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Can Running Help You Overcome Addiction?

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According to a 2015 report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately 24.6 million Americans aged 12 and older admitted to using an illicit drug in 2013. Even more alarming, though, is the fact that there were 2.8 million new illicit drug users in the US in that same year. That’s 7 800 new drug users every, single day. And of these new users, more than half were under the age of 18.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because in addition to the use of illicit drugs, a whopping 30.2% of men in the US aged 12 and older admitted to binge drinking in 2013. Add to that the 28.7 million people who had driven under the influence of alcohol at least once during that year, and it is clear that the situation is far from ideal.

There is, however, good news too. More and more people who were previously caught up in the web of addiction are crediting running as one of the pivotal things that helped them break free. And while this may sound too good to be true to some, a number of experts and research findings are backing them up.

How Can Running Help Overcome Addiction?

So how exactly does running help to overcome addition? According to Dr John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, running gives you a boost of dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. Which is not very different from taking a small dose of Prozac and Ritalin. Dr Wendy Lynch, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioural sciences at the University of Virginia, agrees. Especially in the earlier stages of drug addiction, the brain’s secretion of “pleasure-jolting” dopamine in reaction to drug use acts as main motivation for continued use. And since exercise also activates the release of dopamine, it could act as an alternative to drug reward, thereby preventing future use.

Running May Mitigate the Damage Caused by Drug Addiction

But that’s not all. A 2012 study published in Synapse found that, in animals, voluntary exercise after a meth binge diminished the damage caused to the brain by this drug. This damage includes long-lasting injury to both the dopaminergic and serotonergic terminals of the forebrain.

This study also went on to confirm that “voluntary exercise may exert beneficial effects on behavior in recovering mAMPH addicts”.

Running and Maintaining Sobriety

A number of individuals recovering from addiction have also reported that they find running even more effective than other, discussion-based support groups in the quest for maintaining sobriety. But how? Because running comes with a built-in support group. The chances are good that, on your running journey, you’ll meet new running friends at club runs or even online, who will support and encourage you to keep going. Plus you’ll find purpose in your new role of supporting and cheering on others!

But there’s more to it than meets the eye. In addition to support from this new-found running tribe, several (animal) studies have found that exercise may also be responsible for reducing substance cravings by regulating glutamate signalling. Even modest amounts of exercise, especially during the early stages of abstinence, can thereby reverse relapse vulnerability.

An Important Note

A word of caution, though. Wonderful as this reported role of running in addiction recovery may be, it is important to keep in mind that it’s not a quick fix. Having the expectation that a handful of runs will cure your addiction overnight is sure to leave you disappointed. It can, however, help you along your journey of recovery if approached correctly. Here are a few tips for making it work:

  • Always get your doctor’s approval before embarking on a fitness journey, especially if you’re over 40. Keep in mind that years of substance abuse may have caused damage to your heart and other organs, which may have weakened your body’s ability to deal with physical activity. It is therefore extremely important to be completely open and honest about your history of substance abuse during this pre-running consultation with your doctor.
  • To set yourself up for long-term success, invest in proper running shoes that are suited to your feet, as well as comfortable, moisture-wicking running apparel.
  • Follow a running program that suits your fitness level and schedule. Block out specific times in your diary for running and stick to it. It’s important to not just run when you feel like it.

  • Ease into running and don’t set your expectations too high. Take things one day at a time and don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle at first.
  • Join a running club or get a training partner. Finding a new tribe will keep you motivated and keep things fun.
  • Avoid running routes riddled with temptations. Find routes that don’t go past bars or areas where you used to get your fix.
  • Keep balance in your life. While running can play an important role in addiction recovery, it shouldn’t be the only important thing in your life. Remember to also focus on rebuilding meaningful relationships and spending time on other, productive and healthy interests.
  • Work on building good sleeping and nutritional habits in addition to your running efforts.
  • Have the courage to discuss any personal struggles or weak spots with your doctor or therapist.
 Running Towards a Healthier, Happier Future

So while running will definitely not cure an addiction overnight, it can play an important role in moving towards a healthier, happier future. Sure, it won’t be easy. But it will definitely be worth it. The most important thing is to just have the courage to take that first step.


  1. Candice Rasa, Why running is a good activity for recovering addicts, Online publication
  2. Charlotte Hilton Andersen, Running Helped Me Conquer My Addiction to Cocaine, Online publication
  3. Jean-Paul Bedard, How Running Helped Me Overcome Addiction, Online publication
  4. Caleb Daniloff, Why running could be the answer to beating addiction, Online publication
  5. S.J. O'Dell et al., Running wheel exercise ameliorates methamphetamine-induced damage to dopamine and serotonin terminals, Scientific journal
  6. Shelley Leone, Real Runners: How Running Contributed To My Addiction Recovery, Online publication
  7. W.J. Lynch et al., Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: a neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis, Scientific journal
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse Staff, Illicit drug use, Online publication