Learning from the best: Kristin Armstrong

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong won three Olympic Gold medals in the Time Trial in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. After each Olympic Games she retired but came back 18 months before the next Olympics. Performance in Mind chatted to Kristin about her drive to keep coming back, the injuries that nearly scuppered her chances and how she now finally has closure.

Why did you retire the first time round?

The first time around I stopped because I wanted I wanted to have a family and I was 37 years old and I thought if I wanted to have a family I should get on with it.  [she gave birth to son Lucas in October 2010).

Why did you return after having your son?

I was active during my pregnancy. That competitiveness never really went away. I could play games indoors with my family and I still want to win. So, I’m pregnant, I’m on my bike and I had a text message from my coach. I was three weeks before delivering and you are just hot and you are disgusting and sick and he text me and said ‘22 months – wouldn’t that be an amazing goal.’ I said ‘what are you talking about.’ He said ‘London’. I am so pregnant and said back ‘are you kidding me – you should see what I look like right now. There is no way I’ll ever be able to compete again’.

After you have your child you feel like your life is out of control. It takes you a few weeks to even think you want to go for a walk or do anything physically cause you are so tired. A few weeks went by and I’m like ok I get this and then once you think you’ve figured it all out your baby changes again. Then my coach hit me with it again and said what do you think?  I’m thinking I need a goal. Even if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a goal and I need to start training again. My only goal for the first three months was fitness, it was just about being active. And I was like oh my gosh this is amazing.

So once that transition happened I remember everything changed. When I did get on my bike I was in a hurry to get home because I had this mum anxiety – I felt like after an hour I had to be home and whenever I went out for a ride I’d never felt this before but I was always looking around. I felt like a car was going to hit me or there was this whole thing around now I am finally responsible for something that isn’t myself and it was a little bit scary actually. I announced I was coming back in November and by January I had a lot of regrets. I wanted to quit. I don’t know why I had made the decision because I just felt so guilty. I had a discussion with my friend and ‘how do you work full time and get through this because I feel so guilty’. She said you just have to embrace mum guilt cause it is never going to go away. I don’t care what you do, you will always have mum guilt. You just have make sure when you are at home be present and spend quality time with your child and be really present with them. You still have to go after what you do want to go after and it is a really great example for your child because you have to work hard. That conversation really helped me and coming back after having a child was very different cause I would travel with the team but instead of having massage after a race I would breastfeed my son because I was racing on the road at six months so before I stopped breastfeeding him. I had my pack and play and my stroller. I always prioritised that I was a mum first and a cyclist second and when I go to do public speaking engagements I talk about how everyone felt sorry for me being a mum and I learnt it became my strength, my balance. Because when I got home from a really bad training day, or a race, your child is there smiling. And Lucas is like I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, it never really mattered. So what it did was it kept me positive and it lifted me so those athletes who are completely embraced; they don’t work or volunteer; they don’t do anything else apart from their sport; if they have a bad day they dwell upon it and for me if I’ve had a bad day within two minutes of walking in the door I’m having a great day cause nothing matters but your child. Nothing. That was the cool power I had. Nothing really matters cause if cycling didn’t work out I had this amazing family. People who aren’t in that position, if cycling or sport doesn’t work out, they are stressed about what job they are going to have. The stress is enormous, so for me it felt like a secret weapon.

Why did you return for Rio?

I always got asked: ‘Why?’ You won Beijing. You won London. What more do you need in your life. Why would you even risk going after the pinnacle of sport and lose it’ (for they always say you are only as good as your last race) but in the moment that didn’t matter to me.

