Is Your Ultra Racing Habit Unhealthy?

Is Your Ultra Racing Habit Unhealthy?

As ultra-distance events gain popularity, athletes and coaches should be on the watch for obsessive or unhealthy behaviors.

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, ultra-endurance sports were experiencing unprecedented growth; both in participation numbers and in the length and difficulty of courses. Despite being extremely physically taxing, sometimes dangerous, and in many cases expensive and logistically challenging, an increasing number of athletes are venturing beyond the standard marathon or Ironman. As one racer in Australia’s 522km “The Track” race put it, “it was horrible but nice.” Indeed, the longer and harder an ultra-race is, the more crossing its finish line seems to represent a true peak experience, in some cases even becoming a key part of an athlete’s identity. But is there a point when ultra-racing becomes unhealthy?

Two Types of Athletes

In more than 10 years of my coaching practice, I have observed two general types of ultra-endurance athletes: those who integrate their racing in their lives, finding a happy (though often challenging) balance between job, family and training; and those who completely submit their lifestyles to the cause. 

Of the two types of athletes mentioned above, sports psychologies describe the former as “harmonious passion” and the latter as “obsessive passion” athletes. This terminology stems from the Dualistic Model of Passion, developed by Vallerand et al. (2003) based on the Self-Determination Theory of behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000). 

This Dualistic Model defines passion as “a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one loves, values, and considers important, and in which one invests considerable time and energy.” This activity can be sports, music, work, collecting, or anything the participant deems important and fulfilling. The authors of this model further define passion as either harmonious or obsessive in nature. 

In cases of harmonious passion, the athlete displays a strong yet controllable desire to engage in the activity, i.e. to train and to race. The sport represents a significant part of his/her identity but it is coherent and well-integrated with other life domains. At any moment, the athlete can freely decide whether or not to train or to race. In contrast, obsessive passion refers to an uncontrollable urge to keep training, no matter what. This rigid engagement can lead the athlete to neglect other aspects of one’s life, thereby creating tensions and conflicts.

Consequences of Obsessive Passion

While both types of passion can lead to high-performance through the deliberate and committed practice of sport, their consequences are quite different, and this has been scientifically proven in various academic studies. Harmonious passion, for example, is positively related to attention, concentration, mindfulness and flow. Athletes who display harmonious passion also experience positive emotions are their sport, high-quality relationships, and psychological well-being. 

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, is related to negative emotions, conflict, and rumination. Coupled with perfectionism and social pressure to perform, such an obsessive sport engagement is likely to lead to overload injuries, and even to burnout in the future. This is one of the reasons why coaches, supporters, and the athlete herself should be aware of the differences between the two types of passion and of the signs of possible transition from a healthy engagement to an obsessive one.

So how can we differentiate harmonious passion from an obsessive one? 

Personal Identity Defined by Sport

One of the key differences between the two groups is the role of passion in personal identity: obsessive athletes are not just very engaged in their endurance sport, they identify themselves with it and through it.  So, when one says that he is an endurance junkie and ultra-freak, he most probably is. 

Performance Dictates Self Esteem

When obsessively passionate, one feels ego-involved in the activity, meaning that self-esteem and self-worth fluctuate with one’s performance. This leads to a sense of insecurity and overly critical and negative judgment of one’s performance. So, if you or your athlete is depressed by an objectively good result, this could be a sign of developing obsessive passion. 

Self Reflection

In passion research, control questions can be used to indicate an athlete’s motivation. For harmonious passion, it is: “My sport is in harmony with other things that are part of me” and for obsessive: “My sport is so exciting that I sometimes lose control over it/I have the impression that my activity controls me.” You can casually ask your athlete, or yourself: “is my sport in harmony with the rest of my life, or do my training and racing control my life and how I think about myself?” The answer needs to be brutally honest, and if you don’t like it, you have some serious re-prioritization to do.

Unethical Behavior

High obsession has even been proven to lead to unethical (e.g. use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs) or increasingly aggressive behavior during competition. This happens when performance in sport defines self-approval and self-worth, and an athlete feels they are simply putting too much on the line to risk losing. We have to be vigilant of this possibility. 

Ultra racing itself cannot be practiced in moderation—the very nature of an ultra-endurance event is that it is extreme. Still, developing a balanced, sensible, adventurous, and harmonious attitude to training around ultra events is very important. This is the only way to keep this engagement long-term, maybe even lifelong, and to stay healthy and happy, enriching your life with amazing experiences. So, I wish you to thrive in your harmonious ultra passion! 

If you are curious to find out more about your passion and motivation for your passionate sport engagement, I would like to invite you to participate in my PhD research on this topic. Write to me (coachtatjana@gmail.com) and I will be happy to send you my questionnaire.

Thank you!

Tatjana Ivanova

Tatjana Ivanova has coached endurance athletes for more than 10 years. All her athletes, from first time marathoners to IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship qualifiers, have achieved their personal goals without a single DNF among them. Tatjana has two mantras for training and racing: "Joy in the effort" and "Pain is temporary, glory is forever.”