This September and October I’m doing a yoga streak (YoTember and Yogtober: giving it a funky name makes it A Thing, you know). I’m following some YouTube videos by Adriene, who is a sweet, funny teacher who makes it clear that even if you’re like me and crap at yoga, you should still just do what you can.
Adriene has a LOT of different videos which seem ridiculously specific. Just a few:
Yoga for Teachers
Yoga for the Service Industry
Yoga for Golfers
Yoga for Loneliness
Yoga for Anxiety
Yoga for Focus and Productivity
Yoga for a Broken Heart
Yoga for Diabetes
The other day I did her Serenity video and was amused by Adriene saying ‘Serenity Now’ and then giggling. ‘Serenity Now’ is from a Seinfeld episode, where one of the characters (Frank) is advised for the sake of his blood pressure to say ‘serenity now’ when he gets angry. Cue Frank sitting in a car screaming ‘SERENITY NOWWWWW!’ with all his available lung capacity. The Serenity Now approach spreads across the characters, culminating in Kramer reaching breaking point and smashing up George’s computers. As an anger management strategy, yoga seems like a better bet than an abused mantra 🙂
It struck me that lots of people who run probably use different types of runs in similar ways to Adriene’s targeted approach, even if it’s not intentional. Maybe we need running coaches to prescribe types of running for certain moods or life circumstances instead of just purely for improving speed or form or cadence or whatever? The prescription would include recommendations on speed, environment, running companions, maybe even what type of music to listen to.
Off the top of my head:
Running for anxiety: this would have to be a short sharp hill workout. It’s difficult when you’re running up hills to feel anxious about anything other than coughing up a lung or three. And if you’re anxious about work stuff then hills are very time-efficient. Some hill reps require putting in consistent effort on each repeat, which requires a fair amount of focus on your watch and your effort level, both of which are great at taking your mind off any life anxieties. Music should be fast and loud!
Running for Self Care: this would be a medium length slow run somewhere scenic, music should be a bit slower and more contemplative, or maybe a podcast. A river is ideal for this sort of run, though woods would be good too, but preferably somewhere flattish. A relaxing, meditative sort of run, preferably done at dusk with the sky turning pink or lemon.
Running for anger: speedwork. Either a tempo run or long intervals. Flat terrain, keep your eye on your watch and release that anger via your feet. This is the serenity now run without the shouting. Music should be fast and catchy.
Running for loneliness: a long run-walk with a friend. Preferably somewhere pretty. The soundtrack is you and your friend putting the world to rights. Plenty of stops for selfies, photos of the scenery and preferably a cafe at the end for coffee or lunch.
The interesting thing about these sorts of runs (and the other many and varied ways that people use different runs for different reasons) is the role the environment plays (both social and physical). How we feel during and after a run is the sum of so many things. How we feel beforehand, what’s going on in our lives, what we’ve eaten and drunk, where we’re running, who we’re running with, our goal that day, the weather, the distance being covered, the list goes on.
Sometimes this all comes together to give you an experience which is called ‘the runner’s high’. This is a fuzzy concept which seems poorly understood and is usually attributed by runners as being down to ‘endorphins’. Evidence for this seems mixed, however, and the more recent focus has been on the ‘endocannabinoid hypothesis’, see here for a complicated but interesting paper on the subject. There is another fascinating (and I think hilarious) paper here about a comparison of endocannabinoid level changes in dogs, ferrets and humans looking at walking versus running on a treadmill. In fact, the ferrets refused to walk on the treadmill and were stuck in a cage instead, I’m imagining a bunch of ferrets with sulky faces here sticking their tongue out at the experimenters. But basically, the results were that the dogs’ levels went up significantly after running on the treadmill (and down after walking! Seems like instead of talking about walking the dog we should talk about running the dog?)
Levels for humans also went up significantly after running on the treadmill (the humans were recreational runners). The ferrets did run on the treadmill but seemed to stay sulky then too, because there was no significant difference for them. Sensible ferrets.
