Cory Bataan’s running habit built over time, much the way his addiction did. He clearly recalls how he got into the sport: One day around 2013, the once-fit former college football player ran from his Bellmore, New York, home to catch his train—then couldn’t stop wheezing and sweating the entire 55-minute ride into the city. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” he says.
One of his medications, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, had caused his weight to balloon to more than 300 pounds; the train experience left him determined to reclaim his health. So he took a few steps on a treadmill, which soon turned into regular 30-minute walk-runs. In 2014, he ran a 5K for charity. “That felt good. Then I did a 10K; it felt better. I did a half marathon, and it felt better than the 10K,” he says. “I did a marathon, which was on my bucket list. But I didn’t stop there because I’m an addict. I did another one and another one, because of the feeling I got.”
A similar progression led him from his first drink in 10th grade to alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use disorders. But unlike his reliance on drugs and booze—which left him standing outside in a blizzard in a T-shirt and jeans on a cold February night in 2005, begging strangers for $50 and a ride to his dealer’s house—his new compulsion comes with positive consequences.
Four marathons later, he’s claimed a calmer mind, a healthier heart, a new business called First Step Recovery Services that helps others get help, and the admiration of his friends and family. “When you’re an addict in your darkest times, everyone around you—especially the people you love—tells you you’re a piece of garbage. And you’ve earned it,” he says. Now, his parents, wife, and children stand at finish lines instead, cheering with pride for his accomplishments.
Bataan is just one of many who’ve used running to attain—or maintain—sobriety. Authors like Caleb Daniloff and Charlie Engle have published memoirs detailing their transformations from junkie to jock. Programs like Run for Your Life at the Odyssey House treatment centers in New York encourage those in residential treatment facilities to lace up running shoes and pin on race bibs. And in a powerful video for shoe company Hoka One One, ultrarunner Catra Corbett details her journey from being jailed for selling meth to running 100-mile ultramarathons.
Carly Houser, now 32, first started drinking heavily when she split with her boyfriend two weeks after moving to New York to be with him. Within a couple of years, she’d added cocaine to the mix, and she blacked out more days than not. She woke up on September 11, 2012, in a place she didn’t recognize; when she looked in the mirror, blood covered her face.
That awakening led her to a 12-step program, and once her life stabilized, an urge to continue improving her health. The day after her 28th birthday, she Googled “how do I become a runner?” She found a cheat sheet with instructions—walk for one minute, run for one minute, and repeat ten times—and took it with her to the gym treadmill.
Eventually, she transitioned to the roads, running her first half marathon in 2014 and then three marathons—first New York City in 2015, then one in her hometown of Orange County, and then NYC again in 2016.
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,” she says. “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.” Houser relearned to plan ahead and evaluate her priorities, skills she’d lost in the swirl of her substance use.
Short-term goals like races also boost self-efficacy, giving people in recovery more confidence to persevere on days when they feel shaky. And especially if you join a group, running and other sports bring an entirely new social community of people who aren’t using, says Mark Stoutenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Miami who also works with the American College of Sport Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine program.
Running also seems to transform bodies and reshape minds in ways that scientists increasingly understand aren’t just behavioral, but also biological. Some of the sport’s perks set in almost immediately. Exercise acts on the same reward pathways of the brain as drugs themselves, stimulating the release of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, says Chad Rethorst, a psychiatrist with the O’Donnell Brain Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern.
Over time, people with substance use disorders need higher and higher levels of dopamine to feel the same euphoria. Of course, quitting your drug of choice cuts off the body’s primary source. Physical activity replaces some of what’s been lost, reducing the drive to seek out chemical fixes. “It’s functioning as an alternative reward—one that is also incompatible, in many ways, with drug use,” says Wendy, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville.
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Houser relates: “Every time I hit a new milestone, it was just incredible,” she says. “This sounds strange, but I felt this high that I had never felt before—with any drugs, with any alcohol. I felt this self-love and determination that I had never felt before in my life. Running gave that to me.”
