Spotlight: mental health in athletes

So throughout the last two weeks I’ve been pushing at how good exercise (specifically running) is on mental health, but I haven’t mentioned about how exercise can actually also be detrimental to mental health. My focus for today is to ensure that we exercise the correct amount to reap the best cognitive rewards – rather than pushing to excess.

Hughes & Leavey (2012) wrote a paper on the vulnerability that athletes face to mental illness. They note how over training can lead to negative physical health effects such as sudden cardiac arrest, respiratory symptoms and eating disorders. Neurologically, they note that over training can lead to a build up of inflammation which results in increased levels of cytokines and cortisol, this imbalance can lead to many psychological and physical health issues.

They also note how it can affect your mental health – extreme pressures such as training for Olympics can lead to a loss of autonomy (yay for coaches) and ‘identity-foreclosure’ where athletes struggle to find a sense of self. This can lead to increased psychological distress when the area of identity has been removed.

Mentally, Hughes & Leavey (2012) reflect that pressures to be certain weight and shape can lead to disordered eating such as bulimia, body dysphoria and anorexia nervosa. Research by Sundgot-Borgen & Torstveit (2004) looked at the prevalence of eating disorders in athletes compared to the general population – they found that the prevalence is much higher in female athletes than male athletes and compared to the population. They also found that eating disorders were more likely in leanness-dependent and weight-dependent sports.

There is pages and pages of research on eating disorders and athletes on google scholar, showing how relevant this topic is.

Depression in athletes is common when taking into account injury, competitive failure, retirement from the sport and ageing (Readon & Factor, 2010). As well as feelings of burn out, over-training can lead to decreased mood and self-esteem, lack of confidence, exhaustion, withdrawal and depression / helplessness.

We aren’t all professional athletes, but for the layman we shouldn’t ignore the negative effects of over-training and we definitely shouldn’t beat ourselves up for missing runs and letting life getting in the way. It also means we shouldn’t feel bad about eating lots of pizza and ice cream!

Today’s run..


So today was a quick warm up for tomorrow’s very hilly half marathon (Tonbridge Wells!) Today was such a nice day that I even went dragged my other half back to the park for a coffee in the sunshine! I enjoyed this run, a perfect day for running in shorts and I was able to run at a comfortable speed (none of this marathon pace rubbish!) and so didn’t need to have my pace alerts on to encourage me to run slower!

I can see how the topic of today’s post is relevant in marathon training; marathon training comes with pages and pages of advice about what you should and shouldn’t do (track training, long slow runs, marathon paced training etc etc etc.) it is easy to get caught up in making sure you fit everything in and to beat yourself up if you miss a work out! This amount of training could easily lead to burn out and injury and if you are like me and am raising money for charity – you could easily feel like you are letting people down!

Given this whole blog post then, my advice is to never go into marathon training without at least a years experience of running shorter distances first. I know some people do it, but the stresses and strains that you are putting your body under could affect both body and mind.

Wish me luck for tomorrow!


Hughes, L., Leavey, G., (2012). Setting the bar: athletes and vulnerability to mental illness. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 200, 95-96.

Reardon, C.L., Factor, R.M. (2010) Sport psychiatry: a systematic review of diagnosis
and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. Sports Med, 40:

Sundgot-Borgen, J. and Torstveit, M.K., 2004. Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in the general population. Clinical journal of sport medicine14(1), pp.25-32.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s