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I am in recovery and have been a runner for over 30 years.
For me, running came before addiction. While working on my Ph.D. in the 1970’s, I joined the first running boom, mainly to cope with stress. After I completed my degree and began my private practice in counseling, I became addicted to opiates and then to alcohol, leading to multiple treatments over several years. I stress the fact that it was multiple treatments. I was definitely stubborn and thought I knew more than my counselors, but something just wasn’t working for me. I'd make it a while, then relapse.
During my battle with addiction, running had faded completely from my life. One day, probably out of boredom when I was in a 90-day residential treatment program, I went for a run. It was very tough physically, but my head began to clear. It felt good. Like all addicts, I was into feeling good, so I went again the next day. Slowly, the old love for the road came back.
Mainly because I was locked down in the treatment program, I had already stopped drinking. But something was different this time, and it wasn't just that I'd gone for a run. I was more humble, and running was changing something in me.
I wanted to understand the science behind what was happening, why running was influencing my addiction, and one book that was helpful was Stahl’s Illustrated: Substance Use and Impulsive Disorders, by Dr. Stephen Stahl.
In this, he discusses the dual reward system of the brain. One is the Reactive Reward System, which involves an immediate seeking of pleasure without much thought or reflection. (This is what's activated during addiction.) The second is the Reflective Reward System, which enables the individual to stop and reflect on long-term goals and potential consequences before taking action. Recovery from addiction is thought to be an activating of the Reflective Reward System.
In short: Addictive drugs are addictive because they activate the release of a neurochemical in the brain called dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure. When something (for example: doing drugs, having sex, eating donuts, or running) causes dopamine to be released, we want to do it again. As addiction progresses, normal production of dopamine decreases and we need more of the addictive chemicals to produce the same high. Eventually, the addict uses more of the addictive chemicals simply to prevent pain coming from the low levels of dopamine in the brain. For me, being in this state meant that most (if not all) of my decisions were being controlled by the avoidance of pain, both due to withdrawal and consequences of my alcohol-related actions.
What running did was aid me in this transition from being Reactive to Reflective in my reward system. Running increases the production of dopamine as well as other significant neurochemicals that are vital to the addiction process.
Most all of us who are in early recovery seek out these other dopamine pumps (food, sex, nicotine, etc.) to help us feel better. The difference between running and the other addictive behaviors is that it's a healthy approach. One may argue that running can become compulsive, and this is certainly true. But overall, there are few downsides to running, whereas there is much documented evidence about over consuming caffeine, donuts, or nicotine.
It's been my experience, and the experience of many of my friends in recovery, that the longer a person is involved in the production of dopamine through running, the less intense is the craving to seek the dopamine from drugs.
I’m now 60 years old, and I run several days a week. I completed the New York City Marathon in 2011 and have recently been accepted into the Half Fanatics, an organization for those of us who love half marathons. It's been many years since I have struggled with the desire to have a drink or use a drug. This is not simply due to running, but it's been a key to my ability to be reflective and at peace.
True recovery must come from a holistic approach to life: intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Continuing to be dependent on behaviors that produce short-term spikes in dopamine but lead to brokenness in other aspects of our life doesn’t work.
My encouragement is for anyone struggling with any kind of addictive disorder to try running.
What have you got to lose?