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Recovery from an addiction is difficult with long, intensive therapy sessions during rehab being standard in the treatment process. Quite rightly, these psychotherapy sessions and medications form the mainstay of treatment as they are clinically proven and really do help change your mindset, but there are additional ways less talked about that can promote your recovery.

One of these is exercise and, as this article will cover, it has been shown to not only benefit your body but also your mind. Whilst you can certainly sweat it out in your local gym, this article will focus on running, which can be done at any time and is free, only requiring a decent pair of running shoes.

Read on to see how running can fit into a holistic recovery programme.

How running affects your mind

As alluded to, not only does aerobic exercise help the physical body, strengthening your cardiovascular system and helping you to maintain a healthy weight, it can also have a profound, positive effect on your mind.

Part of the reason behind this has a molecular and physiological basis. You may have heard of the ‘runner’s high’ phenomenon where it has been documented that following an intense period of exercise, people have four distinct experiences, anxiolysis (reduction in anxiety), analgesia (reduction in physical pain), sedation and euphoria.

Looking at how this happens, when we begin to run, we breathe in faster and more deeply which allows us to take in more oxygen. Also, the heart pumps faster to get that oxygen in the blood to the muscles which need it.

These physiological changes can trigger the pituitary gland, which sits behind your nose, to release a number of molecules collectively known as endorphins or ‘endogenous morphine’.

This name gives a clue as to endorphins‘ role in the body as they bind opioid receptors throughout the brain and body to give us that feeling of euphoria similar to the feeling from other opioids such as morphine. Just like exogenous morphine, our own supply also helps inhibit pain signals, our own, natural painkiller!

In addition to endorphins, the physiological changes produced by aerobic exercise can also lead to the production of endocannabinoids, molecules produced by the body that are structurally similar to cannabis that bind the same receptors as cannabis. This in turn produces that same relaxed, happy feeling.

How running promotes recovery from addiction

The mechanisms by which running affects the mind can play a role in everyone’s wellbeing but can be particularly helpful for those struggling with addiction.

This is borne out by the medical literature with studies showing that aerobic exercise is beneficial in the treatment of a range of substance addictions. This effect is due to the biochemical process outlined above in addition to phycological and social factors.

For example, the development of addiction often stems from a maladaptive way of dealing with stress. This can be seen when individuals describe ‘triggering’ events, where something stressful happens and to deal with it, they reach to alcohol and drugs.

Instead of reaching to these exogenous sources of comfort that come at a significant cost, it is far better to reach for running shoes to help you deal with stress as you flood your body with those endogenous feel-good molecules. Your physical body will thank you too.

In addition to this, it has been proven that exercise is effective against certain mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression that often go hand-in-hand with addiction and can even drive it.

Taking a more psychological view, the sense of reward from completing a run can increase your self-esteem and be highly motivating giving you an extra boost to continue your journey to recover and engage in treatment.

Also, the simple act of timetabling in dedicated time for exercise alone can help bring some structure, proven to be beneficial in long-lasting recovery.

Additionally, the benefits don’t just stop when you finish your run. Research has shown that regular exercise can cause angiogenesis and neurogenesis in the brain, that is the formation of new blood vessels and new brain cells which can not only improve elements of cognition and mood but in some cases, even reverse the damage caused by long term drug and alcohol addiction.

Finally, there is the social aspect. Running like many other sports can generate support groups, providing the opportunity to meet other runners and share interests.

This can help with the recovery process as not only are you developing social skills that may have been affected by addiction, but also improving the chance of you finding a network that can provide peer support when you are having a difficult time.

How to incorporate running into your recovery process

Hopefully, by now this article will have convinced you of the benefits of running when overcoming an addiction. However, there are some practical points to bear in mind before you start to prevent you from doing more harm than good.

1. Seek advice from your doctor first

This in particularly pertinent if you are new to exercise or haven’t done it in a long time. All people should first seek advice to find out if they have any conditions that are contraindicated to running or require them to take extra precautions.

For example, if you have undiagnosed exercise-induced asthma, a doctor should pick this up and provide appropriate treatment such as an inhaler to take before exercising.

This is all the more important if you have a long-standing history of substance abuse as certain drugs and alcohol can be damaging to the heart, making you less able to take part in strenuous exercise safely.

Some people feel embarrassed about their substance use when they go to the doctors and may be tempted to conceal their history. Please try not to let this feeling affect you, it is definitely in your best interest to be open and honest and 9 times out of 10, your doctor will thank you for your honesty.

2. Make a weekly running schedule

Setting a regular schedule can help you develop the habit of running and then stick to it. As mentioned previously, having a schedule can be beneficial and help foster recovery. Additionally, provided you aren’t trying to do too much too fast, sticking to a schedule that includes regular rest days can reduce the risk of injury and fatigue.

Try to schedule your runs when you’re most likely to be feeling motivated and energised, for some that are in the morning before work and in the evening for others.

3. Find a partner

Finding a partner is a fantastic way to keep you accountable to your schedule and can make the whole experience a lot more fun! If you don’t have a partner to run with, remember that there are plenty of local running groups which as mentioned above, can be a source of support even outside of running.

4. Plan your route

Try to plan your running routes in such a way that you can avoid going past pubs, bars or other places where you might be tempted to acquire substances of abuse.


We hope the above offers some help in allowing you to see the value of running for those in addiction recovery.  To see a list of upcoming running events across the UK, see here.