Sports Psychology and The Running Streak – Are We Addicted?

fitness drug

I appreciate that most of you have stumbled onto this blog by a freak accident of Google, but if you have managed to read more than one post you might be aware that I’ve been streaking….no not that kind, the Runner’s World Holiday Streak Kind.

It was an experiment. I was not the world’s greatest fan because as a training method they don’t really make much sense (for more info on that read here)

However I was quite interested how it would affect me mentally. So armed only with the notes section on my running app, and a half arsed understanding of psychology I set out to do a vague qualitative analysis.

Now I’m not going to claim this is in the LEAST bit scientific, after all, even I KNOW that a sample size of one isn’t exactly going to get me into the American/British Journal of Sports Medicine, (however the Daily Mail have offered me cash for the piece and a job as chief editor )

‘The Method’

I started on November 2nd and planned to run no more than 5 miles, no less than one mile everyday until New Years Day. However the deadline was extended to February 14th as I approached the end of the streak. The mileage limit was put in place to reduce my chance of injuries. My previous training regime extremely flexible but normally consisted of 3 runs a week, a 3 mile (speed), a 5-8 mile (usually trail) and a 10 mile plus.

I recorded mood in the form of a smiley face scale for each run, other feelings, any injuries as well as normal run data in a reliable running app for my mobile phone (Runtastic, it kicks Nike+’s butt)

The Theory 

My argument is that addictive behaviour can be seen in the formation and continuation of the running streak. I’ve put some actual observations at the bottom, if you can be bothered to read what I did and how I felt each month (probably not then).

I’ll shove in definition of what I mean by addiction. For example I’m addicted to cheese but its not currently an impact on anything other than my thighs so that’s NOT going to be the basis of a blog entry.

 

A repeated habit pattern that increases the risk of disease and/or associated personal and social problems. Addictive behaviours are often experienced subjectively as ‘loss of control’ – the behaviour contrives to occur despite volitional attempts to abstain or moderate use ‘ – (A.Textbook, 2013)

Now running is normally a lovely sport which decreases your risk of lots of nasties. However not taking a rest day increases your risk of injury and decreases your risk of a social life so I’d say I’m not stretching that too much.

 

The other factor according to this quote is lack of control. The original streak was supposed to run from November to Jan, but I added another month. At the time when I decided to extent the streak it was simply because I didn’t want to stop. I’m in an online running group and a few of us also encouraged each other to extend it. Social learning theorist (copying others and peer pressure) Zimbardo would have a field day with these online groups if they had been around when he was researching (if you are into psychology look up Stamford Prison Experiment, it’s messed up). His theories would no doubt stay that grouping a bunch of people together with similar interests in place where we can do what we want, enviably encourage us to encourage each other to greater extremes.

Now I LOVE my running group, I really do. They’ve been really supportive and awesome but lets just say I’m glad I’m in a they’re sports people and not gun nuts otherwise our ‘can do attitude’ might have gotten some people killed.

 

One of the main rewards is that I’m losing weight. I’m eating like a man and it’s STILL coming off!!!
But it’s a bit scary about what will happen when I go back to my normal routine. Will I gain weight? Will I go back to my normal routine or will the effort of the streak be too much and cause me to lose momentum? These are all questions which are causing me to consider extending the streak again, even though its not the best thing for my training. Even though I don’t want too.

I know that other streakers suffer these anxieties as well. For me this is the biggest sign that the run streak causes psychological dependency.

But lets look closer……..

The Six Criteria

 

Mark Griffith; some psychologist who spent a lot of time with gamblers, gamers and exercise addicts (sounds like a party) came up with six criteria, so see if you can see yourself.

 

1. Salience:

The behaviour becomes the most important thing to the person and they have it on their minds for much of the time. There’s no doubt that the run became the most prevalent thing on my mind, not only that but all the stuff that goes with it, the gear, the blog, the routine, training methods etc. The first thing in my head when I get asked to a social activity (especially during the week when I work as well) is how does this affect the daily run?

2. Mood modification

The addict gets a rush or buzz when engaged in the behaviour. The addict is also able to use their behaviour to bring about a mood change. Interestingly, the same chemical or behaviour can alter mood in different directions depending on time or setting.

Running brings about a buzz in two ways, the short term adrenaline buzz from the run itself. I can get these HARD. I mean actually bouncing off the pavement, seriously if only cool kids knew that instead of taking drugs and dying they could just take up running. It also gives a long term serotonin boost that improves mood and fights depression.

