Commitment to Distance Running: Coping Mechanism or Addiction?

By Leedy, M. Gail | Journal of Sport Behavior, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Commitment to Distance Running: Coping Mechanism or Addiction?


Leedy, M. Gail, Journal of Sport Behavior


Controversy exists regarding the psychological effects of distance running. While running has been used as an adjunctive treatment for depression and anxiety, it has also been characterized as a negative addiction. In the present study, anxiety and depression traits were measured for a heterogenous group of runners. These runners also provided information regarding their motivations for running and their training patterns. Those runners classified as Highly Committed had lower anxiety traits and depression traits than those classified as Recreational Runners. Regardless of their level of commitment, health and fitness concerns were the strongest motivators for training. These data provide evidence that strong dedication to distance running is associated with positive traits rather than with negative aspects of addiction.

Distance running, initially popularized as a means of achieving physical health (Fixx, 1977), has been promoted as an aid to maintaining or achieving mental health as well (Byrne & Byrne, 1993). According to Glasser (1976), running is the "hardest but surest way to positive addiction", assisting people in finding strength and power, and leading a fuller life (p. 100). The characterization of running as a positive addiction helped popularize the first "running boom" in the 1970's, spurring Carmack and Martens (1979) to develop a scale to quantify the concept of positive addiction.

The positive effects of aerobic exercise, such as running, have continued to be an important topic in the intervening years. Martinsen and Morgan (1997) conclude that, in spite of relatively few controlled studies, there is sufficient evidence to support exercise as an antidepressant for those persons who are clinically depressed or who have elevated depression scores. Running has been associated with decreased levels of depression, comparable to that seen with counseling (Greist, Klein, Eischens, Gurmam, & Morgan, 1979). "Running therapy" has even been utilized to promote cognitive processing, and non-verbal communication between client and therapist (Hays, 1994).

Similarly, Raglin (1997) concludes that acute vigorous exercise can reduce transient levels of anxiety, while chronic exercise programs reduce trait anxiety levels, or general disposition for anxiety. This reduction in anxiety, like that reported for depression, is most apparent in clinical populations or for those subjects with elevated anxiety levels prior to exercise. The specific effects of distance running on mood states in non-clinical populations have also been studied. Morris and Salmon (1994) determined that distance runners experience a decreased negative mood and an increased positive mood just after a run.

In contrast, chronic exercise regimes have been suggested to have a negative impact on mental health. Running in particular has been viewed as resulting in a "negative addiction", in that runners have been reported to use their running to help them cope with daily stresses, just as some people turn to drugs or alcohol (Conboy, 1994; Hailey & Bailey, 1982; Rudy & Estok, 1989; 1990).

Scales of negative addiction have been developed to measure the degree to which running dominates a person's life. Runners with higher scores on these scales have histories of running for more years and running longer distances than more moderate runners (Hailey & Bailey, 1982). Also, runners with higher negative addiction scores appear to have lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety, according to Rudy and Estok (1989).

As further evidence of running addiction, it has been argued that regular runners may experience withdrawal when they are unable to run (Morgan, 1979). Conboy (1994) reports that, while runners' scores on the Profile of Mood States (POMS) are quite positive overall, their mood states are more negative on non-running days than on running days. Longer-term withdrawal effects, following two weeks of enforced non-running, have also been reported. …

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Commitment to Distance Running: Coping Mechanism or Addiction?
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