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How Exercise Keeps You Sober

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Exercise in Addiction: Too Much of A Good Thing?

By Jennifer Matesa

01/16/12

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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.

“I was able to get something a lot of addicts will never have, and that was the ability to come to this conclusion that I’m done, that I’ll never drink or use drugs again,” says Niemeyer, who gives motivational speaking appearances and coaches clients—some of them obese, some recovering from cancer and other health threats, and some recovering from addiction—privately from his practice in Boulder, Colo. “I don’t regularly attend meetings, but exercise is a huge component of my recovery. I don’t believe anyone who’s an addict can just stop engaging in that behavior and have that be a sustainable situation. … For me exercise was a very constructive physical outlet for the emotions I had.”

Can exercise “turn” on you? Both Crandell and Niemeyer talk about exercise in terms of balancing obsessive desire to meet personal expectations against a need, as recovering addicts, to rest in the satisfaction of achievement. “After every race, there’s an element of complete and utter satisfaction, no matter how I did,” Niemeyer says. “I haven’t had many good races. When you’re done, it’s a good time to reflect on how things are now with you as a person. It’s a cause for perpetual introspection.”

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