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The Dark Side of Run Streaks, Step Trackers, & Fitness Challenges

It's 7am and I'm frantically searching the laundry pile for my sports bra so I can get out the door for my daily run before the punishing LA sun gets too hot and saps what little energy my body restored overnight.

I'm on day 76 of a run streak and now I can't stop.

I need to stop, and most of me wants to stop, but I no longer can.

I started the streak on Memorial Day, inspired by the annual Runner's World Run Streak Challenge, which takes place every year from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July. The challenge is to run a minimum of one mile every one of those 41 days. I've been aware of the event for a few years but unable to take part due to injuries and life's busy schedule, but was always intrigued by the idea and in awe of longtime streakers, some of whom have been streaking for YEARS.

I didn't think I could do a long streak. I mean, just the amount of laundry involved is off-putting. And who runs 1 mile? It's not worth the effort to wrestle into a sports bra for just one mile. And as a running coach, I know AND PREACH that rest days are crucial to recovery and improvement, especially if you've had recent injuries like I did last year. Still, part of me wanted to try, just to see if I could.

Disclaimer: I want to emphasize that I do not advocate for trying a run streak, in general. They are fundamentally unhealthy and unproductive for most bodies, especially if you are running more than one mile every day (like I am). This is just a blog post about my personal experience with a streak that I was physically ready to do when I started, as I had sort of practiced streaking unofficially at the beginning of quarantine.

Quarantine Streak Chart. Don't judge.

I LOVE a physical challenge, especially one that requires longer-term commitment, like training for marathons, or taking a certain number of classes per month, or a monthly meditation challenge. I've participated in all of these and thrived, but these examples have a clear end-point. A streak does not.

I know myself and my compulsive tendencies. When I switched from Fitbit to my current Garmin I wore both trackers for about a week because I couldn't bear to let go of all of my old stats, my pride wrapped up in them. Fitness trackers can easily draw one into an unhealthy fixation on number of steps or calories burned each day, driving one to constantly beat the previous day's and week's stats. What may be a healthy kickstart for one could become an obsession for another. Or maybe I'm just speaking for myself...

Any fitness "challenge" can be or become dangerous for certain people and bodies, especially when they're just online and there's no human professional supervising the participant, correcting form or objectively noticing negative results. Personally, I can get so competitive with progress (usually held secret) that I harm myself. I think it is a gray area between compulsions and rituals, with the latter carrying an almost holy, respectable connotation and the former a sickness. But anyone can call their compulsions rituals to present them as benign--even sacred--and convince themselves that they are.

Now I don't even think about the run, I just go. Some days I feel like shit--slow and heavy in my legs; other days I'm ok. I rarely have a great run anymore though, because my muscles are shot--they need recovery that I'm denying them.

By day 60 my legs seemed to have permanently checked out so I let my ego take over, knowing somehow that my ego is big enough to get me to and past day 100. One could argue that what I'm calling 'ego' is actually mental toughness or perseverance. I would argue that they are the same thing, especially when the challenge at hand is no longer serving a positive purpose. It is not grit that makes us continue to inflict harm on ourselves for some external reward or ego boost, it's psychopathy.

Pic from day 10 of streak. I was so proud of myself.

Why I started this streak in the first place:

I needed to kick my running back into high gear after a 'meh' year or two of unfocused running. I wanted to get stronger and fit to run races, maybe even a fall (or winter, as it looks now) marathon.

In the beginning, I accomplished what I desired: my endurance and strength did increase rather quickly over the first 3 weeks. But the benefits gained by running every day plateaued around day 35-38 and started to plummet shortly after.

Now the only thing growing is my neurosis and mild OCD. And ego, as I'm aiming for a minimum of 2-4 miles a day and going well past the 41-day original challenge.

Why I can't seem to stop:

I'm afraid I'll feel like I let myself down if I stop; I'll be a quitter when I know I'm capable of continuing. But the reality is that I'm letting myself down by continuing to do something that is no longer beneficial or healthy. I'm not getting anything out of it other than the knowledge that I'm sticking with something that is hard to do. No one even knows I'm doing it, so it's not like I'm getting external accolades or reinforcement.

It's just me, continuing to do something I know is no longer serving me.

I know better.

Just as with any habit (especially those that wander into the compulsion territory), we can tie our identities to our behaviors: I am a runner, I am a yogi, I am a parent, I am a CEO, I am an activist, I am an addict, etc. But we are much more than what we do. The more we identify ourselves as the activities we do day in and day out, the less prepared we are for sudden changes in circumstances, much the way ALL of our lives changed so suddenly at the beginning of Covid shutdowns, forcing us to face questions like, "Who am if I don't go into the office every day? Who am I if I don't have a job anymore? Who am I if I don't go to the gym? Or out to parties and dinners? Who am I if I'm not dating multiple people? Who am I if I'm alone?

Although stopping a running streak is nothing compared to losing one's job or a loved one, it is still a part of my current identity, conveniently replacing other identities disrupted by Covid. If I let go of my streak, where will I find myself? Will I have to contend with what's left? Have I been running away from that eventuality? Probably.

EDIT: I started running trails around day 80 and it changed everything. Read about how here.

Also, I ended my streak on day 108 and feel good about it. Read about why here. (link)

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