The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Running Every Day

Dave & Les Jacobs / Cultura-Corbis

I'm an almost-every-day jogger, but I hang my head in shame when I gaze upon the running record of Mark Covert, the so-called Cal Ripken of U.S. streaking. In this case, "streaking" is the term for running a long stretch of days in a row, not running without shorts. Though I guess they aren't mutually exclusive. Covert, 59, of Lancaster, Calif., has run every day since July 23, 1968, according to the United States Running Streak Association (yes, there is such an organization). The track coach at Antelope Valley Community College recently passed 145,000 miles, the equivalent of running around the circumference of the earth about six times.

There have been a few close calls along the way. Covert broke his foot 20 years ago, and it was too swollen to put in a cast, so "I put a construction boot on and was able to hobble around on that." When asked if he would expect his students to do something like this, Covert answered, "I tell my kids all the time to take a day off. This is not a mark of intelligence, this is just something I enjoy doing." When I asked him yet another dumb question—whether he'd enjoy not doing it—he said he doesn't know, because it's been 43 years since he hasn't.

This guy wakes up every day, laces up his shoes (or his construction boot) and hits the road. You have to admire that, especially when the rest of us have trouble just getting out of bed every day, much less running. And you could do worse things than be a daily runner: after all, Covert's resting heart rate is in the 30s, and the only medication he takes is a multivitamin. But for a lot of people who run every day, it's not that simple. The daily task of running can become an addiction, a dark cloud over their lives.

Julia Weisenborn of Worthington, Ohio, now 23, knows this firsthand. She was a track standout in high school but missed the state finals by only one spot as a junior. That prompted her to really bear down in the summer before her senior year, and she noticed that the more weight she lost, the faster she got. So in addition to adding miles, she started cutting back on her caloric intake, eventually going from about 130 pounds down to 90 in only one cross-country season. It didn't hurt her performance—quite the opposite—so she continued the pattern of eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day, coupled with weeks of 60 to 80 miles of running, into college. She also started taking diet pills and suffered from bulimia and anorexia until the day, in the summer between her junior and senior years at Ohio University, she passed out in the middle of an 8-mile run. She had experienced what the ER technicians told her was a "pre-heart attack," and was finally forced to get some real help.

She found her way to the Center for Balanced Living in Columbus, Ohio, where she learned over time how to approach running and food in a more balanced, healthy way. Sport psychologist Jennifer Carter, who works at the center and is president of the American Psychological Association's Exercise and Sport division, says running addiction is treated by normalizing the behavior, as well as learning better anxiety-coping skills, akin to how you would treat eating disorders. Anxiety drives the negative behaviors, and if you don't address it, you won't get better. She also says it's possible to run every day and have that be a healthy thing, as long as it's not "the only tool you have in your toolbox. Then it might be problematic."

Weisenborn ended up skipping her senior year of track, with the full support of coaches and family. She didn't even run a step for an entire year, and when she finally did run again in the year after she graduated, it was very difficult, physically and emotionally. "I'm so geared to thinking an eight-minute mile pace was easy, I couldn't do it. I had to stop and walk." But that was finally OK with her. Today Weisenborn is a success story, partly because of her in-hindsight-lucky collapse, and also because she was able to find the right kind of help.

These days she still runs about six times a week with her dog, Louie, and takes care to make sure she properly fuels her body. When asked what advice she'd give a young athlete in her position, she said a lot of this might have been avoided if a friend had simply come up to her and said, "You're losing a lot of weight, we're worried about you." But she says the lesson is that you shouldn't wait. You can't be afraid to ask for help yourself if you're struggling. "This is not something you want to toy around with, and I will carry this with me and struggle for the rest of my life. Really consider the consequences of what you're about to do."