I personally find it interesting the percent of individuals who run ultras who are in recovery. I can only speak towards the ultra and trail running community in the MN/WI areas, but it seems like a really high percentage! I could not find any research on this topic, which makes me wish I had my PhD so I could do my own research (no, I am not going back to school…again).
When is running a cross-addiction vs. a healthy way to stay sober? First, let’s look at the DSM 5 diagnostic criteria for a Substance Use Disorder:
1. Taking the substance in larger amounts of for longer than you meant to
2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
4. Cravings and urges to use the substance
5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use
6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
8. Using the substance again and again, even when it puts you in danger
9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could be caused or made worse by the substance
10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect that you want (tolerance)
11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved y taking more of the substance
All of these areas are important, but I think the key areas to help gauge whether ultra-running is a cross-addiction vs. a means to stay sober are numbers 5-8. Training for ultras is time consuming, that is, if you are training EFFECTIVELY. To be able to train your body to withstand the load that is going to be placed on it during a 50k and up to a multi-day event takes hours and miles of training. This is not addiction, but rather effective training to improve performance and to also reduce the risk of injury.
I am not a professional runner, but I still spend 10-18 hours a week running, biking, speed walking, and doing strength training. This is very time consuming, but it does not interfere with me managing my daily obligations.
So, when does running become an addiction? Again, go back to points 5-8. Does it cause problems in the runner's life with work, relationships, health, and other life obligations? This could mean that the runner consistently runs late to work and is at risk of losing their job, or the runner has daily conflict with their partner due to the amount of time they spend running. Or, the runner does not get enough sleep, skips meals, and experiences chronic sickness because running is consuming too much time that they do not have time for basic self-care. If the training does to get in the way of meeting daily obligations, taking care of themselves, and does not cause conflict in relationship then they are running in a way that allows them to train effectively and also meet the demands of their daily life.
Are you in recovery? How is running a part of your journey in recovery?
*As a running coach with a work background in mental health and addiction, it is my goal to help runners in recovery incorporate running into their journey of recovery and avoid going down the path of cross-addiction. Although I am no longer a licensed addiction counselor, I can still help individuals in recovery learn to run in a way that is healthy and identify when it might be time to work with an addiction counselor if running has become a cross-addiction.