I’m gone, I’ve spotted a gap in the fence and I’ve taken it. No phone, no work no nappies or roaring toddlers and no housework for a couple of hours. I’m looking forward to a nice dose of suffering, I mean running. Between the aches and pains, and wiping the snot dripping from my nose I’ll sort out my life, make plans and relive moments and conversations I’ve had during the previous week. Running is the opportunity to be uninterrupted, nobody else’s thoughts or words invade. It is an assured space away from a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be unreachable. More than anything, however, running provides sanity; a time in every day that brings focus and time to make mental progress and sort out issues. Even when running in a group, the weekly long run is alone time, the moment of the day when I do my most productive thinking. Thinking about nothing in particular, but the mind naturally finds topics to focus on. It is usually things that have been avoided all week. Life changing decisions are made, new businesses born and families planned whilst running. Non Runners sometimes dismiss running as a way of life but for me it’s a means of appreciating and understanding it. The positive effects of running on my mood and my outlook have been clear to me and my family, as with most runners. These individual revelations are now supported by a growing body of research.
We live in a world of comfort; modern technology has given, and continues to provide us with the amenities we need to live a comfortable life. The inconvenience of a broken escalator is cursed; we work with our fingertips and relax on the couch. But is it robbing us of our need for discomfort? The normal human state – to walk around the world as we work, gather food, and play, is progressively more alien to us. And even when it is near, we often perceive it to be inaccessible, maybe due to fear. “Training and fitness” has become so manicured, scheduled and planned. It’s clean and bleached, timed and measured. Maybe sometimes it just needs to be dirty, spontaneous and enjoyable. Running brings the body to the cliff edge of pain and sometimes we fall off to swim in pool of hurt. So why do we do it? What is the reason we voluntarily run and suffer? It’s in search of the elusive “runners high”? This neurobiological reward (runners high) is often reported by runners and is thought to result in habitual running – addictive behaviour, in an effort to get the next fix (Raichlen et al., 2012).
But is it real?? Some claim to experience this phenomenon regularly while others still run in hope of an encounter. Scientific research regarding this runners high is utterly unconvincing, But there is general consensus that the high is caused by the either the completion of the challenge or the release of endorphins. Whatever the mechanism It has shown that running brings about actual changes in mental status, provides pain relief, promotes calmness and results in an improved a sense of wellbeing (Dietrich & McDaniel, 2004). The physical effects of regular running are easy to measure, they can be seen. Muscles become leaner and stronger, and compliments follow. The heart and lungs become more efficient, so the initial breathlessness that is felt soon abates. But running not only makes muscle cells stronger, it also strengthens brain cells. It is now well recognized that endurance exercise can stimulate the growth of brain cells and can improve cognitive function (Mattson, 2012).
Apparently better runners, the really quick ones, monitor their body throughout runs. They think about how their legs feel, breathing rates, and running form. Amateur midpack and backpack runners like me tend to try and distract themselves by thinking about anything else other than the pain of running (Morgan & Pollock, 1977). I’ll settle for that because in the lowest point of many runs I have had my greatest clarity of thought, insight and perspective. Running has become for me a time of reflection, a type of meditation through movement. It forces me to live in the now and deal with the present. By the end of a these runs I can see past my worries having found resolutions and I have never finished a run in a worse mood than when I started.
Dietrich A & McDaniel WF. (2004). Endocannabinoids and exercise. Br J Sports Med 38, 536-541.
Mattson MP. (2012). Evolutionary aspects of human exercise–born to run purposefully. Ageing Res Rev 11, 347-352.
Morgan WP & Pollock ML. (1977). Psychologic characterization of the elite distance runner. Ann N Y Acad Sci 301, 382-403.
Raichlen DA, Foster AD, Gerdeman GL, Seillier A & Giuffrida A. (2012). Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’. J Exp Biol 215, 1331-1336.