Exercise Addiction: Chasing the Dopamine High

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Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham crawl to the finish line at the 1997 Ironman

In a day and age where extremes seem to be the norm, rarely do I find someone that I know personally that exercises moderately for their mental, physical, and spiritual well being. Just about everyone I have met in the climbing and mountaineering, road cycling, running, swimming, and XC ski communities tend to exercise or “train” at the extreme or sharp end of their chosen sport or recreational activity.

Keep in mind that the majority of the aforementioned are at least in their forties now and would be considered master-aged athletes. Some are incredibly gifted physically and appear to excel at their chosen sporting endeavor. The majority are just ordinary middle-of-the-road “pack filler”, yet they train and race in their age-group or skill level categories like they are world class athletes. They are addicted to exercise and the dopamine highs that come with it. Their stated reasons for participating in extreme endurance sport are varied, but if work and/or family responsibilities, injury, or illness prevent them from exercising daily, they are often miserable, anxious, and a bear to be around socially or otherwise. That dopamine high – the heightened sense of well-being and feeling alive rapidly diminishes. For many, depression is not far behind.

How did I come to recognize this in others? Because I am just as guilty as they are for chasing the proverbial dopamine-on-a-stick so prevalent in endurance sports today. Our sporting clubs are almost like destructive religious cults where we literally celebrate the extreme and those individuals that accomplish the extraordinary. Every ride, every run has to be of “epic” proportions to be worthy of our praise. The bar is set higher and higher and we move from marathon challenges into the realm of ultra marathon distances. If one has not gone on a four to five hour 100+ kilometre ride over the weekend, one’s efforts are not deemed worthy of attention, let alone celebration. This is borderline insanity and we have social media sites like Strava to prove it.

Over a period of many years, I have repeatedly asked medical doctors and other specialists how much exercise is necessary to maintain optimal physical and mental health. Invariably, their response is typically “about thirty minutes of moderate activity per day“. Keep in mind that several of these physicians are endurance athletes themselves and are just as addicted to the dopamine highs as the rest of us. Perhaps we need to heed the warnings of the medical community, and the studies of psychologists and psychiatrists about exercise addiction and the long-term consequences of abusing our bodies in our pursuit of exercise nirvana.

A number of months ago a friend suggested to me that I should consider participating in sport in a “manner that is suitable for my age“. At first I felt insulted and wondered if this was just another criticism from someone that may be living a rather sedentary lifestyle. It is that group that I am most concerned about, as the medical clinics and hospitals of our nation are filled with people who suffer from diseases that predominantly originate from inactive lifestyles and poor food choices and eating habits – the opposite extreme of exercise addiction.

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Walking – a healthy alternative to extreme endurance sport. © 2017. Bruce Kraus. All rights reserved.

The answer, of course, to the aforementioned dilemma is moderation in all things. If we want to be truly healthy in mind, body, and spirit, we need to make positive choices that will benefit us in the long term. It was the off-the-cuff remark of a friend that has caused me to re-evalute what it truly means to be healthy and to take positive steps to wean myself off of the pursuit of dopamine highs through extreme exercise. Addiction is addiction, no matter which way the ball curves. There is no such thing as a healthy addiction in the true sense of the word.

The extremes that we see in just about every aspect of life today reminds me of how broken humanity really is and how far removed we are from our Creator and His loving intentions for our lives. We really are living in an upside-down world.

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The Numbers Don’t Lie

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WKO4 Phenotype Report 2013-2017

After accumulating road cycling power training data over a five year period, the numbers don’t lie. I am now clearly a time trial specialist based on my phenotype. Outside of one anomaly, the 2014 calendar year, where I fit into the phenotype of an all-rounder, the data is pretty consistent.

Perhaps, I need to take this information more seriously and continue to emphasize training more specific to time trialling this year. In some ways this does not surprise me, as I have always been more able to pace myself in the 15km and 40km road cycling time trial distances. Of equal interest (at least to me) has been my natural ability to train and race well in the 15km and 30km cross country skiing distances in both classic and skating disciplines.

My recent experience last Tuesday at our regular group ride with members of the Regina Cycling Club confirmed this. I am at my best over a set middle distance when I can control my own pace rather than the pace being dictated by other riders. How this fits in to the variable group dynamics of road racing is a question yet to be answered.

It’s funny how our bodies change over time, as do our abilities to excel at different aspects of road cycling. In my twenties and early thirties I was clearly a climber (70kg), based on a slight, but muscular body build. As I got older, I continued to gain muscular body weight (85kg) and ended up being more talented as an all-rounder cyclist. Today, in my late 50’s, I am even heavier (103kg) and struggle to keep the body fat to muscle ratio down, yet tend to be at my best in time trials now.

Go with the flow is my motto today. There is no point in trying to do battle in the realm of road racing in the area(s) of our weaknesses. Granted, one should continue to train their weaknesses (i.e. climbing) but focus their time and attention at what they are better at (i.e. time trialling).

The good news is that our cycling club has four time trials planned for the season and a few shorter criteriums and sprints that might better suit my morphology and phenotype.

The lesson one can learn from my own experience is that the process of aging and bodily changes do not necessarily have to hold us back from the sports we love. As human beings we are highly adaptable to change.

Where there is a will, there is a way 🙂

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Men in Tights

Sometimes we just need to learn to relax and laugh a little. As an almost neurotically obsessive Cross Country Skier and Cyclist, I often have to laugh at the funny way one dresses for these two demanding aerobic sports. The norm is snug fitting jerseys and tights. Why, you may ask? Comfort, aerodynamics, freedom of movement, style, and other general freakiness.

When I first crawled into a very snug, form fitting pair of tights for sport, so many years ago, I was quite self-conscious of all my form being displayed for the world to see.

Now, some thirty years later, I just don’t care about what other people think. If you don’t like it – don’t look 😉

If one slows down for a minute, and thinks about how ridiculous pro football, hockey, and baseball players look in their not-so-modern costumes of yesteryear, you understand where I am going with this. What about those funky oversized shorts and tanks that pro basketball players wear? Are they that short of decent tailors in the US that they cannot find something to fit these guys?

Seriously, these dudes need to take a trip overseas to London’s Saville Row and let the experts tailor their goofy b-ball outfits.

The costumes we put on to fit in with our sporting cults is laughable. So why get hung up about it?

#NordicSport

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