Patient Perspective: To Quit and Run

I can quit smoking any time I want. I do it all the time. This was my idea of a joke, for years.

I had tried to quit smoking probably fifteen different times. Once, I succeeded in quitting for almost two years. When that failed, I realized the temptation to smoke would always be there. But in the summer of 2007, I threw away my last carton of cigarettes. No particular reason. No meds. No hypnosis. So, how did I pull it off?

I’ve got an addictive personality. And what I did was to replace one “crutch” with another – running. I wasn’t fully aware that I was doing this. I certainly didn’t know if it would work. But looking back, it’s a damn good thing I’ve got an addictive personality.

When I started running in my mid-30s, I was 20-pounds overweight and connected to my desk chair (I’m a lawyer). Yep, that meant I ate every meal out of a cardboard box and slept about five hours a night. Everyone who’s ever come late to the “health party” knows that the first few “runs” are excruciating. Truth be told, running is always excruciating.

But what I realized is this: there’s nothing wrong with excruciating. So I can only go a block. So it takes 13 minutes. So I feel like I’m gonna die. So what? If I don’t stop smoking, I am gonna die.

I made myself see that every step I take matters because it’s making me a tiny bit healthier. I literally counted my steps with a pedometer for the first year or so (yes, that’s a little bit insane!), but it gave me something to do while I was trying not to die. It was a daily reminder that something good was happening to my body.

And little by little, month by month, I got better. Healthier. Stronger. Every day, I would push myself just a tiny bit further than the day before. I can make it to a quarter mile; half-mile. Three miles. I can run a mile in under ten minutes. Nine. Seven. I can run one in just five minutes.

When I wanted to smoke, I’d run. And when I couldn’t run, I’d remind myself that I’ve been killing it to get into shape. . . and even just one cigarette would destroy all that hard work. And it is hard work. But in the end, meeting my goal felt better than any cigarette ever made me feel!

What worked for me, once I got through the “dark ages” (step-counting and trying not to die), was setting this rule: Run every other calendar day (no matter what). And a sub-rule: Bring a new challenge to each of your runs. An extra half mile, go ten- seconds faster, climb an additional hill. And this ultimately replaced my addiction.

Plus, it led to a virtuous cycle. Running helped me to start sleeping and eating better, which in turn made it easier for me to run. I lost 20 pounds in the process. I never “learned” how to run, but as I got in better shape, I started reading magazine articles and experimenting with different drills and techniques. I self-taught myself to run barefoot, and I also used some counterintuitive biomechanics that have done wonders for my knees. I tried out different stretching techniques and worked on other skills that would make me a better runner. Then I got a personal trainer who has introduced me to health and fitness in ways in which I had never even imagined!

Just practicing self-control can help an addiction, says the folks at the National Institute of Health, and you have to start somewhere. Running isn’t going to work for everyone. So maybe biking will work for you, or even karate.

I’ve heard people say “I can’t get up the energy.” If you say that, you’re already overthinking this. You don’t need to get up any energy. Just put on a pair of sneakers, and go. Every time you feel the urge to smoke. Go as far and as fast as you can. It doesn’t matter that you got winded tying your laces. Just give it a try because it’s possible that a couple of years from now, you will break a 6-minute mile along with your addiction.