Saturday, August 18, 2012

THE RACE: What the "Runner's High" Could Say About Our Pre-disposition to Run

I'm very proud to say that I've never done any illegal drugs...The only mind-altering substance I've put into my system is alcohol, and that's even pretty infrequent nowadays.  So yes, for me, there were no crazy stoner college days (well, there were crazy days, but not drug-related), no experimentation, no late-night snack cravings (well, at least no drug-induced snack cravings).  

So maybe that's why I have yet to ever experience - in my 14 years of running - that much talked about "runner's high."  My body just doesn't know how to actually "get high."  For me, it's elusive...For scientists it's also a fairly elusive concept...

What is the "runner's high?"

On a basic level, it's believed that endorphins released during exercise are responsible for elevated moods.  But until 2008, there was no science to back up that hypothesis.

The 2008 German study.  

In 2008, German researchers conducted a brain imaging study that actually showed, for the first time, the increase of endorphins in certain areas of the runner's brain during a two-hour jogging session.  They used positron emission tomography ("PET") to scan the brains of ten runners before and after their running session.

The result:  verification of the body's production of its own opioids (endorphins) during long-distance running.  To measure the endorphin release, the researchers used a radioactive substance that normally binds with the brain's opiate receptors; however, that substance will not bind with those receptors if endorphins are present to compete and bind to the receptors instead.  The study showed that during the two-hour run, there was significantly less binding of the radioactive substance, which meant that endorphins were being released to bind with those receptors instead.

The affected regions of the brain were the prefrontal and limbic regions, which play a key role in emotional processing.  The runners also reported increased happiness and euphoria as a result of the run.  Researchers found that the more intensely the high was experienced, the more the endorphins were being released (i.e., the less the radioactive substance was binding with the opiate receptors).

Three lessons from the research.

There are three important lessons to take from this:

  1. Endorphins released during long-distance running could function as a "pain-killer" for your body.  Scientists know that endorphins help with the body's pain suppression by influencing the way the body processes pain; however, more research is needed to corroborate this precise connection.  But this could help explain why so many runners can just tough it out through pain during a run.   
  2. The results also are relevant for those who suffer from chronic pain because of the body's release of its own opiates to suppress pain. 
  3. There could be a relation between genetic disposition and opiate receptor distribution in the brain.  As one of the German researchers stated, it's possible that "we ran because our genes wanted us to do so."  
It's this last possibility that actually intrigues me the most.  Think about that:  our genes may be telling us to run.  If you haven't read Born to Run by Chris McDougall, you must do so immediately.  Never has a book so fueled my deep-seeded desire not only to run, but to do so in the more natural state/form that our bodies were designed to perform.  (I'll set aside the whole mid-foot vs. heel-strike debate for now, but let's just say I'm an advocate of the mid-foot strike).  To oversimplify the theme of McDougall's book:  our bodies were made to run.  He talks in several places about our ancestral running roots and how, in the beginning, we ran for survival:
“Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love-everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires'-it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run.”    
When you think about that - the fact that our bodies are designed to run and that we've done so from Day #1 in the human timeline - the role of genetics in running seems so common-sense, and particularly in the endorphin-induced "runner's high."  

The "addiction" of running.

To take this to a bit of an extreme, we've all heard that genetics may play a role in addictions.  Some studies even conclude that as much as 50-60% of addiction is due to genetics.  Of course, other factors such as stress, environment, lifestyle, etc. also play a significant role, so genetics are not, by any means, determinative.  But focusing on the genetic aspect for just a moment, it's not a huge leap to conclude that not only are we genetically predisposed to be able to run, but also, in at least some small part, potentially predisposed to experience the endorphin-induced "high" we can get from running.

Does that mean everyone can run, that every runner experiences the "runner's high," or that every runner is "addicted" (in the strictest sense) to running?  Absolutely not.  Just because my parents may or may not have been runners or athletes, doesn't determine 100% whether I'm going to be a good runner or athlete.  The training, environment, personality type, etc., are all factors.  But my ancestral pre-disposition to be influenced by the soothing feelings created by an endorphin release quite possibly is a factor in my enjoyment of running and, thus, in my ability to run better or worse.

