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An obsession with sport could be dangerous – and hide something else

Top sports psychologist Tadhg MacIntyre says you shouldn’t ‘need’ that run or gym session to cope.

shutterstock_231816463 Source: Shutterstock/Tyler Olson

ONE OF THE country’s top sport psychologists has warned about the dangers of striving for elitism in sport.

Tadhg MacIntyre, a psychology lecturer at the University of Limerick Sports and Exercise Department who consults with the Munster Rugby team said there are real dangers when it comes to overtraining, while he’s also concerned about how some exercise routines and races are packaged.

In a lengthy discussion with, McIntyre says there are “huge risks” and “massive consequences” when it comes to training obsessively.

“Exercise dependency is a behavioural addiction,” he explained. “It’s not like an addiction to drink or drugs but it does have withdrawal effects and it’s usually in the realm of activities that are low skilled and demand lots of hours,” he added.

“It’s where people view exercise not as a way to supplement their mood but as a coping method for something else; in other words, without exercise in their day they can’t cope. It’s maladaptive because it’s bad for you; it takes over your life,” he continued.

“Relationships and work suffer and it usually co-occurs with other issues. For example, it’s highly common amongst people with eating disorders and people who are depressed that they might use it to moderate their condition.

“If you think of someone who has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), they get into exercise and then they just really put their body at high-risk with the amount of training they do.

“Athletes can feel rewarded with vast volume training but with this we see the exercise controls you rather than you controlling the amount of exercise you do.”

MacIntyre outlines it can happen to anyone and some mightn’t even know they have it. And with the growth of extreme sport challenges he’s less than optimistic on the outlook.

“We’re talking about solitary activities and the risk is huge because they can end up with long-term overuse injuries and psychological issues like depression, anorexia nervosa.

“Women are even more at risk as regards body image disorder, amenorrhea, osteoporosis; that’s strongly linked to exercise dependence, changes to menstrual cycle, potential eating disorders, so potentially, women are higher risk.

“But across the board you’ve the risk of injury and they can be particularly slow to rehabilitate, if they ever do. This is why I’m worried about the rise of extreme challenges. Ultra endurance activities are now becoming cool; it’s fashionable to do extreme sport events.

“Those events are fine but one of the challenges around them is the training people engage in. Without coaching or programmes, peoples are becoming obsessed with them. It’s the dark side to recreational endurance sport.

“It doesn’t occur in a team sport in the same way because usually training is facilitated by coaches, you’re getting feedback and you’re doing activities which are mastery related, be it kicking, passing, teamwork.

“There are other motives and your peer group defines your training load, typically. Not typically the case in solitary activities, very often. It’s even more worrying because people are being put on pedestals; people who’ve done 11 ultra-marathons in nine days, for example.

“These people, sometimes, are pushing themselves so hard but then others try to emulate it without the technique.

“The weekend warriors are at high risk because they may not have the appropriate fitness for adventure sports. It becomes all-encompassing and their training defines their life and their goals.

“It’s a significant risk and might only apply to a small number of people but the consequences are truly devastating for those individuals.”


On how races and exercise programmes are branded McIntyre was particularly bothered.

“We need to be careful with the kind of language we use around sport,” he says. “If someone says ‘I’m doing an insanity workout’, come on? Let’s be real. It’s probably the sanest thing in the world to do high-intensity, intermittent whole body exercise.

“We call it insanity; put a label on it, which gives people a licence for extreme behaviour when it’s actually not that extreme. If you can take the pain it’s quite a good way to get a strong exercise hit but think of that word ‘insanity’?

“We’re trying to sell it as being mad and crazy. That’s giving licence to obsessive behaviour rather than saying ‘efficient training’ but that’s not good marketing. ’The world’s most efficient training plan’ won’t sell.

“What we’re doing is giving licence to people to do insanity workouts for 12 weeks. That’s probably not sustainable, you’ve to moderate your training based on your body’s response. It’s not for everyone.

shutterstock_293017136 Source: Shutterstock/James.Pintar

“Training should be done on an individualised basis and we should always seek advice, a personal trainer, coach or doctor to ensure we’re not going to send ourselves down the exercise addiction route because that road is very costly.”

McIntyre did outline, however, that it should be relatively easy to detect someone who’s in danger of becoming dependent while he also stressed that it’s treatable.

“You can tell if the person needs exercise to alter their mood rather than the fact they can suffer good and bad moods throughout the day.

“Exercise is that mechanism by which they cope with life and that’s not the ideal scenario. Exercise should be one of many activities they do, not the only one. Someone who depends on exercise get withdrawn, they get angry, they cut off all their social support, isolate themselves. So that’s not hard to sport.”

And like most conditions, there’s a remedy.

“There’s a number of different ways and probably engagement with the issue is the first thing, knowing you have it,” McIntyre says. “Another one is that people gain a sense of control around other things and make them realise exercise isn’t the only thing they control.

“Open your mind up to other activities and when you do, try and buddy up, do it with someone else.

“Also, make sure there’s some skill component so you can become better at it and set yourself challenging goals which aren’t just effort related. The phrase ‘work harder’ shouldn’t actually be how sport works. We know the best athletes in the world don’t work in a ‘no pain, no gain’ world. They’re very good at changing their effort.

“Team sports are better, of course, because they provide a means of buffering some of the risks of exercise addiction. If you go to do ultra-endurance walking, who in your peer group will tell you that’s enough? In a team sport many people take on that role.”

  • Tadhg MacIntyre is the course director of the new one-year Masters programme titled ‘Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology’, commencing in January at the University of Limerick.

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Brian Canty

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