By Eric Robert H.
Receiving treatment in Southern California comes with many perks. One of the most apparent perks is the beautiful weather that finds a surreal balance along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. In an effort to change my life for the better, I entered treatment without any grand expectations, just happy to get closer to the shorelines of California than I already was. Surrendering my daily schedule to the care and direction of a treatment facility left me with little free time and created a great appreciation for down time I used to fill with consuming alcohol. Running outdoors, taking advantage of the SoCal weather became a vital part of my life in early recovery.
In addition to alcoholism, I suffer from anxiety and depression, so I’ve utilized exercise prior to rehab as a means of lifting my spirits, getting vitamin D and initiating the release of endorphins. Of course, at the end of my run allowing alcohol to lead me to emotional despair, I took responsibility for the lifestyle that was causing me tremendous pain both mentally and physically. Dan Harmon, famous Co-Creator of the cartoon series “Rick and Morty”, recently responded to a fans inquiry about living with depression with a series of tweets. The following stuck with me as I identified with necessity to accept the feeling for what it is:
“For One: Admit and accept that it’s happening. Awareness is everything. We put ourselves under so much pressure to feel good. It’s okay to feel bad. It might be something you’re good at! Communicate it. DO NOT KEEP IT SECRET. Own it. Like a hat or jacket. Your feelings are real.” – @danharmon (https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/wjzqm5/rick-and-morty-dan-harmon-tweets-depression-advice)
Before and after entering rehab, running released the pressure of having to feel good. Pushing my body to exhaustion caused bad feelings that linger in being sedentary to diminish. If we are as ‘sick as our secrets’, running outed me; revealed my darkest secret: I’m sad on the inside and need to do something to make myself feel better – I don’t care if you watch.
I do not consider myself a guru of recovery, health & fitness by any means but will advocate for the beneficial and positive power of exercise. Sharing from my experience, it’s necessary to start off small. The father of one my fraternity brothers who coached a high school track & field team’s long distance runners once suggested that when starting to run on a daily basis think of it as “adding a penny a day.” What he meant by that was simply do a little bit more each day. Run a little bit further and allow your body to get used to the steady increase of stresses. Starting small and adding a little distance each day resulted in massive gains over time and rather than feeling sore for days on end, I had energy enough to jog each day I could afford the time.
The science behind the power of running in regards to recovery is gaining more traction year after year as substance abuse gains attention as well. Shape.com reports “researchers at the University of Missouri Columbia recently found that running causes the same kind of neurochemical adaptations in the brain that are shared by addictive drugs.” (https://www.shape.com/fitness/cardio/11-science-backed-reasons-running-really-good-you)
Chad Rethorst, a psychiatrist with the O’Donnell Brain Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern maintains that “Exercise acts on the same reward pathways of the brain as drugs themselves, stimulating the release of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine.” (https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/pazev8/running-addiction-recovery) Isn’t that what the addict wants: to just feel good and alright? Vice.com interviewed an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville who asserts running is “functioning as an alternative reward.” Vice concluded that “physical activity replaces some of what’s been lost, reducing the drive to seek out chemical fixes.” (https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/pazev8/running-addiction-recovery)
I’m grateful my personality thrives on structure and routine however, I’ve encountered many in recovery who simply lack experience in living a structured life. Making time for running not only requires planning in advance but also prevents substance abuse that could detract from reaching the objective of hitting the pavement. Marathoner Carly Houser used running to influence her climb to sobriety as well. When Vice interviewed her she stated, “On a basic level, a physical activity that forces structure into your day-to-day schedule provides much-needed parameters to start building a new life. “As a person who was active in their addiction for so long, there was no structure in my life whatsoever. When I started training for my first half marathon, it was 12 to 13 weeks of something every day that I had put toward this goal that I had.” She, like I, found strength in planning ahead and making time for training. The result of doing so fortifies the success of one’s daily reprieve in maintaining sobriety.
If you get really into running while in early recovery, you may find yourself running half-marathons before you take a 90-day chip. If that is the case, understand that you have found a power greater than yourself: balance.
It may be in your best interest to sign-up and participate in marathon charity events in your local area. Setting attainable objectives not to win the race but simply to participate can increase the efficacy of your recovery program and also introduce you to other people that are interested in running rather than others inhibited by addiction and substance abuse.
Another crucial benefit of running I experienced was combining it with meditation. Running with music is always fun but switching to a playlist of binaural beats. These beats send two different frequencies to each ear and initiate a trance-like reaction in the brain. Binaural beats are great resources even when doing traditional meditation, sitting in one place. Andrew Newberg, neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania has research on the brain while in prayer and meditation. He draws attention to the parietal lobes of the brain that are “responsible for sensory awareness and orients us in the world. Newberg believes that the drop in activity during meditation and prayer explains that sense of oneness we feel with the universe when engaged in these focused activities.” (https://www.binauralbeatsmeditation.com/the-science/) Talk about feeling good after a run! Try listening to binaural beats a few times a week while focusing on some typical ideologies of recovery like serenity, love, hope, faith, success and happiness. This will help you practice the 11th step of AA’s program and burn some calories while you’re at it.
After years of burning brain cells, running gives us a chance to gain some back. London’s Journal of Physiology found that “Running activates and enhances neuron reserves in the human brain, which are central to the brain’s capacity to learn” which “can help you develop massive cognitive gains”. (https://www.shape.com/fitness/cardio/11-science-backed-reasons-running-really-good-you) Ultimately, any alcoholic or addict that is capable, able and willing can reap the massive benefits of running. Get a decent pair shoes, create an invigorating playlist and run for your life! You are certainly worth it.