To be sure, some people can be addicted to running, cycling, or other intense activities in ways that are similar to other addictions.  The soothing feeling some people get from opiates or morphine, is the same as the soothing feeling a runner gets from the endorphin release.  Thus, some people can become literally addicted to exercise.  They experience the "high" from intense exercise and gradually come to rely on that high to create pleasure, much in the same way an alcoholic could come to rely on having drinks to ease their pain.  Afterall, don't we all, to some extent, use exercise as an escape from our problems - to experience a period of time where we can feel that euphoria that lifts us away from the other stressors in our lives?

Well, there's a point where that's certainly healthy - otherwise, doctors wouldn't recommend exercise as a way to relieve stress and lead a healthier life.  But there's also a point where it can become unhealthy if the runner or athlete takes it to an extreme. Individuals who are addicted to intense exercise come to depend on it in unhealthy ways.  They experience the short-lived euphoria from exercise, and then come to need that euphoria more and more frequently, leading them to exercise more intensely or often.  They may even start to slip away from family and friends.  At that point, the person needs help just as any addict would.

The Bottom Line...

Not everyone experiences the "runner's high" to the same extent and some people may not even experience it all.  Certainly I usually feel much better after a workout because of my elevated endorphin levels.  But I've never had that "out-of-body experience" that some people have when they run.  And there could be a lot of factors, including genetics, that explain that.  Likewise, while it's possible that we humans literally are "born to run," we're not all made to run at the same level.  Our training, personalities, lifestyle, and other factors all influence our running abilities.  By the same token, all of those factors can influence whether we can maintain our exercise habits in a healthy manner, or take them to an extreme unhealthy level.  Bottom line:  try to observe how you feel before and after exercise, and make sure your exercise habits continue to take you down a healthy path where exercise is only one of many ways that you can experience natural euphoria in your life.

Have you experienced the "runner's high?"  Have there been times (that you're willing to admit) where you may have taken your exercise to an unhealthy level?     




Saturday, August 11, 2012

RECOVERY: Move Over Grandmas, Here Comes the Aquajogger

I've never minded looking foolish, and I often intentionally do goofy things to make people laugh or get a reaction.

Exhibit A to me not caring if I look stupid.  Trying to impersonate the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live with one of my Grandma's wigs that I found at my mom's house...
But I have to say that even I was a little self-conscious when I donned a purple Aquajogger belt and headed to the deep end of the pool where only the grannies venture with their flotation noodles for water aerobics class.  But alas, I've embraced my inner grannie and learned to love aquajogging, especially as a way to keep my cardio fitness in check while nursing an injury.

A few times after I started running again once as I recovered from my pneumonia, I had some very acute pains in my right knee that would force me to stop. The pain was so bad that I literally couldn't run.  Every time I'd bend my knee to swing my leg back, it was excruciating.  This happened during a 10k and then during a run while I was back in Nebraska.  For the first 15 minutes I felt fine and then out of now where, wham!  So long story short, I've stopped running for awhile upon my coach's advice until I can get an MRI and determine whether it's a torn meniscus or something else.  I've also been advised against biking.

So without running and biking I'm left with my least favorite of the three sports: swimming.  But, to avoid swimming every day while still keeping up what little fitness I had after my pneumonia, my coach also advised me to take up aquajogging, or I guess the more technical term is "deep water endurance running."

Aquajogging is exactly what it sounds like:  running in water like you're running on land.  It should be done in the deep end of the pool where your feet can't touch so that you more easily simulate the running mechanics.  (Running with your feet touching the bottom of the pool makes you bounce up and down and doesn't simulate the running mechanics as well, plus it adds impact, which defeats the rehabilitative purpose of aquajogging).  To do that, however, you need an aquajogging belt to keep you from sinking.  Enter, the Aquajogger Fit Belt...

The Aquajogger Fit Belt for women...the men's is blue. 
The Aquajogger Fit Belt is from, where else, the Aquajogger company.  Based on my research, this seemed to the best aquajogger belt out there, especially for women because it sits betters on our smaller waists.  The belt from Aquajogger retails for $50.95 (some sites sell it for a little less, so shop around).

Once you get your belt, then what?  Well, strap it on and head to the deep end of the pool.  Kick any noodle-using grannies out of your way and jump in. (Ok, I'm going a bit hard on the grannies...I actually took a water aerobics class once with some older women, where we used noodles, and I thought it was a good workout.  So I commend anyone getting in the water to get in shape).  Anyway, it doesn't take much getting used to.  The key is to remember to lean forward slightly while you're in the water - don't bend at the hip.  And then...start running.

