The Dark Side of Fitness

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

April 2016

—Photography by Tom Speruto

Because even the strong-willed bow to Facebook.

Along with the widespread inability to communicate using more than 140 characters and rising divorce rates, you can add “working out too much” to the long list of societal ills that can, in part, be blamed on the popularity of social media.

“Social media has taken endurance training to new heights,” says Brendan Trimboli, a Durango-based energy analyst who has competed in more than 30 ultramarathons since 2008. “It allows you to ask yourself if you’re less accomplished than that guy, if you’re doing less than that guy. I’m guilty of that—of trying to keep up.”

It doesn’t seem like something you should feel ashamed of—getting in an extra workout is usually a good thing—unless you’ve already asked your body to carry you 75 miles that week or you have an injury you should be nursing back to health. “Social media is hard; it prompts you, teases you,” says Durango’s Hannah Green, a 25-year-old distance runner who recently underwent surgery to repair a deep bone bruise to her knee. “And that’s especially difficult when you’re injured. You try to do things you shouldn’t do.” 

Because competitive athletes tend to be affirmation addicts.

We all like a pat on the back, but when you crave—even need—positive feedback, things can get messy.

“There’s definitely a personality type associated with competitive athletes, especially endurance athletes,” says sports psychologist Doug Jowdy. “These people are achievement-oriented but often have unrealistic expectations; they’re perfectionistic, very type A; they’re self-critical. And they compensate through exercise.”

Translation: The act of crossing a finish line or seeing improvement based on your Garmin’s data can serve as a booster shot of confidence.

“If you can transfer the skills you learn being an athlete—dealing with pressure, being goal-oriented—to other aspects of your life and gain confidence elsewhere, that’s ideal,” says Jamie Shapiro, Ph.D., assistant professor for the Master of Arts in Sport and Performance Psychology program at the University of Denver. “These folks need to learn to find self-worth from other areas of life.” Why? Because family, work, injuries, an aging body—you name it—will inevitably get in the way of your fitness routine. 

Because endorphins are habit-forming.

You’ve heard of “runner’s high”: that mythical place runners swear exists, where pain and suffering dissipate and exercise feels (almost) as good as sex. If you’ve never felt it, runner’s high might seem like a fairy tale—except science backs up its existence. Although questions persist about how it all works, neurochemicals (like endorphins) and neurotransmitters (like serotonin) produced in the brain as a result of stress can induce a pain-free euphoria and post-workout contentedness. Those feelings can be therapeutic—and highly addictive.

“I suffered from some depression in my early 20s,” says Paul Hamilton, 29, a sponsored Colorado ultrarunner who lives out of his truck during training season so he can be closer to the trails. “But I found extraordinary healing by running in nature.” Not only did Hamilton find that trail running served as a form of active meditation, but he was also almost certainly enjoying the effects of neurochemicals. “Endorphins are some of the best antidepressants out there,” says Dr. John Hill, a primary care sports medicine specialist at the University of Colorado Hospital. Which is all well and good—until an injury prevents you from getting your fix. Whether you’ve become addicted to the way neurochemicals make you feel or you use them to battle some form of mental anguish, going cold turkey can be agonizing. “People come to me bleeding emotionally,” Jowdy says. “They can’t get that reward and they feel empty, frustrated, and hopeless.”