As a woman athlete you don’t make a lot of money, so I’ve always been an athlete that believed you have to prepare yourself for life after sport because any day you could be finished as an athlete. So I always used to work part time throughout my career and I was engaged in the communities I lived in. Prior to London I was working for a hospital here in the United States and right after I finished London I had a job offer from the hospital and I took it. I was so excited. Finally, normal life. I took the job and for the first year and a half I was in a position that challenged me every day and I could hardly come up for a breath. I had to have a couple of surgeries and after that my position changed within the health system and it got a little slower, I moved too quickly for the new department. My old department did it yesterday and my new department was like, let’s talk about it for a little while. I found that I wasn’t moving the dial I wasn’t reaching anything. I had a vision but I knew at the pace we were going I might not live to see the vision. And I knew in sport I’ve been trained, for every four years you are going to have some huge outcome and some little check marks along the way. I decided to start riding more. My old position my boss was so fast. My pace. Id be up super early and home late. I’m not saying that is healthy but for my personality and as a cyclist I’m so driven and competitive that as much as my mind thinks it would be nice to chill out and relax for a little while that is not who I am. So as much as I wasn’t being pushed enough. I didn’t feel like I was being stretched or challenged enough in life, relative to going to the Olympic games and what I realised was in the business world it is similar to the peloton in cycling you are surrounded by a lot of people who are still trying to find success in life and I found that while every day I was working I was in amongst individuals who had not yet found their success in life and they are always fighting for the credit and I’m like, I don’t really care about the credit. Let’s just do this. It can be your idea, lets go. I just wanted it done. Compared to this I realised being on my bike I found so much joy.

So I would go home and I would be thinking about what is a good answer about why am I doing this. I didn’t mind the question but on the flip side of the question I got ‘oh my god she’s a mum, she’s the flip side of 40, I can’t believe she is doing this. It is so selfish.’ So finally I just came out with ‘it is because I can. I’m healthy, I love to compete and I can still do it at a high level.’ I didn’t need to give any more answers.

I just felt I just need to ride my bike. I don’t mind the pain [she had had three hip procedures by this point]. I just need to ride my bike cause I’m going crazy now. So I started riding my bike. I went to my husband and said “I really miss having a goal. You know like marathon runners pick one of two goals in a year and they work full time. I’m not asking to quit my job or change our lives again but maybe if I chose nationals at the end of May that would be a good goal”

So, I trained for nationals and I win. And when you win nationals in America you qualify for Worlds. In all my years of competing, Worlds have never been in the United States. And it happens to be in Richmond, Virginia. So, I train and show up to Richmond and we have this deal. If I don’t get top three we are done. And I go to Richmond and I get fifth. But I say I am top American. I’m fifth, and I’m going back into athlete mode. I say to my husband ‘I’m fifth because I’m working full time. All it showed me is I’m trying to take short cuts and you know where short cuts take you – they never get you to the top. I’m working full time, I’m being a mum and I’m training half the time I was before and I got fifth.’

I came home from Richmond but by the second week of November I had spine surgery. I didn’t ride my bike again till January 1st 2016. Everyone around me was like ‘why are we going through this?’ But the more of a challenge in front of me, I just respond with more determination. So, January 1 I get on my bike and I train very very hard and I go very part time at my work. I go to Rio. I win. By barely anything, five seconds.

Do you have closure now?

How do you define closure? I don’t think you know what it is until you find it. So right now I’m coaching some of the top athletes in America, two of which I think can medal in Tokyo. That’s closure, I’m not coming back. I ride five days a week. I love riding my bike but the closure I have is that I can sit and love watching a race. I can coach somebody to become a gold medallist. Three years ago if someone had asked me if I was willing to coach somebody who could win a gold medal I don’t know if I was ready to pass it on. Now, as someone said last week, I can’t believe there is an international time trial in your home town that you are organising and you are not racing. Is that not tearing you apart?. I said ‘I have no desire’. And I define that as closure. I feel so fortunate. It is amazing. I love riding my bike but I have complete closure from competing. I’ve done everything. I have everything I have ever dreamed of in sport but it is a really cool feeling cause there is no unfinished business.

I can’t explain why closure didn’t come at two gold medals or after just going for London because after having a kid London was enough for me but it is hard to put my finger on why closure didn’t come and I had to keep going back other than the fact that I could do it and I had the drive. Someone did tell me is you are physically going to be able to do it as long as you want but once your mind goes and you don’t want to hurt every day and turn yourself inside out that is when you know you are done. To train for the Olympics or to be a professional cyclist your brain has to want to hurt every day.

