Thursday, March 17, 2011

I can stop anytime I want...

[written as the St. Patricks Day drunken revelers loudly carouse outside my front door]

My boyfriend/sig other/better half/love-o-my-life is a smoker.   Many people (especially running friends) are surprised by our relationship and the apparent contrast.  How, they ask me, can someone as "healthy" as me, date a smoker?

My answer is that I don't consider my running and supporting fitness activity a healthy endeavor; rather it's a compulsion that I indulge in on a daily basis.  I allow him his addictions without judgment or nagging, just as he allows me mine.

It's at this point that the conversation usually dies, sometimes with a nervous laugh if the others are fellow runners.  After all, everyone knows that runners are paragons of virtue and health, right?

I disagree.   It's not health, it's fitness, and there's a difference.


There's no doubt in my mind that in some ways I am less healthy now than I have been at other, more sedentary times in my life.  Sure, I can run decently fast for a decent period of time and lift decently heavy stuff.  My resting heart rate's in the basement, and my body fat's supposedly as low as I should let it get. So I'm fit.  But with that fitness comes physical therapy bills, podiatrist bills, orthopedist bills.  And the head cold I get every time I taper for a race, and the rundown feeling I associate with peak training weeks, and the bad cough I get after every hard workout.
And it's not something that we do because it's good for us; it's something that we do because it fulfills a need within us, even when it's not in our best interest.  Someone who smokes will huddle outside in all matter of foul weather for a cigarette; I find it hard to criticize the smoker when I'm running track workouts in 20 degree weather or a hard cold rain.  At least the smoker is out there for less time.


It's interesting to lurk on different runner blogs and fora, and read the comments.  I could post something like:

"felt really sick and my left shin hurts like a bitch and there was a lightning storm outside, but I got that run done and hit my 90 miles for the week" 

and my runner friends would respond:

"way to stay strong and tough it out"

"good week"

"wow for running in the storm!  So dedicated!"

We're hooked, and we enable each other.  We meet in groups to feed our addictions, anxious at first, and then calmer and more sociable as the endorphins flow like candy.

For competitive runners, coaches aren't so much drill sergeants as substance abuse counselors.  While the majority of the population may hire personal trainers or go to fitness classes to be pushed, we (generally after periods of injured-related frustration) hire coaches to talk us out of suspect training decisions, to tell us that we're running too fast.  To keep us from literally working ourselves past the point of health.


I have a group of friends/teammates that I meet regularly for pool-running sessions.  About a week ago, one of us didn't show.  She later explained that she had decided that she needed a day off, and noted in passing that sometimes it was much harder to ease back than to push.

We all knew exactly what she meant.  Didn't stop the rest of us, though.


  1. That's funny, because when non-runners ask me how I do it, I always say I have an addictive personality. I would most likely be addicted to something, this addiction just has a better outcome (for now). ;)

  2. Still struggling with the whole easing back thing but the running/exercise addiction fits in so well with my baking and cake addiction that I'm not going to fight against it too hard!

  3. Wonderful post. You make some good analogies here that explain things perfectly. On the other hand, I am highly annoyed by the folks who always say "running is bad for your knees", etc. And who use that as an excuse for their lack of physical activity. But the notion that fitness does not equal health really resonates with me. I, too, have an addictive personality and will sacrifice overall health and needed rest to get my runs in.

  4. You've pretty much nailed what I don't like about most people who run, and what I don't want to become. I'm just starting out (again) with the knowledge that the same thing happened with me and other hobbies. I still see it with other people who shared them. And I don't want to -- CAN'T -- go back to that.

  5. Agree to everything here. We are compulsive running/fitness addicts with the best enabler network possible. At least its not drugs, right?

  6. Wow, you're soooo dead on.

    I've had the same discussion with people regarding the whole "how can you date a smoker" thing and in a lot of ways, I *don't* see the difference. We're both doing or thing no matter what the weather or anything else; just because one is "healthier" doesn't mean it's better or worse.

    Now if you excuse me, I have to go run instead of eating lunch. Thinking about the good weather is making me antsy...

  7. My biggest criticism of Daily Mile and other training websites is that it allows us to fuel compulsions. I have to exercise a lot of maturity to not allow myself to be consumed by my competitive nature.

    Breaking my calcaneus in 2008 freed me from a lot of the compulsive behaviors I'd established during my high school and early college career. I was finally able to engage with a part of my running personality that had long been dormant - the part that asked, "Am I doing too much? Is this going to help me in the long run? Am I recovered from this hard effort?" It was the best thing to ever happen to my running. It looks like breaking your foot has been pretty positive for you, too.

    -Jess (formerly hbfs on Livejournal)

  8. There was a really good article on this topic last month in ESPN (I can't find the link). Thanks for writing about it!

  9. Great post. I am one of the FIRSTIES who came over to check out your blog (and glad I did.) The reason I chose FIRST is because it sort of forces you to limit your running to three days a week but you can still improve your speed.

  10. wow.. I think I'm the opposite end of the scale - I sometimes wish I could run this hard, e.g. sacrifice rest for a run, run workouts really hard, run really long runs, really high mileage, etc, because maybe it would have me achieve my running goals sooner; but I can't do any of that, because I instantly think of how I might get overtrained, injured etc... I shouldn't always worry about that...

    but even that aside, I just can't suffer too hard in training. I'm faster in races, I can't do my race paces in training workouts... I dunno, something about how I know it's a race and I should be able to suffer a bit for it, and maybe the people around me (I usually train alone) is what makes me faster in races.

    at least I do care about running enough that I never miss a day from my training unless I absolutely have to (and only to avoid injury). :) I go out in really bad weather too and everything, because I usually very much feel like running plus it's a nice feeling executing the training plan.

    1. Honestly, I think you're doing it absolutely right :) Holding back in your workouts, and then giving it all when it counts (on race day) is exactly how to do it. If you're racing better than your workouts indicate, you're doing something very right.

  11. In the ultrarunning world, we have lots of people who have to run every 50K (or more) on the calendar. Nowadays you can find one almost weekly. We call it FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).