3. Tolerance

Basically the addict needs bigger and bigger hits to get the same effect as they did initially with smaller amounts. Risk-taking behaviour, for example, tends to get more extreme over time.Photos-Kylie-Minogue-Trainers-her-Handbag

As a streak runner I definitely became focused on increasing my monthly mileage. Part of this is due to the fact that a runner will plateau if they keep the effort the same, but our competitive nature doesn’t help the fact either. I’m not sure if I’d class crazy runner antics as ‘risk taking behaviour’ but I definitely got nuttier, running in pjs, normal clothes, around an airport, late at night, carrying my trainers around with me just in case.

4. Withdrawal symptoms

Changes in mood, shakes, irritability etc. as a result of cessation.  Applies to behavioural as well as chemical addiction. I know that exercise produces serotonin which produces a ‘chemical’ reward, and in truth I am a bit scared as to what will happen when I stop running everyday. Will I crave that boost? Will I slump mentally? We’ll see……

Conflict

The pursuit of short term pleasure can cause conflict with other; parents, spouse, friends and can also result in conflict within the person. I’ve had no arguments with others (probably because I’m single). But I can imagine this could hit couples with non-runners or with kids pretty hard. The sheer time commitment alone could cause tensions. I have noticed that I do talk about my streak A LOT and I sound like a bit of a pretentious twatt, to the point where I’m a bit surprised some of my friends haven’t hit me in the face with a baseball bat.

6. Relapse

A tendency to return to the behaviour, months or even years after an apparent ‘cure.’Again this is just as common with behavioural addiction as it is with chemical. Will I be able to stop or will I find some crappy excuse to return to the pattern?

Griffith reckons that you need all six of these to be classed as an addict, so we’ll see what happens on the 14th of February.

Approaches To Addiction And Streaking

 

There’s basically 4 theories to addiction

 

The Biological…………..we inherit addictive tendencies.

,The Social Learning……..we copy from those around us

The Behaviourist………develop addictions from a punishment and reward system (ie the buzz taking drugs encouraging usage, and the withdrawal systems discourage stopping)

The Cognitive……we kid ourselves that everything is okay and that we are in control (for example a gambling addict thinking they can place more bet to make back their losses)

I’ve seen patterns from their models in my observations of my behaviour over the last four months

Now when it comes to nature vs nuture I come down firmly on the side of nurture, however Sarafino (1990) found that children born of alcoholic parents were four times more likely than usual to develop drinking problems themselves. So if you’ve got an addictive personality, or if it runs in the family then a streak might be best avoided.

The Behaviourists give addiction the best go at an explanation. These are the guys that brought you Pavlov’s Dogs. Ring a bell, make a dog drool. I’d rather it fetched the remote control, but its a start.

Mowrer’s Model (A.Textbook)

Acquisition: Behaviour is acquired, usually this is through an association. This is known as classical conditioning, for example an association between a getting a pb and wearing your lucky pants. You learn to associate two unrelated things so that one does not occur without the other.
Social learning theory encourage the behaviour, such as being egged on by your running mates. This acts as vicarious reinforcement.

Maintenance:best explained by operant conditioning. An initial win or buzz acts as a powerful reward that makes the behaviour more likely in future. Also the punishment of withdrawal symptoms will also act to maintain future repetition. Such as fear of weight gain if you stop streaking, and the reward of being able to boast that you run everyday.

The Cognitive Approach states that we reason our way out of it, we create false logic to convince ourselves that it isn’t an issue. For example finding that one streaker blog who states its the best way of training and if you only keep at it, you’ll be running a sub 1.50 half marathon in no time and mentally clinging to that NO MATTER WHAT they experts say. Blaming your plantar fascitis on everything from hydration, to nutrition, but not lack of recovery time, no that would be crazy wouldn’t it. I’ll buy some inner soles instead.
OR changing your training goals to fit your streak pattern, ie going from a marathon runner to a 5K runner because that is about all its useful for.

“My Observations – Can You Spot My Crazy?

 

The First Month

 

I twisted my ankle early on (not running related) so my mileage for this month was pretty poor whilst it healed. I went from doing around 18 miles a week to around 9. However as much as I want to blame the ankle, in the first month there were simply a lot of days where I couldn’t be arsed and just did a mile to get it out of the way. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT.

