Knowing how to recognize unhealthy training habits and make positive adjustments can make you faster, prevent exercise addiction, and help you foster a positive long-term relationship with your sport.

For more information on structured training check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 259.

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What is Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction is an unhealthy reliance or obsession with physical activity. Exercise addiction can vary in degree and severity, from very mild to chronic. In some cases, it can also be coupled with other addictions, as well as eating disorders. Generally speaking though, exercise addiction can be characterized as any dependence on exercise that negatively affects your emotional or physical well-being.

While severe exercise addiction isn’t relatively common, mild exercise addiction is something that can easily manifest in an athlete’s training habits. Knowing the signs of exercise addiction and how to recognize aspects of it in your own routine can help you prevent bad habits and build good ones. These are the diagnostic criteria used to determine whether or not an athlete has an exercise addiction: 

Tolerance: Feeling like the amount that you train is never enough, so you constantly increase the amount of training that you do.

Withdrawals: Feeling anxious, irritable, or fatigued when you can’t work out, or when you need to recover and take it easy. 

Intention Affect: Impulsively adding more time, intensity, or TSS to your workouts. It’s okay to tag on a bit of extra training time here and there, but if you always feel the need to add more time or intensity to your workout without good reason for doing so, it’s a bad habit.

Lack of Control: Having trouble keeping your training and exercise load at a manageable level. 

Time: Spending more time exercising than is recommended by a coach or medical professional.

Reductions in Other Activities: Significantly cutting back time spent with other people or doing other activities in a way that negatively impacts emotional and interpersonal well-being. While training requires a certain amount of sacrifice if it affects your emotional well-being or interpersonal relationships it’s crossing a boundary. 

Continuance: Continuing to train during times you should not be training. If you’re sick, injured or it’s time for a recovery week, it’s important to be able to take a necessary break.

Frequent Exercise Vs. Exercise Addiction

If you find yourself checking off a number of these boxes, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. If you’re a dedicated athlete it’s normal to devote a lot of time to training, tack on some extra volume when appropriate, sacrifice time spent doing other things, and miss your bike on the days you can’t train. It’s even normal to feel good when you work out, and not as good when you can’t. Your body is set up with physical mechanisms and positive feedback loops that reward physical activity and movement.

Exercise addiction is a matter of degree and severity. Sacrificing a night out with friends before an important race, adding an extra twenty minutes of endurance onto your ride, or feeling excited to return to training when you’re sick are all normal aspects of training. It’s when you do these things to a degree that they negatively impact your well-being that it becomes problematic.

How to Create Healthy Habits

Your mindset is your most powerful tool when it comes to fighting bad habits and managing your relationship to exercise. If you feel like you might be fostering some bad habits or an unhealthy relationship with exercise, you can use your mindset and your training habits to make positive changes. These are good practices for being a more well-rounded and overall happier cyclist.

Positive Internal Dialogue

As an athlete, it’s easy to confuse mental toughness with being overly critical of yourself. In reality, negative self-talk and being overly critical only increases the likelihood of developing an unhealthy expectation around exercise.

Having a positive internal dialogue and being your own best ally are both ways to create a healthy relationship between yourself and the work that you do. If you’re constantly bombarding yourself with negative feedback, it can put too much pressure on your ability to add more and more to your plate. Question fear-based motivation and abusive language and replace them with positive self-talk and progress-oriented motivation.

Keep Training Fun

Sure, not all training is fun, but that doesn’t mean training shouldn’t ever be fun. Doing things that keep you motivated and keep the sport fun are as important as doing things that keep your training on track. Taking your workouts outside on your favorite route, fitting a ride with friends into your week, or integrating outside skills into your training are all ways you can get faster and have fun. Keeping your training fun can help prevent burnout and overtraining.

Beginners Mindset

Approach your workouts with curiosity, enthusiasm, and the expectation that there is a lot to be learned. Training is a process, not a secret formula, and there’s more to discover no matter how much you already know. In a similar sense, not everyone’s experience is the same and what works well for one athlete may not work well for you. Approaching your training with the mindset that this is a learning process can keep you from getting rutted in non-productive habits, or feeling discouraged when things don’t go to plan.

Prioritize Mental and Physical Health

As important as your training goals may be, nothing should be prioritized above your physical and mental health. If you’re sick or injured, taking time to rest without exercise is more beneficial to your training then getting back to work. If you’re feeling mentally burnt out or too drained to do a tough workout, swap your intervals for an easy spin or a day off depending on how you feel.

Setting Goals

Setting goals is an important part of training, and often it’s the goals we make ahead of time that keep us motivated throughout an entire season. But even with the important role that they play, it’s crucial to distinguish between controllable and non-controllable variables, and to not let the outcome of your goals control your experience.

Make Your Training Sustainable

Incorporating habits and practices that allow you to train consistently is what makes training sustainable. Consistent and sustainable training will make you much faster in the long run than intermittent training. Training harder than you should for months at a time before burning out is not the key to getting faster. Taking it at a pace you know you can sustain for the long run, while actively incorporating positive training habits makes you faster.

For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.