The Confusion With Exercise Addiction, Overtraining, and RED-S in Cyclists and Endurance Athletes

An unhealthy relationship with exercise can lead to addiction and have a disastrous effect on your well-being, relationships, and cycling performance.

Incorrigible, unfun, and obsessed were a few of the words used, but the one that hit me hardest was “addicted.” I take my bike with me on family vacations, always did and always will. I meant the flippant account of how it goes when my bike carrier becomes essential luggage more of a “How to” than a “Why?”

 

The comments following the ZOM article entitled “A Virtual Cyclist Reluctantly Takes a Vacation” took an unexpected turn. The anticipated positive reaction to my dedication became an indictment of my perceived compulsion at my family’s expense. Was I addicted to exercise, perhaps?

road beneath a tunnel of trees
Photo credit Alison Jane Visual Perception @alifairleybehindtheglass

Obsessed With Exercise and Proud of It

I quickly responded to the comments with the only thing that came to mind. “I’m addicted to exercise and proud of it!” I can say that now because I’ve acknowledged the tendency and worked through its challenges—it wasn’t easy, and it took a while. It is now a healthy addiction, but it wasn’t always that way.

 

Cyclists are notorious for grasping the “no rest days” mantra and riding away with it. If some is good, then more is better, and you can’t do more if you’re not doing anything. If you can do more, then you can do more than that. Does any of this sound familiar?

 

At the time it was happening, it wasn’t apparent to me either. The drive to improve my performance clouded my judgment. A tunnel-vision focus on the goal made it impossible to see how poor diet and exercise choices affected my body, mood, and relationships.

cartoon image of brain with lock and chain

A Healthy Addiction, That Is

Cycling became an unhealthy addiction. My behavior bordered on obsession and compulsion, and the reliance on extreme activity caused dysfunction in my life. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer that person. I know I wasn’t alone.

 

Studies suggest that 7% of regular exercisers are at risk of exercise addiction. I don’t know for sure, but I’d venture to guess that the prevalence is higher for cyclists. A 2011 paper published in the Journal of Environmental Research of Public Health estimates 48% of individuals suffering from eating disorders have an exercise compulsion.

 

The signs are tough to see from the inside looking out and even harder to accept. When the need to exercise damages your health, wellbeing, and social life, it’s time to ask yourself a question. Am I in control, or is cycling in control of me?

 

Out-of-control exercise behaviors can manifest in many ways. Cycling at the limit for too long without adequate recovery can lead to the two most feared words an endurance athlete can hear—Overtraining Syndrome. The ill-defined and poorly understood condition makes identifying the signs even more challenging.

rest spelled out in scrabble tiles

Scientists Uncover Similarities Between Overtraining and Nutrition

2021 study published in Sports Medicine contends that athletes aren’t the only ones confused. Coaches, fitness professionals, and exercise and nutrition scientists are too. The belief is that some athletes exhibiting symptoms of overtraining aren’t training too much. Instead, they’re not eating enough to fuel their training properly.

 

Accumulated fatigue is a fact of life for the performance-driven cyclist. Overreaching is another fact of intense training, and cyclists are willing to sacrifice a temporary performance decline for long-term gains. When the fatigue worsens along with performance despite easing up, that’s when it’s time to think about overtraining.

 

Unfortunately, there are no set diagnostic criteria for overtraining syndrome. Fitness and health professionals use the method of exclusion. If an athlete’s performance and health are on a long-term decline and there is no other definitive medical reason, overtraining is the explanation.

RED-S Confused With Overtraining in Endurance Athletes

According to the researchers, a critical exclusionary factor’s cause and effect relationship adds to the diagnostic challenge and confusion. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) describes the pattern of low energy availability an athlete experiences when nutritional intake doesn’t match exercise expenditure over time.

 

The athlete will suffer persistent fatigue, be at greater risk of stress fracture and other overuse injuries, and have extreme weight loss and elevated stress response, like a high resting heart rate and menstrual cycle disruption. At issue is that the typical symptoms of RED-S and overtraining are often too similar to separate, sending athletes and their coaches in the wrong direction.

Exercise Metabolism scientist Adam Upshaw, Ph.D., gives an in-depth discussion of RED-S in his ZOM article entitled “Are We Cycling Our Way to Illness?

What’s more, your appetite doesn’t always reflect your total caloric need when training hard. A cyclist may be missing out on necessary calories without knowing, and it has a devastating performance effect. It further substantiates the thinking that many of the adverse outcomes of overtraining may result from misdiagnosed under-fueling—low energy and inadequate carbohydrate availability.  

Recreational Amateur Athletes Are at Risk

Overtraining and RED-S are not only for elite athletes to consider. Recreational and amateur cyclists like you and me may have a lower bar. The heightened demands of family, work, and travel on the endurance athlete causes excess stress and a tendency to neglect rest and proper fueling. What is the average cyclist to do?

 

First, be aware of the possible symptoms of unhealthy exercise addiction. A 2010 study published in Psychology & Health defines the symptoms as follows:

Tolerance:

An increased amount of exercise is required to achieve the desired effect, like training euphoria or a sense of satisfaction.

Withdrawal:

Athletes experience anxiety, irritability, restlessness, and sleep problems when they can’t exercise as much or often as they want.

Lack of control:

The athlete cannot ease up or stop exercising for a certain period despite the intention to do so.

Intention effects:

The athlete cannot stick to the training plan and frequently exceeds the intended amount.

Time:

An athlete spends excessive time preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise.

Reduction:

The athlete decreases or ceases social, work, and recreational activities due to exercise.

Continuance:

The athlete will continue to exercise despite knowing that this activity worsens physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems.

handcuffs released

Conclusion

The first step is to realize that the tendency to overdo-it exists and commit to altering your unhealthy behavior. By educating yourself on the warning signs of under-fueling, you can catch it before it develops into something worse. If your training is inconsistent, you have pangs of hunger periodically throughout the day, you experience mood swings and irritability, sleep quality is poor, and you lack focus, RED-S may be the cause.

Be honest with yourself, identify the signs of RED-S and overtraining, and make the proper nutrition and recovery decisions. Being a cyclist isn’t easy, especially when an amateur athlete with a family and a job. Make it a bit easier by doing the right thing for yourself.

Your Thoughts?

Have you recognized any of these tendencies in yourself and what did you do? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

Check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!

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Rosy Jacobsen
Rosy Jacobsen
1 month ago

Chris, thanks for this! Tricky but so important!

Rosy Jacobsen
Rosy Jacobsen
1 month ago

Is morning resting HR a good indicator of overtraining?

Charlie
Charlie
1 month ago

There’s a lot of good info in this. While chasing the round the world distance last year my weight dropped significantly from Sept to December and at 155lbs people were commenting on it. I did have that just finished an ultra marathon look. Now I cycle a similar level but float around the 164lbs. I love all the wrong foods occasionally but have addressed my diet and feel much fitter and stronger for it. People that see me now are still surprised with my weight loss but the Charlie they knew before would celebrate every single ride with several beers and have a belly to prove it. I guess sometimes you have to walk the path before you understand where you are heading and if needed, turn around.

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