Mental health: Are you exercising too much for your mind?

Moving and exercising more can be one of the most effective ways to improve our mental health, but triathletes also need to know when to slow down, writes Tim Heming

Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

“It’s a ludicrously hard thing to admit to feeling depressed, especially when I have no way of quantifying it.”

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Those words come from two-time British Olympian and Parkrun record holder (with a speedy 13:48mins at Bushy Park in London), Andy Baddeley. They’ll also strike a chord with a lot of athletes who are struggling to differentiate between just feeling a bit low and showing increasing symptoms of depression.

Perhaps a better way to look at it is that – like injury and illness – it’s often not black and white. Not one minute being fine, the next sick, but more of a sliding scale, where sometimes it’s right to push on through, and other times stop and seek help. If we also appreciate it’s a spectrum we’re all on, then there’s a duty to watch out for both our own mental health and others around us. After all, when depression really does grip, often the individual affected is the last to notice.

Like Baddeley, many athletes have started speaking openly about their mental health challenges. We should celebrate that, but also realise that while exercise is nearly always part of the solution – and increasingly GPs are suggesting patients take part in their local Parkrun or GoTri events – it’s not a silver bullet to cure all mental woes. Telling Baddeley to go and run hard 1km repeats is clearly not the answer.

Mental health, exercise – and triathletes

In reality, it’s a two-way street. There are clear benefits to getting out into the fresh air, clearing your head and communing with nature. Chemically, the brain produces endorphins, norepinephrine, and dopamine when we move vigorously, mighty hormones that boost how we feel and keeps athletes coming back time and again. Unlike alcohol, cigarettes and even (although some triathletes will debate this) coffee, exercise as a drug is also essential… to a point. Which is where the word moderation comes in… and eyes glaze over.

It’s an understandable response. Possibly because of its ‘more is better’ make-up and autonomy to achieve goals which are affected by fewer external influences than team sport, triathlon attracts those of obsessive, perfectionist mindsets. Moderation isn’t just boring, but anathema. Yet if that typifies you, also be cognisant that the environment you’re immersed in is already skewed from everyday life, and probably your former life too. By its nature, triathlon is an extreme sport, yet we normalise it all the time.

Even a sprint distance of 750m swimming, 20km cycling and 5km running means at least 90 minutes of intense exercise for most. Yet while it might seem a lot when we first step into tri, soon we’re doing it before breakfast as we train for an Ironman. Then we go to work. It’s the sort of rationale that would bemuse 95% of the population. Scan your office if you want proof.

Part of the problem is how easily we detach mental and physical health, as if our mind works independently to the rest of the body. While we can objectively step back and see how we need to train to reach our goals, or rehab specifically to recover from injury, we neglect that the brain is an organ too. If your body is inflamed, the mind suffers, often leading to poor decisions, such as going for another run when the smart choice would be to sleep.

Sometimes it becomes even more serious. Overtraining syndrome is categorised by an increased intensity or duration of training having a detrimental effect on performance. As well as chronic fatigue and overuse injuries – stress fractures being particularly prevalent – there are changes to blood chemistry, an impaired immune system, increased resting blood pressure and heart rate, and a slump in mood. In fact the symptoms are so similar to that of clinical depression, scientists believe the etiology may be identical.

Diet and eating disorders

Eating disorders, particularly linked with endurance athletes, are the flip side of the same coin. A recognised trigger being the notion of ‘lighter equals faster’, as well as exercising more, the temptation is to eat less – often couched in the language of ‘healthier’. (In an effort to make you toss the scales away, it’s worth including the rebuttal that lighter often means weaker, which won’t help a triathlete pedal a bike, nor pull through the water.)

It’s common not to realise you’re in a hole until you hit the bottom and have a chance to look up, so few athletes realise the negative spiral they’re on. Instead, they feel in control. And in some respects they are, as their control becomes ever tighter over an increasingly restricted diet. But eating disorders do not just affect women. The charity, Beat, reports that more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected and one-fifth are men. We’re more susceptible when most vulnerable, such as the example of Tom Fairbrother, a talented British marathon runner, who was on a trip to Kenya for altitude training and wrote openly of his experience in the Guardian here.

Not only did he have his own expectations and the perceived hopes from back home to contend with, he was also comparing himself against world-class east African runners. All it took was a misjudged comment about how he’d go faster if he shed a few pounds and Fairbrother developed bulimia nervosa. It took an intervention from his dentist, who found 75% of his front teeth enamel had been eroded before he found the courage to address it.

How do you recognise if your mental health is starting to become a problem?

If you find yourself becoming withdrawn, have spinning highs and crashing lows, your appetite lessens, your memory fades, you stop being decisive, training becomes a necessary chore, your libido drops, friends make cryptic comments because they’re too British to speak candidly and tell you they’re worried. It might be all or none of the above, and you might have no idea at all, but somewhere there will be signs. As Baddeley says, it’s so hard to quantify.

What can you do to help yourself?

Seek professional help. A good first step is to see your GP and assess the options available in your area. The British Psychological Society can also help you find a specialist nearby. It’s no secret the National Health Service is stretched and underfunded, and there may be a tough call to make as to whether to go private, which will depend on individual circumstances.

Put your trust in family, friends or a coach for support, and implore them to talk straight with you, however hard it feels. And take heed of what they say because invariably it will be better advice than you’ll give yourself – largely because it’ll be kinder advice. If they tell you to take time out and rest, do it. It will likely feel wrong, but it takes mental strength to beat the cycle.

Try and stick to healthy habits and routine too. In deep throes of depressive episodes when your cognitive function is low, they are vital because it gives you more chance of taking better actions on autopilot. A simple system for preparing healthy meals, such as batch cooking at the weekend and freezing, is one example, while having fixed times for friends or family to call for a chat, another. Strict rules around bed-time and a minimum eight hours sleep, another still.

On the other side, if you’re in a harmful environment – perhaps an overly competitive one – change it if possible, preferably for a sunnier one and a natural source of vitamin D.

The negative habits also need to be challenged, which is the hardest part. Impaired mental health often manifests as a downward spiral of negative thoughts going round and round. It’s not easy to stand up to these and change ingrained thought-patterns, which is why effective therapy is exhausting, but can also be effective and rewarding.

A final rule-of-thumb check for you on exercising and mental health. If you’re heading towards a goal, keep running. If you’re running away from something more important, stop and take the right – often difficult – steps to address it. The first step of which might be answering the question: why am I really continuing to exercise this much?

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