If you’ve ever found yourself cranking up the speed on your treadmill to go faster than the redhead who stepped on beside you, you’re not alone. In a Shape.com poll of 500 women, 81 percent said they “compete” with the person on the cardio machine next to them occasionally or all the time.
It’s not a bad thing to unleash your show-no-mercy side at the gym or in spin class. “Competition can increase confidence, make us more aware of our strength, and improve our focus,” says Bhrett McCabe, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Birmingham, AL.
But being too cutthroat can be hazardous for your emotional and physical health. "Consistently tying your workouts to your outcome in relation to other exercisers can negatively affect your mood and set you up for injuries," says Justine Reel, Ph.D., associate professor of health promotion and education at the University of Utah. [Tweet this warning!]
And the line between intense and insane isn’t as obvious as mowing down a coworker so you place first in a Color Run. “If you notice you’re too focused on external validation such as working the hardest or running the fastest, it’s a sign that you may need to take a step back,” Reel says.
Other warning cues: Pushing beyond your limit (picking kettlebells in CrossFit based on what others choose versus what you can lift comfortably), letting the day’s workout determine your outlook for the whole day (feeling awesome if you out-burpee everyone at bootcamp or lame if you eke out the least of anyone), or finding a spin class to feel more stressful than stress-busting.
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Since many fitness classes are designed to bring out your competitive spirit, follow these five steps to be sure you keep things friendly and still reap all the benefits of your exercise.
1. Forget about time. The old “cover the display panel with a towel trick” always works well, McCabe says. Instead of obsessing over whether you'll finish your workout in 20 minutes, focus on how you feel. “You can still push yourself hard, but not tying effort to a specific time will keep your focus on the moment rather than results,” he says.
2. Know your limits. “I always tell clients they have to give 100 percent every time while realizing they aren’t always operating at 100 percent,” McCabe says. [Tweet this tip!] So say you mainlined five House of Cards episodes in a row and are operating on five hours of sleep. You may be going to the gym at 60-percent capacity, meaning that your best effort won’t be the same as it is on a well-rested day. Being aware of that and accepting it can stop you from being too hard on yourself, McCabe says.
3. Be the new kid in class. “Oftentimes people who’ve had histories of competition, such as high school and college athletes, have a hard time turning off that drive, especially in their former sport,” Reel says. If you were an all-star track or swim athlete, keep challenging yourself in those workouts, but switch things up by adding yoga, trampoline, or Zumba into the mix. “Focus on learning a new skill or being present,” Reel recommends. “That different way of thinking during a new workout can translate to the way you approach your usual routine.”
4. Own up to it. Instead of acting like it was no big deal to overtake your friend on a training run, let her know that she helps you give your all, McCabe suggests. Having an honest conversation about competition can stop it from simmering underneath the surface, which could lead to awkwardness off the track. If she’s cool with it, continue having your sprint contests. But if she’d rather keep your runs more low-key, respect her wishes and find another outlet—like a weekend 5k—to let your take-no-prisoners self shine.
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5. Make it official. If you’re a competitor, then compete—that means instead of secret contests on the elliptical, look up local teams where coaches can help you channel and guide your competitive instinct in a healthy manner. And if you still find yourself obsessed with your status at the gym, it may be a sign something else is going on in your life, in which case, talking to a professional can help, Reel says.