I am starting to see with the athletes I coach it is not about whether they are going to do the physical workout, it is me saying ‘why don’t we work on hurting a little more today’. I have gotton more out of people I coach now because I’ve recognised that not everyone knows how to hurt. As a coach I’m trying to teach people how to hurt and it is ok.

Could the time out between each Olympics have helped you?

I always said my secret was my balance in being a mum but my other secret which I do laugh about is that each time I retired I gave my body a two year break. Think how hard it is to go inside out for four years, 365 days a year. It is incredibly tough on the mind and if we are saying the mind is what takes you to the top I also think back and for those last eight years I really only was on for four years because the other years I rode but it was not intervals or anything that killed my mind. It only helped my mind. And I recovered my body. For two years I was doing healthy exercise. I wonder what would it be like if endurance athletes did take an 18-24 month period where thy totally regrouped, refreshed and recovered and then went forward again. How much stronger would they be? I have always been intrigued by what did those breaks do for me.

 

Learn from the best: John Levison

JohnLevison1Endurance sport is tough on athletes; lots of training and preparation, a long day out at a race, needing to fuel properly and maintain consistent energy. Something I’d never thought about is about how all of this also relates to those putting on races; the people behind the scenes who direct, set up, marshall, referee, draft bust or time races for us. Chatting to John Levison really highlighted this and I felt learning from his routines, perspectives and knowledge could give us all a lot to chew on.

John is basically ‘Mr Triathlon’. He has been around triathlon for almost as long as the sport has existed. He not only runs Tri247.com – the website most UK (and probably other country too) athletes go to for news on the triathlon scene – but is regularly found at races as the go to race commentator. His knowledge is deep and having spent so long in the sport he knows the courses and athletes inside out.  I jumped at the chance to pick his brains and learn about what goes into commentating a race and what psychological traits he sees displayed prevalently within the most successful triathletes.

The triathletes you are usually interviewing or commentating on will have all prepared for their races. What sorts of preparation do you need to do for your commentating sessions?

In some ways, I would say there are lots of similarities to what the athletes themselves do. Firstly, the majority of the work if you like is not necessarily specific. Just as an athlete will have some events they are racing / targeting, the fitness and ability to do those comes from consistency of general training, month-on-month and year-year, which builds them the base and the fitness and strength to which they then fine tune / taper / specific prep for the requirements of that event.

Similarly, that my day ‘job’ if you like is following / reporting / writing / researching / interviewing and more within the triathlon world – and that I’ve also been around for a long time – gives you a pretty strong base of experience, knowledge and understanding to call upon when needed. To that, you then do your specific ‘homework’ – what is the course? How many laps? Who is racing? What happened last year(s)? Who has been in form this year? That type of thing. Depending on the type of race, I might contact an athlete, a coach, someone else within the triathlon world, just to get their thoughts, and hopefully that gives you a rounded view of what you are going to expect and might highlight something you hadn’t thought of. Just like an athlete though, simply doing lots of hours of prep immediately before with no base, probably won’t get you very far!

I always estimate that you probably only ever use about 10% of the information that you might have (or is probably tucked away in the triathlon archives of my brain somewhere!), but for me at least, just going through that process gives me more confidence that I’ll be ok on the day. The objective is to try and be ready and potentially use elements of that preparation – not to try and use every statistic, just because you happen to have it.

Just like many of the athletes, I’m reasonably confident that I could probably get away with doing less and ‘winging’ it so to speak on race day on the basis of all of that accumulated knowledge / experience – but that’s not something I try to test out, as I’m sure it would come back to haunt me!

I’m probably also quite fortunate that my memory for triathlon history (and as my wife will confirm, not a lot else!), is quite strong, so most of the time, there is usually a nugget or two of trivia or memory about an athlete or a race that might come in useful.

JohnLevison2Commentating on a triathlon sounds like it must be quite a feat of endurance – especially those with lots of waves so will last for hours – how do you pace yourself and stay focused?

