The thrill of victory can be addictive. Just ask Meghan Kennihan, 28, of Chicago. After winning her first marathon—the 2009 Illinois Marathon in 2:55—Kennihan took on a nonstop racing schedule, pushing herself to place in the top three overall or to win her age group. Her cutthroat attitude began to wear her down. "I was tired and always had some kind of ache or pain," says the coach and personal trainer. "All the fun went out of running."
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You don't have to win races to suffer the ill effects of hyper-competitiveness. At the same time, experts say being laissez-faire isn't ideal, either. "A healthy dose of competitiveness is good," says Shaunna Taylor, a mental training consultant at the Ottawa High Performance Centre. "It can keep you focused and motivated. You've reached an ideal balance when you're setting goals that motivate you, but you're focused on your own performance—not other runners."
Is your own competitive fire raging out of control, or does it need fanning? Determine where you stand with these common signs; the fixes will help you find a healthy balance.
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THE SIGN: You do someone else's workout at your own body's expense.
THE SOLUTION: "Listening to your body will almost always be a more effective way to train than trying to match someone else's workouts," says Janet Hamilton, owner of Running Strong coaching. "Take note of little things like overall fatigue, difficulty sleeping, aches and pains. If you immediately step back, you may avoid an injury that would take you out for weeks. Hamilton says to increase mileage by five to 10 percent a week. This builds strength while preventing injury, but it requires patience, and there's no formula that works for everyone. Varying training partners can remind you that everyone is unique, says DeeAnn Dougherty, a physical therapist and coach in Portland, Oregon.
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THE SIGN: All you do is eat, sleep, run.
"If your competitive drive smothers other areas of living, it can be problematic," says David Coppel, a sports psychologist at the University of Washington. Make a list of all the commitments that are important to you, and make time for each one every week. Carving out time for other people and activities will keep your running in perspective. If you get hurt or have a bad race, you'll feel less like your world is coming to an end.
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