I’ve heard about the mysterious “runner’s high” since I was in high school, back when I thought that running and exercising was stupid. To the uninitiated, we would think that the runner’s high is a state of euphoria – without pain, stress, or fatigue – that runners often get at some point in their runs. You will find the runner’s high being discussed in articles and on blogs, perhaps trying to describe it or define it using science, using terms like endorphins and endocannabinoids. Often, the runner’s high is painted as some end result of being a “serious runner”.
For me, I’m not sure it really even exists during a run. In fact, I think the term often sets newer runners searching for something somewhat unattainable and in turn can lead to frustration or disappointment, as if they’re doing something incorrect.
Don’t get me wrong – I certainly have moments during a run where things seems just perfect – running along as though I’m flying effortlessly over the ground. However the reality is that about 30 seconds later I may hit a hill and suddenly feel hopelessly out of breath, or randomly start to feel a nagging tendon pain coming back…and then only 5 minutes after that, those feelings disappear, giving way to the effortless running feeling again.
You see, running is work. It is always work. You have got to put in effort every time you step outside and go. Both physical and mental effort. Running is never given to you, it is always worked for and future runs are always earned. Running preys upon laziness and inconsistency, but always respects hard work and commitment.
But I am not talking about work, like going to your job and plugging away in some cubicle. I’m talking about rewarding physical work. And physical work is something our bodies and our minds need, just like sleep and food.
Regardless of your belief system, I think it is pretty unquestionable that our bodies were uniquely designed to run and walk – these are simply our means of locomotion as humans. As kids, we don’t think about our running – we just do it as part of our play. It is pointless, often effortless, and comes natural.
Then…we go to school. Maybe we go to more school. We sit a lot. We drive a lot. We get a job and typically drive and sit more. If we’re lucky, we get married and have kids. Then we sit and drive even more and don’t eat or sleep so well. The act of running gets buried in our past and our body forgets what it even feels like.
Then one day, we decide to start on a new path – back to fitness! We’re gonna run again! But this time…it’s hard. It’s really hard! We’re quickly out of breath. Our muscles and tendons are confused and they revolt. This is not the running we remember. Maybe we weren’t made for this. Maybe we’re too old now…
The runner’s high, my friends, is for those who refuse to believe this. We were made to run, its just gonna take some work to get back to it. Slowly, but surely, muscles and tendons remember their jobs. The springs get reloaded. The machine breaks down less and soon enough we’re running again.
We get up early and get outside into the cold morning air and we run. Its work, but soon the machine warms up and it becomes automatic. And when the engine is running, the mind can start to wander.
The thought train during a run is random and varied and different for everyone. Some people problem solve their current lives. Some people imagine and fantasize a different life. Some people plan and prepare. Some people just appreciate their surroundings. Usually, the record skips from one thought to another, to another.
Rarely do we have time during our days to just stop and meditate. I’m sure that if you give people 60 minutes to go and “meditate”, whatever that meant to them, some phones would be pulled out in no time, or perhaps it would turn into a nap.
But when running – we’re alive and moving. We’re reliving a movement that is as old as we are. There’s no napping. There’s no phone or distractions. We are focused, yet unfocused, and our brains need that. It needs the freedom to just float from one thought to another, from solving a current problem to thinking about wallpaper.
Meanwhile, we are in a constant state of movement and feedback. Constantly directing our body to move, both consciously and unconsciously, and continuously receiving feedback, consciously and unconsciously.
The runner’s high, to me, is not an absence of all this work and of all these things. Its not an absence of pain, fatigue, stress, or work. To me, the runner’s high is finally appreciating what we are capable of. Appreciating that this run feels so much better than a year ago because you stuck with it. Appreciating that the hour you get away is an hour you can recharge your brain and come back ready to slug it out in the real world with a renewed spirit. It is appreciating that you are in charge of your own body – good decisions and bad decisions. And that the good decisions have a payoff.
The runner’s high is taking a crazy, overscheduled life with major stress and too many new ideas and plans and taking it all for a run. The runner’s high is sometimes feeling your lungs and muscles burn just to remember they’re there. The runner’s high is finding gratitude and peace through commitment and effort. The runner’s high is seeing a beautiful sunrise on a 6-degree F morning, with no one to share it with but yourself.
I also wish it wasn’t called the runner’s high, because the same thing happens when you go for a long hike, cycle, swim, or go to boot camp. It’s really a fitness high. And its not always happening while you’re exercising. Its more the change it makes in your entire day and in your life because you are working!
Our ancient ancestors had no choice but to move all day and be fit. And despite the trials of pre-civilized life, I can only imagine there was something beneficial to their minds from hunting and gathering outside all day.
Today, we don’t have to move much at all. Life is REALLY easy, and overall this is a GREAT thing! But, I think it comes at a cost to our mental health. We often look to drugs to make us feel a certain way, but forget about some of the things that make us truly human – like movement and fitness.
You runners, cyclists, and boot-campers know what I’m talking about. You know it’s not always easy, but you know it’s always worth it. For the rest of you, get fitness back into your lives! Don’t expect it to be easy or effortless. Soon enough though, with hard work and commitment, I guarantee you’ll be flying high.