As recently as seven years ago, when running came up in conversation, I’d joke that the only thing I’d run after was a Frisbee. I enjoyed team sports and occasionally played ultimate, but running for the sake of running, all by myself? No thanks—it never appealed or made sense to me.
This was also an era of my life—my twenties—when drinking was a near-daily part of my routine. I was single and lived in a beach community with a tight group of friends and three roommates. The line between a Tuesday night and a Saturday night was very thin indeed.
Then I met a girl. I didn’t exactly settle down, but I did find myself staying in more often (usually still with a glass of wine or a cold beer) and not partying into the wee hours on random work nights. A year later, we broke up. The following weeks were a mix of angst, sadness, and freedom. If I wanted to take shots with my friends at 4 a.m. on a Monday night and skinny-dip in the ocean as the sun rose, there was nobody to stop me.
But something didn’t feel right. I was drinking to kill the pain. I didn’t realize that at the time. I just felt a ball of nervous energy inside me that seemed to grow and tighten with each passing day.
One night, after a phone call with my ex that quickly disintegrated into bitter name-calling, I ran out the door with no shoes on and sprinted down the block. It felt like the equivalent of punching a wall at the time. I just needed to move my body and to get away from everything.
Halfway around the block, I bent over, hands on my knees, breathing hard. Could I really not run a quarter mile without wheezing and losing steam? As I slowly jogged back home, I felt a mix of shame and relief—I was out of shape, but for some reason, I felt a little bit better.
The next day, I ran all the way around the block. The day after that, I rounded the block twice, stopping to walk once.
Two weeks later, I ran a mile without stopping for the first time since I was a teenager. It’s a small accomplishment in the big picture, but for 28-year-old me, I felt like I had a new lease on life.
I immediately realized that when I drank too much the night before, running was harder the next day. I knew that running made me feel better, so I set a goal: I wanted to run a 5K within three months, just to see if I could do it. That started to affect my decisions the night before—should I go out for a drink with my friends (which always turns into more than one) or should I get a good night’s rest?
The Science Behind Running and Addiction Recovery
Running made me feel better than drinking did. That’s what I knew, and that’s what drove me to significantly curb my alcohol intake and ramp up my running habit. Within a year, I participated in a 200-mile team relay race, running 24 miles over as many hours.
It turns out, there’s a logical, even chemical explanation for my change and ultimate recovery from an addiction I didn’t even realize that I had.
“The brain’s reward system responds extremely well to exercise,” explains Dr. Rod Amiri, a holistic addiction specialist with California based recovery center Malibu Hills Treatment Center. Physical exercise increases production and release of neuro-chemicals like serotonin, which is associated with contentment and well-being. Exercise also triggers increased release of dopamine and endorphins: chemicals associated with pleasure and euphoria.”
The “runner’s high” I experienced once I built up to multi-mile jogs was a real thing, and I craved it more than the high I got from alcohol. But the hardest part of addiction is breaking the social reinforcement circle. I needed an incentive to decline invitations to go out drinking, and that came in the form of personal goals and dates of upcoming races and runs on the calendar.
“Changing patterns of behavior, from addiction to recovery-based, is essential for long-term sobriety,” says Dr. Amiri. “Learning to respond to stress-induced negative emotions with healthy self-care practices is what breaks the addictive cycle and habituates new, healthy patterns.”
Dr. Amiri makes exercise a critical part of his recovery plan, but emphasizes that one size doesn’t fit all. Not everyone will realize they love running like I did. Others may crave the rush from weight training in a gym, or sports like tennis, golf and surfing.
“The most effective forms of exercise are those that are 60 minutes or more in length, require enough effort to elevate your heart rate and breathing for sustained periods of time, and most important of all, are fun!” says Dr. Amiri. “The reality is, if exercise isn’t fun and convenient, people won’t do it on a regular basis.”
Running for Relief
It’s impossible to be a heavy drinker and be truly healthy, no matter how much you exercise or how well you eat outside of alcohol consumption. But anyone who makes a habit of getting their heart rate up knows that. The bottom line is: Booze slows us down.
Conversely, “motion is lotion,” as Dr. Amiri puts it. From controlling weight to promoting better sleep and increasing libido, exercise lubricates our body and keeps us moving.
It took a nasty breakup for me to let running enter my life. I literally let myself become wound so tight that a release of energy in the form of bursting out the door and tearing down the street was what it took for me to stop and realize, “Wait … this feels good.”
Fortunately, I’m now happy to have a healthy addiction. If I go three days without running a few miles, I feel antsy and unsettled. Fortunately, feeding that craving leaves me feeling better than before—no hangover required.