It definitely can and does get physically and mentally tiring. On a bigger and/or longer event, you will typically be working with one of more other commentators, and you do have to take those breaks. Your natural inclination at something like an iron-distance event is that you want to be (and you probably think you can be…), ‘there’ all the time, but you just can’t.

If you get too physically tired, you just can’t keep the energy up in your voice which will show. You’ll also not be switched on mentally, so if you are trying to communicate for example on an Age-Group World Championship, and there are multiple waves in progress at the same time, having a clear head and being able to track what is happening in real time across multiple categories is – to me – really important. I want to be ready to potentially call an athlete down the finish line to be a British / European / World Champion and ideally be building up to that for the crowd (which will likely have friends / family / coaches there), and give them that moment and recognition as it happens – and ideally not 15 seconds after they have crossed the line, when that time has passed. Seeing the smile on someone’s face – and it may be the one and only time in their life they achieve it – when they can hear that they are being recognised and that quite possibly it’s the first moment that they know they have won a medal, is really special.

I’ve also now done several events over the years which will span 3/4/5 days of back-to-back work, like the Commonwealth Games / European Championships / Grand Final and the Nottingham-Leeds double-header this year. You also have to remember that you want your energy (and voice…) to get you through the entire competition, not just the end of the day. Triathlon does lend itself well to natural highs and lows (in terms of energy and excitement) during a race, so you’ll have natural excitement at the start / swim exit and transition / laps (if appropriate) as athletes pass, so there is opportunity there where you are naturally calmer and other times where you need that energy.

Do you get nervous commentating?

Weirdly, I can’t honestly say I’m nervous when speaking to a crowd even if there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands (Hyde Park in years past I’m guessing?), or indeed, for some of the online stuff I’ve done. Even that you don’t actually know what you are going to say / there’s no script / anything can happen.

I can only rationalise that as a) it’s a triathlon, b) I figure approaching 30 years of in-depth watching / studying / writing / researching means I’ve got some solid experience, history & understanding to call upon, and c) I arrive prepared!  Typically I may have only one piece of paper (number / athlete / country and a couple of bullet point / memory jogger notes), but have found that’s way more useful than a folder full of information that you will never, ever get to refer to in real time. I suspect I only ever use 5/10% of the ‘stats’ I know – but just going through the process provides that extra confidence, plus there can always be that random elite who appears out of nowhere!!!

I think I’ve also come to the conclusion, that what probably helps is that I genuinely ‘care’. Might sound a bit weird, but there are plenty of people (and commentators and other people in sport generally), for whom it is a ‘job’. That’s fine, I get that but for example I really was genuinely ‘in the moment’, and getting excited and trying to build up that finish to the women’s Age Group 70-74 race when I spotted with about 10 minutes to go that there was a realistic chance of a sprint finish. And I don’t even know the people involved !!!! Doing that isn’t difficult – but it is if you don’t have the passion to be looking ahead / working things out and trusting your instincts.

All things considered, I would much rather have a microphone and be talking to thousands of people than have to go into a room with 10 others and try and make small talk. That’s way more pressure and stress to me.

You have watched a lot of triathlons over the years. What traits have you seen in triathletes that you really admire? Are their traits that seem to be much more common in triathletes than other sports?

Triathletes, even the Pros, tend to be there because they truly love the sport. At the (very) top of the sport – a Gomez / Brownlee / Ryf / Duffy / Frodeno – the rewards can be significant financially, but that can only be part of the motivation. The sport is simply too hard in terms of the training requirement and competition, to do without passion. One way you can see that is randomly go to the results of say a World Junior Championships 15 or 20 years ago. Assuming you’ve been around a while, I bet you will recognise a significant number of those names from 17/18 years of age, still racing all those years later. A few may have become ‘big’ names, others not so, but there has to be internal motivation to keep doing it for all of those years that goes well beyond hoping to gain fame or riches.

