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Has Your Love for Running Turned Into an Unhealthy Obsession?

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Do you live to run or run to live? How you answer that question may make the difference between a lifelong love of exercise and burnout, say Italian researchers. According to a new study of marathon runners, those who have a "harmonious passion" for running enjoy it more, have better health, and even perform better than those who have an "obsessive passion."

Science proves it: Not obsessing over training can make you a better, faster (and happier!) runner.

The study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, followed 696 marathon runners and found that those who are dedicated but not obsessed (i.e. "harmoniously passionate")—generally do better in races because they have a more positive attitude during training and handle raceday stress more effectively. On the other hand, obsessives were more likely to be injured, feel badly about themselves and feel worried or stressed out about the race; all things that led to worse performance, not to mention feeling less happy with their lives overall. (See the 5 Telltale Signs You're Exercising Too Much.)

Ultimately, running should enhance your life, not become your life, says Fabio Lucidi, Ph.D., a professor of sports psychology at Sapienza University of Rome and lead author of the paper. So how do you know if you've become unhealthily obsessed with your favorite sport? Ask yourself these five questions (and be honest with yourself about the answers!):

Where do you get your motivation?
The primary factor, Lucidi says, is how you're motivated. People who feel internally driven by a sense of joy or fun are more likely to run in a healthy way while those who are primarily motivated by external factors, like a fear of getting fat or a need to be the best, are at a higher risk for burnout and injuries. In addition, runners who focused primarily on the external awards of achievement, like medals or social recognition, were more likely to be obsessive.

Are you in control of your running or does your running control you?
Passionate runners have a strong desire to willingly engage in an activity and always feel like it is their choice to run, Lucidi says. Obsessive runners, on the other hand, often feel compelled to stick to their workout schedule, even when things like an illness or injury say they should rest. "They often ruminate excessively and fail to disengage from risky or unsuitable tasks," Lucidi says. Not only does this lead to overuse injuries like stress fractures, but it mentally brings you down too. Feeling like you have a choice is the key to wellbeing, Lucidi adds. (It pays to do less! Check out 9 Reasons to Skip Your Workout... Sometimes.)

Is running your top priority?
It shouldn't be, Lucidi says, noting that newbie runners often make this mistake. Exercise should be a priority in your life but it shouldn't be your first one, he explains, using the example of a student who ignores studying for exams or going out with friends to get her workout in. "To have an harmonious passion for running means to build a personal identity that allows one to maintain one's priorities and agenda while still considering running a central part of his or her life," he adds. In other words: It's all about balance.

Is being a "runner" your core identity?
Lots of us like to call ourselves runners—and have a drawer of race tees we wear everywhere to prove it—but while running can be an integral part of who you are, it shouldn't be all you are. Lucidi says that obsessive runners often suffer a decline in self-esteem and feel like they've lost their social status if they can't run for some reason. On the other side, harmonious runners feel like running is just a part of who they are and enjoy a wide range of other athletic and social activities.

Do you constantly feel rundown, angry, or sad?
One of the best benefits of exercise is its ability to reduce stress and make us feel better (hello, runner's high!), but if your workouts are constantly leaving you feeling numb, exhausted, or just relieved that they're over, then you might have crossed the line, according to the study. Overtraining is a real thing, Lucidi says, and one that obsessive runners are particularly prone to, making them feel like they need to "power through" any problems. "While obsession does ensure regular [exercise], it does not produce psychological gains and may even facilitate some deleterious effects, such as burnout and overtraining," he says, adding the goal is to enjoy your sport for a lifetime—something you can't do if it makes you feel awful.

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