Can experiencing a ‘runner’s high’ actually help you get and stay sober? We have got the answers for you.

Photo credit Darren Wheeler PTO

More and more people are recognising the value of exercise in overcoming addiction, and fitness therapy is now being integrated into many addiction treatment programmes. However, it was not until recently that we started to understand exactly why exercise is so helpful for those struggling with addiction. New research suggests that ‘runner’s high‘ — the feeling of euphoria that runners experience — activates the same areas of the brain as drug addiction, and this could be one reason why exercise is a valuable tool for those in addiction recovery.

From Addict to Ironman

For Lionel Sanders, replacing his cocaine highs with a runner’s high led him to a career as a professional triathlete. He is now a contestant and frontrunner in the 2015 Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii.Sanders had become what he describes as a hard-core cocaine addict for several years. He was losing his life and sanity in the downward spiral of addiction, but luckily he had a personal revelation and found his turning point towards a life in recovery.

Sanders had been a runner since the 3rd grade and competed in high school cross country. In 2009, he decided to go for a run again after not running for years during his addiction. His first run took him through a graveyard where he says he had a “transcendent experience” and realised that running could help save his life. Soon after that first run, he joined his mother in a 10k race and then in 2010 he signed up for his first Ironman competition.

Like many addicts, his journey to get sober was not completely smooth. He still struggled with re-establishing his mental health and relapsed three times. However, in training for the Ironman he found purpose and meaning in his life — a key to successfully living sober and in long-term recovery. “I researched what an Ironman was and saw that it takes discipline and motivation. Everything I did not have back then,” he said.

Through his self-discipline, goal setting, and perhaps the added benefit of runner’s high triggering his reward systems he finished his first Ironman competition, and went on to continue training and gaining recognition as a triathlete.

Now in preparation for the Ironman World Championships, Sanders is aiming for a win. He says he has an advantage — being a former drug addict. He believes that what makes you successful can also cause your detriment. For him, the same focus and energy that he once used to pursue his cocaine addiction is now put into his sport, and it could make him the world champion Ironman.

How Experiencing ‘Runner’s High’ can Help People Overcome Addiction

Runner’s high is described by runners as a feeling of euphoria achieved after a running a certain distance. However, runners are not the only athletes that experience this phenomena. Different forms of physical activity can all lead to feeling on top of the world.Researchers have found that exercise can activate the same reward and pleasure pathways in the brain as taking drugs. During exercise, endorphins such as dopamine are released and activate receptors in the brain — leading to the experience of runner’s high.

Addiction is a disorder of the reward centre in the brain. People who develop addictions generally have a pre-existing condition in which they do not experience pleasure and reward the same as ‘normal’ people, and therefore seek out experiences to counter this deficiency. Unfortunately, this is often through the use of drugs that boost dopamine.

Therefore, finding other healthy ways to experience pleasure and reward is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to recovery. Exercising is one way to achieve this, and it does not take becoming a professional triathlete like Sanders to experience a runner’s high and gain the benefits that physical activity has to offer for recovering addicts.

Sanders is not the only athlete who has written about how pushing their physical and mental limits by running has helped them get and stay sober. In his memoir, “The Long Run,” Mishka Shubaly writes about his journey from alcoholism to ultra-runner, by running at first 5 miles at a time, then 10, then 50. In 2011 the memoir reached No. 1 on Amazon’s Kindle Singles list, which means people are interested in how exercise can be used to overcome our worst demons.

While the research base is increasing, there are still aspects of runner’s high that are difficult to explain. It seems that runner’s high is a combination of endorphin release, positive environment, and a sort of out-of-body experience in which the mind takes over when the body wants to quit — a phenomena that has not yet been attributed to endorphins alone. It is this out-of-body experience that Shubaly, and others who have turned to running to fight their addictions, find so powerful.

It is not all about Runner’s High: Other Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

While the experience of runner’s high is the motivation that many use to tie up their running shoes each day, you do not have to run miles, or even reach this state of euphoria for exercise to be beneficial in recovery. Light exercise such as walking may not produce the ‘high,’ but still releases feel-good chemicals in the brain.After completing a drug or alcohol rehab, recovering addicts are usually leaving behind a lot — all the ‘friends’ and daily life habits they once knew. Developing new lifestyle habits and support networks are both necessary to sustain sobriety. Exercise and sporting groups can help people form new friendships through positive activities and bring a needed and comforting structure to daily life.

Exercise has also been shown to help with other things that those in early recovery struggle with, such as getting a good night’s sleep and reducing depressive symptoms. Stress is a huge relapse trigger and even mild exercise can help people manage stress.

All of this is why many leading addiction treatment programmes, including The Cabin Chiang Mai’s addiction treatment centre incorporate a fitness programme into their overall treatment plans with the goal of creating lasting habits to help people prevent relapse and lead healthy lives in recovery.

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