I’d say that triathletes are also very resilient, perhaps stubborn, and seem to be able to bounce back from things that most would struggle hugely with. Of course, in recent months I think everyone has seen what Tim Don has come through with a broken neck, the Halo and then winning his first Pro race back. There are so many more though – look at Gill Fullen’s return from cancer and surgery, the winner of the Age-Group Champs (Overall) in Glasgow recently, Trish Deykin, suffers with MS, a former club mate of mine, Fiona Ford, got totally wiped out by a car and was told her sporting career was done… she subsequently made the podium at Kona. And that’s just three that spring to mind, there are so many others, Pro and Age-Group.

Triathletes also tend to be organised and dedicated – and not just those that are at the top of results lists. I’m also constantly amazed out how many doctors / medics / surgeons and the like manage to also be top performing triathletes! There is a saying along the lines of, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. That does seem to ring true in our sport. Most the British Age-Group athletes that you may see on the Kona podium multiple times, tend to be very busy professionals too.

JohnLevison3If you could put together an Ironman relay team of any triathlete in the world who would you pick for each leg and why?

That’s a tough one!

If we take men first, from a commentary viewpoint you take Harry Wiltshire – because it doesn’t matter how far away you are, you just look for his windmill left arm and you can confidently state exactly where he is. And to be honest, that’s typically at the front anyway!

The bike? Perhaps either Marino Vanhoenacker or Sebastian Kienle. I was in Klagenfurt when Marino broke the IRONMAN world record and I’ve followed his career quite closely. He races for one reason – to win. He has no interest in playing safe for a podium, it’s usually win or go home in an ambulance! I remember a quote he gave me in an interview, “I’ve definitely lost out on a lot of podium positions in my career which I might have gained by being a bit more conservative – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a race that I could have won.”

Sebastian is similar – races with such passion, and when he is in full flight, a sight to behold. I still remember when he caught and passed the lead group at a 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. He went past with such power that it was as if he was on a motorbike.

Run wise, well to absolutely guarantee yourself some killer quotes at the finish you go with Lionel Sanders! He’s got one of the worst ‘styles’ you’ll ever see, he looks permanently injured and as if he is limping – but he can push himself to deep, dark places – and stopwatch tells you he can run too. Being in Kona last year and actually feeling the conditions first hand, Patrick Lange finishing at sub–6 minute mile pace after almost eight hours is staggering too, while given his performances this year, I would like to squeeze Jan Frodeno into this team somehow too. So many options!

For the women, swim – Lucy Charles. No explanation necessary! For the bike, well I think right now we are seeing Daniela Ryf proving that she is absolutely the best female cyclist we have ever seen in the sport. If she can produce the all round race in Kona on a good day that she is capable of, her own course record will be smashed apart.

For the run, I pick Chrissie Wellington. Her final race in Kona was truly remarkable. She was a broken, physical mess coming into that race after her recent bike crash, yet at her ‘worst’ she had the mental strength and pain tolerance to still beat the best, and she did that on the run. She looked out of contention at T2, but in the first 100m of that run you could see that she was not ready to give up yet. It was a worthy way to call time on a wonderful career. I think we may have seen faster ‘runners’ than Chrissie, but would any of them beaten Mrs Wellington, head-to-head, when the chips were down?

What has been your favourite triathlon to commentate on?

Genuinely, I really don’t know if I could pick just one. While we generically might call it all ‘commentary’, exactly what you are doing, what you are talking about, who you are taking to, will depend upon the type of race, the length of race, where you are within that event, are you ‘on the ground’, the voice in the air, live broadcast etc.

A few that spring to mind:

European Games 2015, Baku, Azerbaijan – I can pretty confidently say I would never have been to Azerbaijan, had it not been for triathlon! That was a great week, working with a great team of people. The British men’s team (Benson, Bishop, Graves) produced perhaps the single best team performance I have ever seen. The domestique / pilot approach to racing has many critics, but on that day Tom and Phil gave absolutely everything they had and Gordon finished the race off in style, holding off their fast finishing Joao Silva. It was a staggering performance from the British team.

