Every year in the fall and spring many half and full marathon races take place in my city, forcing major roads to close down to one lane. Orange cones line the streets, while police officers man corners to prevent cars from potentially driving into runners. Tents with speakers and music blaring surround several mile markers with the intention of keeping the runners momentum going towards that coveted finish line.
Before we go any further, let me express my love and adoration to my friends and all of those recovering out there who have returned from the depths of hell to become law-abiding and contributing members of society and most of all cross finish lines they never thought possible in their darkest days of addiction. I am proud of the accomplishments you have made to better your lives and your health.
Having said that, I believe the current message in the recovery world of trading “bad” addictions for “good” ones, may not be supporting us in our quest to find long-lasting, optimal health in long-term recovery. Hopefully, I will offer some insight to those who have found solace after they put down the bottle or substances and traded the demons for that sought after, endorphin release affectionately known as the “Runner’s High”.
Running Addiction Versus Drug and Alcohol Addiction
One popular question I receive when sharing my professional stance on endurance running tends to be “isn’t running better than doing drugs?” The short answer is yes. However, in my opinion, this fallacy also allows recovering people to trade alcoholism and addiction with sugar binges. We’ll get to that soon, but more on marathon running…
If you count yourself amongst one of the many long-distance runners with a dark past of substance abuse, perhaps you think to yourself that running is your best outlet and greatly compliments your recovery. To shed those extra alcoholic pounds and help shush early recovery noises in your head, you decided to start running. The weight came off, the endorphins returned, and you found peace that only running could provide. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, although it could be hurting you more than helping you in the long run.
As recovering alcoholics and addicts, we are wired for all or nothing thinking. We drank or used in excess, so why wouldn’t we do other things that produce the same chemical response in the same way in recovery? We easily justify exercising or dieting to excess because we believe that we’re trading bad addictions for healthy ones.
It shouldn’t be shocking that treatment centers all over the world are restricting the use of gym time to patients who display obsessive working out behaviors. (1)
“47 percent of American adults suffer some type of addictive disorder, and exercise can be one of them. In one study with involuntary participants (read: rats), the ones that were deprived of food voluntarily ran the longest and displayed symptoms similar to heroin withdrawal. Researchers concluded that too much exercise may be similar to drug abuse and, in some cases, linked to eating disorders. In fact, nearly half of exercise addicts have reported having an eating disorder, and 15 to 20 percent are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Just like an alcohol or drug addiction, there are health dangers to excessive exercise, such as repetitive stress injuries, heart problems, and bone loss.” (2)
A Physician’s Perspective
Practicing radiation oncologist and nutritional expert, Dr. Colin Champ, dedicates an entire chapter to the modern jogging movement in his book Misguided Medicine. He makes a point that many long-distance runners would test positive for a heart attack should they show up in an emergency room shortly after running a marathon. Earlier this year Dr. Champ wrote an article discussing The Journal of the American College of Cardiology published findings from the Copenhagen City Heart Study where 1,098 healthy joggers and 3,950 healthy non-joggers were prospectively followed since 2001.
Dr. Champ interprets the study to show that excessive jogging may be no different than not jogging at all. He suggest that for those who do run, once a week at a slow pace may be best, and at most, 2-3 times per week for no longer than 2.4 hours. This data suggest that marathon, excessive, and long-distance running could have detrimental effects. (3)
Sugar and Running: A Bad Combination
Recently, I participated in a recovery advocacy group’s 6K Walk/Run to promote breaking the stigma of addiction and recovery. A topic I am most passionate about. Approximately 96 people ran and maybe 5 walked. Participating as a walker myself, I finished third to last! Shouldn’t that have won some kind of prize? During the 6K walk, I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a newly recovering alcoholic. By the time we crossed the finish line, half an hour past most, donuts were being consumed by many of the finishers. I suppose that’s one way to restore energy depletion. Donuts being served to a group of recovering people didn’t surprise me in the least bit.
Admittedly, sugar addiction has become a serious problem in the recovery community. Evolved Recovery does not promote permanent abstinence from sugar. Instead, we teach mindfulness techniques in conjunction with a holistic lifestyle that allows those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction to make less impulsive choices regarding processed food including sugar.
As a nutrition and health coach (and recovering alcoholic), the sugar epidemic that goes along with excessive running in recovery concerns me. The runner believes in an outdated ‘calories in, calories out’ mentality which justifies an intake of processed food with the intention of “running it off”. Recovering alcoholics and addicts go one step further with the “sugar is better than substances” excuse.
No amount of running can undo the damage of a diet consistently lacking nutrients. In fact, the stress of running on top of a poor diet can create even more damaging effects. Therefore, the more you run, the more you crave processed food, then feel the need to run more to burn off those calories, creating an unhealthy cycle.
Recovering Women and Running
Physicist turned nutrition and performance scientist, John Kiefer makes the case for why women should not run. “Your body is a responsive, adaptive machine that evolved for survival. If you’re running on a regular basis, your body senses this excessive energy expenditure, and adjusts to compensate. Remember, no matter which way we hope the body works, its endgame is survival and reproduction.” (4)
Chronic endurance running has the ability to cause cardiac arrhythmias, atherosclerosis, oxidative stress, bad backs, osteoarthritis, hip and knee replacements and chronic tendonitis in both sexes. (5) Women have even more going against them with the risks of fertility problems, hormone imbalances, and thyroid damage. All of these conditions lead to gaining or losing too much weight, causing undue stress on the body.
The opposite of the woman consuming too much processed food is the woman suffering from Orthorexia. This type of woman tends to obsess over every calorie, while she holds herself to every standard of perfectionism when it comes to her diet and exercise regiment. She creates a dangerously low body fat situation by over-exercising and running. She puts herself in danger of becoming gravely ill. People can stay sober with poor health for a very long time, however our chances of long-term recovery remain higher with less stress.
The most tragic running addiction stories I’ve heard come from those who fall prey to injury. With their marathon and endurance running addiction gone, they go back to using because they still have the need to get the high they originally traded drugs with running for. Especially when battling pain from the injury. Because they replaced addictions so early in recovery, they didn’t focus on other tools used to maintain sobriety. People have overdosed and some have died as a result.
Many factors need to be considered in the decision to run or not. Humans have not adapted to the stress of long-distance running in conjunction with our stress-filled lives on top of a past of beating our bodies up with alcohol and drug addiction. However, inactivity won’t serve you either. Our entire goal in recovery needs to be learning to live in the grey zone. The decision to run doesn’t need to be black and white. Getting clean and sober means enjoying all of the experiences in life that drinking and using didn’t afford us. As recovering people, we simply need to make wise, mindful decisions about our choices.
If you’ve dreamed of running a half or whole marathon, you don’t have to throw that dream away. Make a pros and cons list about whether marathon training benefits your life. Before you begin, see your doctor for a physical (including blood work). Finishing a marathon could mean dealing with an impulse to run another. The high and pleasure of the experience may cause a drug-like response to your brain. Remember, recovery means letting go of addictive behaviors.
Feeling overwhelmed and wondering if you have to stop running right now? Perhaps you do need to stop immediately if your health suffers. If that’s not your situation, replace some of your long-distance running with walking, yoga, swimming, heavy lifting, and perhaps best of all…play!
To learn more about balanced living for recovering alcoholics and addicts, check out 6 Weeks to Evolved Recovery.