 

Some quotes from the notes section of my app which I think sum up this month – These are real guys.

 

‘cut run short as wanted to get back in time for Hollyoaks’

 

‘Could have run faster but I REALLY needed a wee’

 

‘Ran in normal clothes wearing shoes and carrying a handbag, plus needed to pee. Literally had no time to run today’

 

‘Couldn’t be arsed to go any further. Need to remotivate myself. Legs felt fine’

no finish line-TP_RunnersWorld rwdaily

 

As you’ve probably gathered I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I was no longer bouncing along trails looking at squirrels, but going out just to get the miles done. The smiley faces were all at the lower end of the scale.

 

 

The Second Month.

 

As SOON as December hit something changed. My mileage increased to 15 miles per week however I was not doing any long runs because of fear of injury. I did get more concerned with times and monthly milage and I became more focused about planing run.

The crazy runner behaviour started to kick in here.

 

Things I found myself doing…………

 

-Taking my trainers and running shorts places ‘just in case’ I ended up running late at work or meeting friends and was forced to run on the way home.

-Running my mile around Stansted Airport, despite the fact I had been up 24 hours straight and felt like death.

-Getting invited on a girls night out, and my first thought was about my run.
-Planning Christmas Day…..you guessed it….around my run.

-Running at 11pm

I’m not going to bother putting the quotes up because they are pretty much all about how much hydration I’d had, carbs I’d eaten blah blah blah.

Physically I was starting to notice some GREAT changes. No matter what I ate over Christmas I was losing weight. Running more often was definitely better for my waist line, even if performance wise apart from gaining a little speed over the 5K it wasn’t doing much. However I was feeling like each run was a training montage from a 80s movie. Oh and apparently butchers don’t like it if you break in and punch meat, something about the Food Safety Act? I nearly doubled my monthly mileage on the month before, and in a quicker average miles per min. I getting some seriously major adrenaline rushes from my runs and flying high as a kite during my cool downs.rocky

 

I also found myself becoming that smug running idiot that everybody hates. ‘oh I’m doing the Runner’s World Holiday Streak, I can’t remember the last time IIIIIIII had a rest day (insert obnoxious laugher with followed by a nasally snort of derision) ‘

Nothing makes you feel like a bona fide runner like a run streak and I know talking about it makes me sound annoying, but it’s like an out of body experience, you float above yourself hearing these things, but you can’t stop them coming out of your mouth like word vomit. I think you get this a little bit the first time you run a marathon as well.

 

The Third Month

 

The Runner’s World Holiday Streak was supposed to be from U.S Thanks Giving to New Years Day , however I started a little early and when it came to an end I found myself not ready to quit. A couple of members of my online running group also were extremely into it, so we agreed to go on until Valentines Day.

For the three weeks I was still starring in my own celebrity reality running TV show…..then the bubble burst. A few little injury niggles such as a pulled intercostal (that’s a rib muscle for the newbies. Hurts like hell if someone makes you laugh, or sneeze or hey….breathe) crept in the effort I was putting in dropped substantially. By now, however the daily runs had become routine and I was going out without even thinking out it.

And yeah, I was still talking like a smug git. If you need proof of that, check the twitter account.

In week two the smiley faces began to drop again and by week 3 so had my mileage. Cumulative fatigue had set in and for the for the first time I was feeling bone tired.

Finishing month 3 was really tough. The last week I was miserable, tired and I wanted to stop. However despite this I pushed through to achieve an over all mileage greater than last month. I used my on-line running group to help me get out the door on the last couple of days of when I really wanted it to be over.

Now 

I’m 3 days into the final month, 11 days away from my proposed end date. I don’t feel as low as those last few days of month 3, but I’m ready for it to end…….and yet I’m once again considering another extension.

**UPDATE:

I didn’t make it until Valentines Day. 3 Days after this post I realised streaking when I actually wanted to stop was ridiculous. Over the last week my mileage had dropped quicker than One Direction in a rugby match.  So I’m back to normal training now. I managed 93 days of streaking and covered 182 miles.  

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to Sports Psychology and The Running Streak – Are We Addicted?

  1. TartanJogger says:

    Oh, my. Interesting stuff. I did 5×50 last year, then continued with normal training- no addiction, no continuation; the thought never crossed my mind! I’m signed up again for this year, I wonder if it’ll affect me any differently this time around?

  2. Pingback: Rules for the Running Streak | The Improbable Runner

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