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Outrunning Addiction: When Exercise Becomes the Problem

Can athletics be misused like drugs?

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Trivedi thinks the addicts getting “doses” of exercise will go more days without using drugs than the other groups.

Here's how it works: Most people think exercise works to distract addicts from obsessing about using, but Trivedi believes it also boosts critical brain chemicals—dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin—the same chemicals sparked by most drugs of addiction. Trivedi’s team will be testing subjects not just for number of days abstinent but also gauging their improvements in mood, weight, sleep, quality of life. Trivedi cites animal studies that have shown exercise can spur the nervous system’s ability to heal itself, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. In short, he says, exercise re-grooves our memory pathways, which can often be battered by extensive substance use.

“There is an assumption that patients that have [addiction] are unable to imprint or engage—lay down—new memories that would help them avoid repeating the behavior that gets them to engage in drug-use,” Trivedi says. “But the brain can adapt very easily. You have to work at it, but the brain does adapt significantly. It’s not like you’re born with the brain and it never changes.”

Recovering addicts who are also elite athletes say exercise keeps their moods stable. For example Catra Corbett, 47, of the Bay Area, former meth addict and swiller of Bacardi 151, now cross-fit athlete, fast-packer, solo trail-runner and ultra-marathoner with 19 years sober and more than 200 ultras notched on her belt, more than a quarter of them 100-milers. She preaches the gospel of extreme fitness. "What drives me to run?" she has  said. "Keeping me clean and sober and sane."

Todd Crandell, 45, a counselor and founder of the Toledo-based Racing for Recovery, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent substance abuse by promoting health and fitness, says “I notice even the different types of exercise can make a difference in how it helps you to overcome a bad mood. If I run, I’m perfect for the day. If I have to cycle or swim, I’m just so-so.” Crandell quit living in his car and drinking two fifths of whisky in 1993. So far, he has finished 20 Ironman triathlons. Last year Crandell completed an Ironman in South Africa with a guy who had first seen Crandell’s story on TV while smoking in a crack house.
More than 4,500 addicts have come through his program, he says, and his organization has set up 5K races for thousands around the country.

Crandell started out his recovery with two years in AA, got tired of “talking about how much coke I snorted,” he says, then quickly found out he could set athletic goals for himself and master them, which gave him a sense of accomplishment and structure. He pushed himself all the way to finishing Ultraman races—three-day events that involve a 6-mile swim, 261-mile bike ride, and 52-mile run.

At one point, he says, exercise took over his life: he was running 50 to 70 miles per week, and he lost perspective and a great deal of time with wife and four kids.

“It was like, Dude—get a hold of yourself, there’s more to life than this. It started to cost me dearly,” he says. Now, he says, “I need six miles of running a day and I’m good. Exercise, to me, is an essential part of a balanced, holistic way of living.” In his counseling practice he coaches other recovering addicts on how to stay fit and maintain perspective.

Are they just trading one addiction for another? “For a lot of people exercise is definitely a form of disassociation. For me it’s not nearly to the degree as when I was drinking a fifth of liquor a day and shooting five bags of heroin,” says Shane Niemeyer, 36. In 2003, at 27, Niemeyer was arrested in Idaho for drug possession and burglary. In jail, he tried to hang himself and failed. While recuperating in a straitjacket he came across some magazine stories about triathletes. He turned the pages with his toes and decided that if killing himself hadn’t worked out, he’d—well—he’d become a triathlete. And he did. For the past two years he has raced in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

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