Outlaw Half 2017 – A month or so earlier I’d done a big interview with Gill Fullen (https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-features/interviews/gill-fullen-interview-cancer-strikes), a brilliant Age-Group athlete now in the 50-54 category who is just a legend of an athlete. Gill had recovered from cancer and major surgery that winter, but had kept it pretty secret from all but her closest family and friends. We’d spoken privately a few months earlier, as Gill found out that I’d had cancer myself some years previously, and I said that – when / if she was ready – I would be interested in doing an interview with her about it. That time came, and it turned into a long and detailed piece that I wanted to do ‘properly’, and I felt that Gill had really given me her trust and was very open, to someone that she didn’t really know that well. I got to know her better through that – and that interview was very widely read. So, when she then won – overall – the Outlaw Half a month later and I got to be the one explaining to the crowd who this was and calling her across the line – it was a special moment.

Glasgow 2014 & 2018 – Commonwealth Games and the recent European Championships, both wonderful events at Strathclyde Park. Great venue and both brilliantly organised. I’m a big fan of Nicola Spirig (who also won in Baku), and so it really is a pleasure to be able to just watch her at her best and be able to share that with the crowd. The Mixed Relay events at both were also brilliant. The battle for Silver and Bronze in 2014 between South Africa / Australia / Canada was epic, while last week just shows how close and unpredictable the relay format can be. I also really enjoy commentating on the Age-Group races too, and trying to give those and the athletes in them proper attention and focus. The team in Glasgow just did a brilliant job, they really did think about the Age-Group event and I’m pretty sure 800+ athletes will have left with a very positive experience of being part of Glasgow 2018.

I feel guilty not mentioning so many more! My first ever commentary was World Triathlon London in 2010 when Alistair Brownlee hit the wall with 200m to go and wobbled down the finish straight – that quite a start! The Club Relays at Nottingham is just a fabulous race and part of the fabric of the domestic season while doing some live stream broadcasts is a different buzz. I hope there are plenty more highlights to come in the future.

Athletes online: Research finds technology is fuelling exercise addiction

Twitter_Logo_WhiteOnBlueHeadline points:

  • My research has found that the risk of exercise addiction in ultra-endurance athletes (marathon runners, long distance cyclists, half / full Ironman triathletes) is 44.7%. This figure is higher than has previously been reported in other sports.
  • My research also found that endurance athletes using connected health technologies (such as fitness trackers) and social media in their training are increasing their risk of becoming addicted to exercise.
  • Athletes who use lots of technology and are at risk of exercise addiction are often using technology to seek out an online community to cope with the loneliness of their training. These online communities support athletes, but also facilitate them in extensively comparing themselves against other athletes which can cause them stress, increase injury risk, lower potential performance and reduce enjoyment in their sport.

New research I have just published has found that technologies which are often designed to help those with poor fitness to increase their exercise levels are also being used extensively by ultra-endurance athletes and the ‘stickiness’ of these tools is pushing some of them into exercise addiction. Those using a large number of technologies in their sport were found to have the highest risk of exercise addiction. There was a significant positive correlation between the level of use of fitness technology and risk of exercise addition. 4.6% of the variance in risk of exercise addiction could be explained by the level of use of fitness technology. While the strength of the link was not large it is important as fitness technologies, especially trackers and social media, are now used so much by athletes.

The same research found the level of ultra-endurance athletes who are at risk of becoming addicted to their sport is 44.7%. Across the key sports this breaks down into triathletes (46.1% risk), runners (44.3% risk) and cyclists (39.6% risk).

Exercise addiction usually begins as a beneficial activity but over time progresses to a state that is pathologically excessive. When the person uses exercise to modify their mood, requires increasingly higher doses, gets frustrated and angry at the thought of missing a session, sees physiological changes if they try to withdraw and then relapses when stopping, they risk losing self-control over their exercising. The tipping point is often when the compulsion to exercise is prioritised over other parts of the athlete’s lifestyle; harming their social relationships, work focus or family time and causing conflicts. It can have damaging effects such as injury, personal inconvenience, marital strain, interference with work or reduced time for other activities.

The research found the most commonly used technologies by ultra-endurance athletes were; GPS watches or trackers (92.2%), online trackers (84.3%) and Facebook (70.2%).

