The Dark Side of Fitness

Inside the often unfortunate, sometimes weird, and occasionally gruesome drawbacks of fitness fanaticism.

April 2016

—Photography by Tom Speruto

The Athlete's Downfall

The folly of placing the fittest and fastest on pedestals. 

In Colorado, we’re all athletes in the making. It doesn’t matter if you’re uncoordinated or can’t complete a two-mile jog. The notion of fitness permeates life in the Centennial State to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to escape. It matters not whether you were born here or moved here later in life; eventually, the not-so-subliminal messaging—that your inner athlete is just waiting for her chance to shine—gets through. Then, somewhat inexplicably, you find yourself thinking ridiculous thoughts like, I should start going to CrossFit every day, or How bad could an Ironman really be? 

Yes, Centennial Staters admire those who eschew the couch for the trail, and we practically worship those who take their workouts a step further by running marathons or competing in triathlons. And why wouldn’t we? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week plus strengthening activities at least eight days a month. Not surprisingly, a hearty majority—an estimated 83 percent—of Colorado adults participate in some form of physical activity and do many things right when it comes to fitness.

But this is Colorado. We don’t stop at five kilometers. Instead, three-mile jogs morph into marathons and sprint-distance triathlons become Ironmans. And suddenly you’re no longer exercising for the health benefits; you’ve become what Dr. Iñigo San Millán, director of sports performance at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center, calls a “Colorado freak.” These are people—and their numbers are growing, according to organizations such as USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and Running USA—who not so long ago might’ve huffed and puffed their ways around Wash Park once a week but today could be considered borderline elite athletes. They train as hard as the best, and they compete in the most challenging events on Earth.

Here’s the catch: “Professional athletes have entourages to help them,” San Millán says. “The majority of Colorado freaks are doing this on their own, even if they happen to have a sponsor or two. They don’t know how to train, how to eat, how to recover, or how to balance their lives, and this brings issues to this population.”

“Issues” may be something of an understatement because the list of downsides that people are loathe to discuss is long and varied. Time. Money. The lure of performance enhancers. The fights with your spouse. The dangers of the backcountry. 

On top of all that, the human body simply isn’t equipped to withstand a 100-mile footrace or to repeatedly dead-lift a 600-pound tractor tire. “These people are writing checks their bodies can’t cash,” says Doug Jowdy, Ph.D., a Front Range sports psychologist. “There’s only so much a body can take.” And, Jowdy points out, the damage isn’t restricted to the physical. “People can become too attached to exercise because it gives them something they can’t get elsewhere. That can lead to emotional injury.”

In our fat-and-getting-fatter society, it’s difficult to comprehend how Coloradans’ outsize love of movement could be a bad thing, but there does come a point when more isn’t better. It’s in that murky space, where pain sometimes masquerades as pleasure and happiness hinges on getting in your next workout, that the dark side of fitness lurks. Here’s why.