still get up at 4:30 to get stretching/ab work done before my 6am commute. For that matter, my husband gets up early to get some exercise time in before work.
    I guess I don’t necessarily see that she is being excessive. That “me” time is valuable, especially when there is chaos in your life. It also shows your kids that mom has a life too, and exercise is an important part of it.
    And I would never talk to her husband. I would be a good friend and share your concerns and then butt out.

  19. This sounds an awful lot like my BFR and at times myself. Sometimes the runs were simply a way to deal with life and no, I didn’t have control over anything else. But for my BFR, it is simply something she loves. She is up at 4 for a quick 30 minutes on the treadmill, then off to meet folks to run, then to the office, and then to the trainer. She thrives on this. I think the idea of meeting and then having a nice chat is excellent. Then you will know if it is the thrill of the run/exercise or if something is going on.

  20. I’d be very hesitant to say anything to her husband without knowing what’s going on there. Last year my husband and I went through a very, very rough few months and training for a 50k was a lovely excuse to get out of the house and away from him and clear my head and breathe. Long runs are hard, but were so much easier than what I was dealing with at home. It’s not a coincidence that I signed up for a second 50K later that summer, having realized that I really needed that excuse to be by myself in motion for a few hours every week, plus the shorter daily breaks. The only big problem was that my running–no matter how much or little–is always one of the first things to come under attack in rough times. Most of the time I’d make the mistake of trying to cut back or do it in ways that wouldn’t inconvenience him at all (i.e., he didn’t want to be the responsible adult in charge of his own children for a few hours on the weekend) but it didn’t help. He’d just find other things to criticize or would criticize “all the running” even if every mile I’d logged in the last month had been with the kids and at no inconvenience whatsoever to him. Last spring I decided I had nothing to lose if he was criticizing it anyhow, so I might as well go big. It certainly helped me be in a slightly better state to deal with the mess at home. If someone had told my husband they were concerned about me, he would have used it as more ammunition in his mile-long list of things he was criticizing. In her case, exercise might be the way she’s dealing with an impossible situation, at least temporarily. Coffee sounds like a great way to let her know you care; she may really need to talk. Talking to her husband may not be good if the stressor is her husband. And things may look just fine there: heaven knows that there are very few people who knew how bad things were last spring, and only four of them even lived in the same state as I do.

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