In my research I found that exercise addiction is a really under researched area, but one which is important for sports psychologists, coaches and athletes to know more about as it can cause such distress for athletes, and sometimes their families too. Diligence and focus is necessary in order to be a great endurance athlete but when we get too absorbed and inflexible around our training, particularly if we are intently tracking our data, we can lose sight of our real goals and cause ourselves harm.

The study saw that the high technology using, at risk of addiction athletes, were often using technology to seek out online communities to help them cope with the loneliness of their training. The in-depth interviews with these athletes found while they really valued these communities, the technologies also allow them to extensively compare themselves with other athletes. This comparison is causing them stress and pressure, increases their likelihood of getting injured, lowers their potential performance and reduces their love of their sport. A particular risk on relying on the online community for support comes when an athlete gets injured. It can increase the isolation they feel and prompt feelings of jealousy or despondency about what they cannot do. If they are training as a coping mechanism for other things (often stress or mental health issues) then not being able to train, and losing all support mechanisms at the same time, could exacerbate the original issues.

I also found that the gamification of some of these technologies, alongside personality traits which see athletes work incredibly diligently towards their sporting goals, means that they can get fixated by the data and have a strong adherence to using the tools. What was eye-opening in this study was that technologies like Strava or Garmin were driving some athletes to deviate from their own ‘real life’ goals. This reduced their chances of achieving success and, far worse, increased their risk of injury. The way these technologies allow athletes to compare their data to others can cause some to worry about what others think and is pushing them to question themselves or second guess their coaches or training plans. In some cases, the athletes reported this had caused them to become injured or to burnout. Others stopped them enjoying their sport and began to label themselves a failure.

Q&A:

Why do you only talk about ‘risk’ of exercise addiction rather than exercise addiction?

In studies like this we tend to assess risk of exercise addiction rather than diagnosed exercise addiction as an addiction needs to be diagnosed in a one to one situation directly with a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. It would be irresponsible to try to do this online. What we can do online however is identify if the indicators of exercise addiction are evident.

What can athletes who are worried they are addicted to their sport do to tackle this?

Athletes worried they may be too absorbed in their sport in a way that could be causing them harm should read the following statements and consider how many apply to them:

  • My exercise is incredibly important to me
  • I have increased the amount of training I do
  • I use exercise to improve my mood.
  • I struggle when I can’t exercise
  • I feel guilty when I can’t exercise
  • When I stop exercising for a while I always go back to it and often with more intensity
  • My sport gives my life a focus and I can feel aimless without it
  • Competing in my sport has caused conflict with friends, family or work.

If they recognise themselves in a significant number of these (particularly the point about causing conflict) then it would be beneficial to seek treatment. Currently CBT and motivational interviewing are the suggested routes to try.

What are the main risk factors for exercise addiction?

Previous research has found an athlete’s addiction risk increases:

  • When race distances get longer
  • When training hours increase
  • When the level of competitiveness rises
  • As athletes get older
  • If an athlete has a higher BMI
  • If an athlete has an eating disorder
  • When certain personality traits (narcissism, extroversion, conscientiousness, excitement-seeking, perfectionism and achievement striving) are strong

Who took part in the study?

  • 255 amateur endurance athletes (average age 41 but ranging from 19-70) completed an online survey in the summer of 2017.
  • Eight of these athletes who have a risk of addiction and use a lot of technology in their training were also interviewed in depth about how they use technology.
  • On average the participants:
    • Had been competing in their sport for 9 years and 3 months.
    • Train for 10 hours and 16 minutes a week.
    • Have a risk of exercise addiction of 22.74. The measure use gives scores from 6 – 30. Anyone scoring 24 or over is considered to be at risk.

What technologies are ultra-endurance athletes using?

The most commonly used technologies were:

  • GPS watch or tracker (92.2%)
  • Online tracker (84.3%)
  • Facebook (70.2%)
  • Twitter (39.6%)
  • Posting on a forum (35.3%)
  • Using an online training diary (34.5%)
  • Being in WhatsApp group (27.8%)
  • Listening to sports podcasts (18.4%)