Is Running Addictive?


Kirsten Macnab |

By Jess Nicholson
Photographs Craig Kolesky and Bruce Viaene

How far should you push mind over matter? The experts weigh in.

Running, apart from being physically healthy and rewarding, can be a great way to tackle life’s miseries, big and small. The reason: it helps people chill out. “As I run, the problems that have been screaming in my brain start to make less of a noise. I gradually stop thinking so much and exist in the present moment. By the end of the run my thoughts have stopped their circular cycle and I feel better: the day’s frustrations and anxieties have been lifted and I can think with a fresh and clear resolve,” says recreational and marathon runner Jens Reuning.

Psychiatrist Matthew Ehrlich says running is generally a healthy coping mechanism: a way to be mindful, reduce anxiety and depression and help people focus. It releases natural feel-good chemicals. “It is like an addiction because often people want to do it more and more because it is helping them feel better about life, but it is not necessarily unhealthy. When it starts to cause dysfunction or distress to an individual, then it might be problematic, or become a behavioural addiction. A runner might be spending all his spare time running, or all his money on running, and this then has a negative impact on his marriage or family or work life.”

“When a person is running despite damaging his body, this may indicate a more serious need. When ultra-marathoners, for example, push their bodies too hard, they force the brain to release protective chemicals to suppress pain. These chemicals are addictive. Some of the same brain systems are being activated when you take painkillers.”

In a similar way, opioids like heroin also reduce pain and eliminate negative emotions. “The problem with substance addiction is the drug will reset the brain’s pleasure centre, meaning addicts will need something more and more extreme in order to feel good. And the problem with heroin is that it destroys the brain’s pleasure centre completely, sometimes forever. This is why it is so dangerous. For many people, there just is no way to experience pleasure after heroin.”

Read about Hylton Dunn’s story as he tackled his drug addiction with running.

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