When running becomes a dangerous obsession – Vanessa Alford

When I heard Vanessa’s story it resonated with me. I had just been reading about the effects of over training and was wondering if this was where I had ended up. I had a huge running year in 2014, and even with my major injury set back earlier in the year, I found myself burnt out and experiencing feelings of exhaustion and poor performance. Vanessa’s story is not uncommon, and although she is well-known in the running world I am sure that there are many, many women that go through this very situation and push themselves too far, going undiagnosed and leave themselves in a dangerous situation. I encourage you all to remember why you run, remember why you love it and fall in love with running and the happiness that it can bring you. Don’t fall into the dangerous trap that Vanessa did. Thanks so much Vanessa for sharing your story with us. I am sure it will speak into the hearts of many who read it. 

We all have one thing in common. We love running! We know it’s good for our health. We understand how good you feel great after a run, you’re more alert, you can concentrate better. But in excess, running can be detrimental to your health. I learnt this the hard way. I want to share my story with you to warn you of the potential consequences of over-training. And to reiterate how important our health is; it much more important than how we look or how fast we run.

I have always been very active. Growing up I played a lot of tennis and netball and I ran a few times a week. After graduating from university I moved to North Queensland. I was living by the beach, the weather was warm and I began to run more and more. By the end of that year I had run my first marathon. I did quite well, I enjoyed it and I became hungry for more. Within 2 years I had come 3rd at the Melbourne marathon and 2nd in Bangkok. I began to develop an identity as a marathon runner. I loved this new identity and wanted to do everything possible to maintain it. I increased the mileage and intensity of my runs. My rest days became scarce. I became addicted to the adrenalin rush you get with running and to the feeling of endorphins flooding my body. I craved it. I needed it and just like any addiction it got to the point where I no longer felt a high after a run but I felt an extreme low if I didn’t run. Before long I was pushing my body through gruelling workouts day after day and counting every calorie that went into my mouth in an effort to remain lean. Running was taking over my life.

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If I was invited to lunch or dinner, I accepted only if it didn’t interfere with my training schedule. If I was tired, I trained. I trained when f I felt unwell. I was often commended me on my discipline, unaware that my will and determination to complete every session was less to do with self-discipline and more a reflection of a dangerous obsession.’ (Fit Not Healthy p.69)

In my book, Fit NOT Healthy, I describe how my once healthy hobby quickly evolved into a dangerous obsession. How I became addicted to exercise, trained to excess and deprived my body of essential calories. I punished it with gruelling workouts day after day, ignoring warning signs to slow down and look after myself.

‘I began to feel fatigued, sore, and there were mornings when I woke up with my heart racing – all a result of overtraining. My motivation levels were dropping, too, but still I pushed on, determined not to give in, in total denial to the harm I was inflicting on myself. I trained every morning as missing a session would be to concede defeat. Each session my heart rate remained high as I pushed as hard as I could…There was no-one to tell me to stop. I finished sessions light-headed, my legs like jelly and struggling to support me – evidence that I had pushed my body to the limit. To the edge. It was a sign of success. Of self-worth. Of control.’ (Fit Not Healthy p.83)

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I continued down this path of self-destruction, aware that what I was doing was not healthy but so blinded by my obsession and controlled by an inner voice that dictated every part of my life. This voice inflicted immense guilt on me and told me I was lazy if I missed a day of exercise. It forced me to count every calorie that went into my mouth. After a while it made sure I had ‘earned’ the right to eat through exercise. My life began to revolve around calories – consuming less, expending more. It was emotionally exhausting. I hated that I felt guilty for eating a piece of chocolate cake. I would look at people eating cake and wonder how on earth they could do that if they hadn’t exercised first. I felt trapped. Fighting the inner voice became my biggest battle.

Giving in to the voice, I continued torturing my body with gruelling workouts and depriving it of the nutrients it needed. Not only did I choose to ignore warning signs that I was overtraining but I also refused to listen to doctors, other health care professionals, my parents, and my boyfriend, who all pleaded with me to slow down and look after myself. What did they know? They weren’t marathon runners!

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Eventually my body decided it could take no more. It told me enough was enough, inflicting on me a never-ending list of disturbing, horrible symptoms. The following four years were distressing and devastating for both me and my family as I visited endless doctors and spent thousands of dollars begging others to unravel the cause of my symptoms. I had never-ending medical tests, in search of an answer to my unexplained illness. The worst part was not knowing what was wrong, reading into every sign and symptom, turning to google and trying to self-diagnose, unaware of what the future held for me.

The turning point was when my husband and I decided we wanted to start a family. I knew that with my lifestyle, there was no way I could get pregnant and that deep down I hadn’t been fertile for years. So as I approached every training session, I approached the goal of getting pregnant with sheer determination. I set myself small goals to help me reach my ultimate goal. When I want something I want it now and when my goals and focus changed I was able to change my lifestyle dramatically. I went from exercising fourteen times per week to three and I increased my food intake significantly, including a lot more fat and carbohydrates. The inner voice still hung around and battling it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do psychologically. I put on six kilograms in less than three months and I was very lucky to fall pregnant a couple of months later. Around the same time my symptoms began to disappear.

I think a lot of people are surprised that someone who has a degree in Physiotherapy and a post graduate certificate in nutrition could do this to themselves. I must admit that sometimes I am shocked that I spent so long torturing and punishing my body. But at the same time I know that I was so controlled by my addiction and this inner voice that dictated every part of my life, that at the time it was impossible to escape. I knew that what I was doing was not healthy but I was so caught up in it all that I failed to see how detrimental it was to my health. And I certainly didn’t expect to pay such a price.

“If only I could have seen then what is so clear to me now, I would not have spent thousands of dollars trying to get to the bottom of my illness. But I was blinded by an obsession, controlled by a voice in my head and in denial that by continuing to deprive my body of energy, I was not giving it the best chance to heal. So I continued to search far and wide for an answer to my symptoms. An answer that would point the finger elsewhere; never at me.” (Fit Not Healthy p.140)

If someone who had once been in my position and who understood what was going on in my mind, had shared their experience of overtraining with me and had warned me of the likely consequences, perhaps I would have listened. And it would have saved me and my family from years of distress. That’s why I want to share my story, to warn others of the potential consequences of over-training and calorie deprivation and to reiterate how important our health is; much more important than how we look or how fast we run.

These days I exercise in moderation. I run to keep fit, I don’t punish my body and I fuel it correctly. I’m satisfied with just 30 or 40 minutes and it’s not the end of the world if I don’t run for a day or two. And I enjoy it more than ever before. I’m also happy with a walk. I have different priorities now. My two beautiful daughters truly have been a blessing as they have given me a balance in life. And I am so much happier. There will always be a part of me that is addicted to exercise. But these days I am able to manage my addiction and recognise warning signs that I may be overdoing it. If I do see such signs, I do something that for several years I forbade myself to do. I rest.

For more information and where you can purchase Vanessa’s book, head here

4 responses to “When running becomes a dangerous obsession – Vanessa Alford

  1. Excellent article. it is easy to fall into the trap of obsession for some people, and the perfect excuse is that its perceived as a ‘healthy lifestyle’. I know myself that I have an addictive personality (control freak?), and have had a couple of battles of will with myself, but now I am ‘obsessed’ with everything in moderation, rather than extremes. We should live to LIVE, not beat ourselves up all the time, our bodies are an amazing gift, and we only get one, so love it & nurture it!

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