Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Myth of Getting High

What do Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, sex and a two-hour run all have in common? You might say they’re simply enjoyable, but on a more scientific note, they've all proven to activate the so-called limbic and pre-frontal areas of the brain, eliciting a flood of endorphins that make us happy and - in the case of the latter - can lead to the infamous Runner’s High. Or can it?

For years athletes – professional and amateur alike – have spoken of that euphoric state of mind which often follows an intense workout. Some of my running friends have described feeling intensely emotional and tearful; others have reported a dramatically heightened pain threshold, while others still swear that they become more affectionate after an intense workout.

They all say it’s "obviously" the legendary Runner’s High, that has kept dozens running through shin splints, ACL injuries and even heart attacks, but recent research has shown that this new-age buzz phrase is likely to be nothing more than an urban myth.

The argument for the existence of the Runner’s High is based on the theory that when we exercise, our body experiences stress and tries to counterbalance this by producing a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor ( BDNF). BDNF has a protective and reparative element to memory neurons and acts as a reset switch.

At the same time, endorphins which also fight stress, are released in your brain to protect your body from discomfort by blocking pain-receptors.

That all sounds very logical but research cited in Runner’s World some years ago highlights that the argument is flawed in many ways. First of all, the magazine argues, endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that patrols your gray matter. And if something can't get into your brain, it can't make you high.

The magazine goes on to cite several experts, none of whom buy into the Runner's High theory.

"I believe this endorphin in runners is a total fantasy in the pop culture," says psycho biologist Huda Akil from the University of Michigan.

So scientists are telling us that running will never get us to a state of utter euphoric bliss, but what about all this anecdotal evidence, not to mention my own experiences?

Dozens of people I know swear that running is addictive and I can't say I disagree.
One friend swore that running helped them survive a crisis induced by being made redundant and several others have turned to running as a coping technique after a particularly difficult break-up.

Just think of those scores of runners who slip in their sneakers

come rain or shine, pounding the streets like clockwork even when all the elements seem to be wanting to stop them. Think of those who set their alarms bitterly early, just to be able to clock up some mileage on the cross trainer, despite being hungover exhausted and feeling a cold coming on.


I recently went on holiday to Spain and even though I packed my trainers and shorts, the searing heat of the Andalusian August put me off lacing up. By day five I was craving that heart-thumping, foot-pounding, forehead-sweating sensation, but thankfully - through years of running - I've learned to master the art of recovery and rest. See my post from earlier this month. Ice cream and a bracing swim in the sea kept my mind off running, but the niggling desire to run never did completely disappear.

I got back late the following Saturday and I can promise you that running on Sunday morning was not dissimilar to eating your first piece of chocolate after lent.
Despite the mercury comfortably passing the 20 Celsius mark, it still felt refreshingly cool after a week of hunting for shade and the constant having to endure the hum of the ventilator.

As I trotted through Hyde Park and the residential backstreets of Notting Hill, cutting into Holland Park and picturesque Kensington, I felt newborn.
My joints felt oiled, my knees solid and mobile at once and my lungs like two giant balloons with unlimited capacity.

I ran my fastest 10k as well as my fastest 5k in well over a year, and topped it off by clocking up a solid 16k - the furthest I had run in over six months.
Afterwards, stretching out my calves, sun and sweat drenched, with a smile plastered across my face safe in the knowledge that a big breakfast was about to hit my belly, I felt nothing short of bliss.

So dear science, you might be right and you might be the unshakeable voice of reason. But if you're planning on telling me that what I felt was not a High, then please think again. 
(Image of Shard courtesy www.thelondonmagazine.com)

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