By Erika Thompson
With the recent completion of the Amsterdam half-marathon, I hang up my finisher’s medal among the rest with pride. It feels like an accomplishment and in that moment, I am invincible and immediately sign up for my next challenge: the Barcelona Half-Marathon in February 2014. But then Monday comes and I wake up with stiffness, aching and soreness as I waddle around the city and grip the railing with white knuckles descending down the staircase. Tuesday comes and I opt for a glorious nap after a long day instead of the obligatory workout. Wednesday comes and my 5km run feels like it will never end… and I think on days like these, why do I intentionally put myself through grueling events like this over and over again? The answer: runner’s high.
According to an article by the New York Times, the runner’s high hypothesis proposes that there are real biochemical effects of exercise on the brain. Chemicals (endorphins) are released that can change an athlete’s mood and this can be triggered by running, along with other intense and endurance exercises. By the way, talking about endorphins always brings me back to this classic quote from Legally Blonde that I feel illustrates the concept very succinctly. Various scientific studies have been conducted in the past decade to prove the existence of endorphins among other chemical reactions in the brain during running. Data showed that, indeed, endorphins were produced during running and attached themselves to areas of the brain associated with emotions, particularly the limbic and prefrontal areas.
Can we equate this phenomenon with an experience akin to taking mood-altering drugs? Maybe it’s the newfound Amsterdam-er in me, but I would say yes. A runner’s high is unique and personalized to every individual: some runners may feel relaxed or at peace during or after exercise and some feel intense euphoria. Often it accompanies the completion of an endurance event where your body has been pushed to new limits and the triumph over a long-anticipated challenge can be overwhelming. I recall the intense and volatile emotions I felt after completing my first marathon—of course combined with exhaustion and touch of nausea. I remember my eyes prickling with tears (an admittedly uncommon reaction for me) at the throngs of spectators cheering on complete strangers like myself at kilometer 40. It is in these moments where you truly believe in the runner’s high as your body is taken over by any of the aforementioned feelings.
I was recently listening to a program on National Public Radio (NPR) called “Wired to Run”, arguing that runner’s high may have been an evolutionary advantage. When people exercise aerobically, their bodies can actually make drugs such as cannabinoids—the same kind of chemicals in marijuana. On the program, an anthropologist was questioning whether other distance-running animals produced these similar drugs. If so, maybe a runner’s high is not something particular human, but rather an evolutionary payoff for doing something hard and painful. This is the first time I’ve really considered equating running with drug addiction—an unlikely marriage of two seemingly opposite habits.
In my best attempts to avoid being a preachy fitness freak, I’ll leave you with a thought. It’s going to take a lot of mental manipulation and a serious lack of judgment on my part to register for my next marathon knowing the rollercoaster of emotions I am sure to experience all over again. For me, that’s my goal. For some people, their “marathon” comes in a different form, whether it’s biking, walking or yoga, all activities full of endorphins and “getting high.” The key is to find something that removes you from reality for that moment of time, and perhaps takes away a little bit of guilt for indulging in that second stroopwafel.