There are a few things to keep in mind. First, don't pedal like you're on bike; really concentrate on mimicking your natural running motion.  Second, be careful not to stretch your legs out, down, or back too much.  Without the natural stoppage of the pavement, I noticed I had a tendency to push or stretch my leg down and back too far.  So make sure to keep your strides short and tight, as you would in running.  Third, although you're trying to mimic your running stride as much as possible, it's not going to be exactly the same.  You'll obviously be moving at a slower cadence because the water provides more resistance.  Plus, your legs may not behave just like they do on land.  For example, your leg kick won't be as high.  That's all fine.  Lastly, your heart rate will be about 10% lower in the water than on land.  So 140 bpm in the water would equal about 154 bpm on land.

So what are the benefits of aquajogging?  An article in explains:
  1. Aquajogging has long been recognized as a rehabilitation exercise for injured athletes. 
  2. It allows you to get a great cardio workout without the impact of the pavement, giving your body a much-needed break.  
  3. It elevates your heart rate and makes your muscles work harder.  Because water is thicker than air, you get more resistance and, thus, strengthen your muscles and tendons while still recovering from the impacts of regular running.  
  4. It's not your grandma's water aerobics.  (O.k., that's not really a benefit, but said it so I had to include it!). and many running coaches recommend aquajogging not only when you're injured, but also as part of your regular training.  Because of its many benefits, aquajogging can be a great way to take a break from one of your weekly runs, while still getting a good workout. recommends picking, for example, a three-mile run during the week, estimating how long that would take you, and aquajogging for that amount of time.    

My coach also referred me to a great 9-week aquajogging plan by Pete Pfitzinger (long distance running coach). This program has aquajogging 5 days a week, with strength or flexibility on the other 2 days, which I've used for swim days.  I honestly love it.  I thought I'd be bored running circles in the deep end of the pool, but with the interval training in the workouts, they actually fly by quicker than most of my runs!  

If you're a bit skeptical and think you should stick with your regular hard surface runs 100% of the time, just consider substituting an aquajog one day a week.  Read Pfitzinger's article on the benefits of aquajogging and how you can maintain your cardiovascular fitness, even during an 8-week hiatus from running.  

So while it may not be the coolest looking sport to do, aquajogging certainly has helped me keep my fitness.  Maybe if I really want to get a reaction out of people, I'll wear my Grandma's wig along with my Aquajogger belt the next time I go to the pool...

Have you tried aquajogging or are you willing to give it a try?  Let me know what you think....  

Friday, August 10, 2012

TRANSITION AREA: The Daily Mile - Workout Logs to Make You Smile

I know what you're going to say:  "In this world of social media sites, technology, Twitter, and a million online workout logs, are you really going to recommend another one to add to the list?"  Why, yes I am!

Believe me, I'm as bogged down as the next person by the blizzard of social media sites and online workout logs.  So when something in that vein actually grabs my attention, I think it's worth mentioning.

Recently, one of my Facebook page followers recommended that I try Daily Mile to log my workouts.

I'd actually started a Daily Mile account awhile back because another friend recommended it to me; but then I never really logged in any workouts because I had enough on my plate with trying to log my Ironman training into Addaero for my coach. Now that things have slowed down as far as training goes, however, I thought now was the perfect time to re-visit Daily Mile.  And I'm glad I did....

If you want to find a community of runners, triathletes, or cyclists, where you can collect friends like you do on Facebook, and share funny workout stories, stats, and accomplishments, then Daily Mile is for you.  It's a great way to have a fitness-specific social media connection.  It can even help you find training partners and workout routes in your area.  You can also post pictures from your run or ride, and entertain your friends with anecdotes about your workouts.  (The Daily Mile even has recommendations for the Funniest Triathletes to follow).  Plus, if you have a Garmin on Nike pod, you can sync the results with your Daily Mile page.

So while yes, it's yet another social media site, it's fun and allows you to connect with similarly-minded individuals who share your fitness goals.  (And if you have social media ADD, you can sync your Daily Mile account to your Facebook and Twitter accounts so you can blast your workouts to your entire universe in one simple click! Because, you know, one social media site just isn't enough!)

If you end up trying it out or are already on Daily Mile, you can find my page under Lifethruendure -

What do you use to log your workouts?  Or are you saying to yourself right now "log my workouts??"