Though Houser didn’t struggle much with cravings after a while, those who do might try getting up and moving. In one British study, when heavy drinkers went for a 15-minute walk instead of resting, their urge for a drink declined. “Your body can’t sustain cravings for very long, and [exercise] helps dissipate that much quicker,” says Jeremiah Weinstock, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Louis University. He also believes that because working out mimics some of the physical symptoms of cravings—sweaty palms, racing heart—the brain has an easier time explaining them away, diminishing their power.
Substance use disorders also go hand in hand with other mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. By rebalancing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, physical activity alleviates symptoms of these conditions—and with them, the need to self-medicate, Stoutenberg says. A recent meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials found compelling evidence that breaking a sweat reduces symptoms of depression, especially when study participants engaged in moderate to vigorous aerobic activities like running.
And then there’s the way the brain copes with stress. When you’re exposed to a tense situation—be it a physical threat like a growling dog or a less tangible challenge like a looming deadline—the brain’s hormonal control center, the hypothalamus, springs into action. Via a system called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (or HPA) axis, it zips signals to the hormone factories in your endocrine glands, which then start pumping out the stress hormone cortisol to prepare you to fight or flee.
In people with a healthy stress response, cortisol eventually binds to receptors in cells around the body and disappears. But both substance use and the factors that predispose people to develop it, such as genetic vulnerabilities and traumatic experiences, interfere with this process. The result is what doctors call dysregulation—higher levels of cortisol to begin with and a harder time clearing it after stressful events pass. “I like to think of it as a leaky faucet,” Weinstock says. People with substance use disorders “end up experiencing stress more intensely, and for a longer period of time.”
The physiological strain of exercise also produces a stress response and a cortisol surge, but to a much more controlled degree. “Basically, it’s like practice for turning the cortisol response on and off,” Weinstock says. Over time, working out builds resilience that can reduce the need for pills or bottles to cope.
That type of explanation rings true to Bataan, who says he appreciates running in general and the marathon distance specifically, in part because of the difficulty. “The pain—you know, I guess I like the pain,” he says. “I like to put myself through it, I like to be able to get through it, to be able to say that I conquered it.”
Most intriguingly of all, perhaps, are more recently discovered pathways by which exercise may permanently change the brain in ways that help preserve sobriety. Here’s how it appears to work, according to Lynch: Soon after people with addiction enter recovery, their brains display deficits not only in dopamine activity but also various other neurobiological processes. That includes the release of a compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which stimulates the growth of new brain cells and neural connections.
The low levels of these compounds early on in recovery alter the brain in ways that put people recovering from addiction at risk of relapse later on, as the brain overcompensates and drives former users to seek new highs. But because exercise boosts levels of both dopamine and BDNF, when people exercise early enough in recovery “it’s preventing the depletion, which then prevents the other changes that occur as a result of the depletion,” she says.
In a study published last year, Lynch found that when cocaine-dependent rats were introduced to an exercise wheel within a week after researchers cut off access to the drug, they no longer sought out a new fix a week later. Meanwhile, those who either stayed sedentary or jumped on the wheel later on—during week two—sought out cocaine again when they had the chance.
If the results hold true in humans, that could explain the long-term power of exercise for so many in recovery—and also why, as Stoutenberg points out, physical activity hasn’t been proven to be universally effective in drug and alcohol treatment programs. Part of the problem is simply getting people to stick to a workout regimen when they’re dealing with so many other changes in life. But, biologically speaking, it could also be that scientists need to fine-tune the optimal dose and timing in order to maximize the results for each individual. “It isn’t one size fits all,” Stoutenberg says.
While many questions remain about the underlying mechanisms and optimal regimen, those like Bataan and Houser who found running on their own swear it saved them. Soon after the New York City Marathon this year—which he finished in 5:40:45 despite having a hip injury—Bataan found himself researching registration for next year. “I just want my heart to be healthy, and to be able to spend a nice life with my family,” he says. “If I don’t stay sober, and if I don’t stay spiritually fit and physically fit, I’m not going to be here.”
And though she’s not training for anything at the moment, Houser still goes for short runs a few times a week, on what she calls “Carly time.” Even though her running routine looks somewhat different now, Houser says she remains grateful to the sport for opening up doors she never knew existed. “I had really thought my life was going to be over once I stopped drinking—but in fact, my life began,” she says. “Running is something that will always be a part of me, because it dramatically changed me.”
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