Although this is obviously only one (small-scale) study, it’s interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is the fact that there was nothing interesting happening with the walk for humans, which makes sense (it’s a runner’s high, not a walker’s high, plus treadmill walking for 30 minutes must be incredibly tedious). The treadmill speed was controlled, which is likely to make it less enjoyable for humans (possibly for dogs too, but it’s difficult to ask dogs if they are having fun: ‘Woof once for yes, twice for no’?) There was a correlation between ‘positive affect’ (measured using terms such as: ‘attentive, interested, alert, excited, enthusiastic, inspired, proud, determined, strong and active’) and changes in endocannabinoid activity, so that positive affect increased as activity did. It makes you wonder if the runner’s high is on a continuum though, or is it a unique phenomenon when a threshold level of neurotransmitters is exceeded? There is still a lot of disagreement on how to define the runner’s high, how to measure it and even whether it actually exists (which seems a bit stupid, given that it’s a subjective experience!) It also seems very under-researched in psychology, with most of the research focusing on neurotransmitters and brain activity. Although some of these studies did include psychological measures such as affect scales, none of them seemed to ask the runners if they were actually experiencing a runner’s high…
Recently I had the most amazing runner’s high experience during a 5 mile race, and it was unusual in that it lasted throughout the whole race, not just at the end (which is where the research focus seems to be). I don’t think it was coincidental that it was during a race, either; the pre-race nerves, the crowds of people, the banter with smiling marshals and other runners all contributed to it, I’m sure. It was a tough, tough, hilly race, with beautiful views from the top of the hill and the most amazing long swooping descents. I felt like I was flying down those hills, and I was squealing with joy like a little kid most of the way down. The hills were grassy and a little bit uneven so you had to focus a little bit on not slipping on sheep shit, but because it was just grass you felt quite safe in going fast. I have never felt such total euphoria for such a long time, it was incredible but really hard to explain.
The race ended at the bottom of one of the long hills, so you got a great view of the finishing area and you could anticipate the end (which is important in feeling good during the last bit). I crossed the line in a sprint finish with my friend and stood about for a bit chatting to my friend and the other runners. My euphoria and excitement during the race now shifted down a notch to a feeling of huge peace and contentment (it’s sooo difficult to describe all this!) I said to someone ‘I’ve never taken heroin, but this is what I imagine it must feel like, no wonder it’s addictive’. I didn’t so much drive home as float on a cloud of pure bliss, and this effect lasted for a couple of hours afterwards.
A few weeks later I went running with a friend and we more or less recreated the route of the race. It was a lovely run, with the same beautiful views and swooping downhills, but this time there was no runner’s high. This might have been partly because we ran 5 miles first so we were tired before starting the route, but mostly I think it was because all of the elements of the race were missing other than the geography. Which just goes to show how reductive a focus on brain chemicals is: the euphoria might have been due to endorphins/endocannabinoids/insert brain chemical of choice here, but the real cause of the euphoria was not the movement of my legs resulting in neurotransmitter changes, but rather the sum total of the race experience and how I felt going into that race. And next year (because there is no way I’m not doing this race again!) I might do exactly the same race with many of the same elements in place but not feel that extreme level of euphoria which I did this year. I usually feel amazing after finishing a race, but this particular occasion was truly exceptional for both the level of euphoria and for the amount of time it lasted. It was fascinating!
I’ve felt a ‘runner’s high’ on previous occasions, but it’s usually when finishing a race or a set of intervals (it seems like usually something strenuous is involved), and it’s not happened often during a normal training run or a ‘just for fun’ run. A few exceptions stand out in my memory. One was a run along the Thames at sunset on a June evening. The temperature was warm but not too warm, the cow parsley was out in full force, the trees were a gorgeous shade of green, the air was full of summer smells, the river was reflecting the evening light, and my running felt effortless and like my body was part of the landscape. This feeling only lasted a few minutes, but several years later I can still remember the feeling of deep contentment, flow and immersion in my surroundings. As you can tell from the description though, it was qualitatively different from my recent experience. Perhaps we need different categories or words to describe such different subjective experiences?
Anyway, I have rambled enough here! The actual point of this blog is to celebrate running and how it can affect your emotions and moods (usually for good: there’s a common saying amongst runners ‘you never regret a run’). Some people might get similar improvements and ‘highs’ from cycling or swimming (all I get from them usually is irritation at drivers or other people in the pool…) but for me, running does so much more than just exercise my legs and cardiovascular system. And even if you don’t experience a true runner’s high, even small improvements in how you feel can be worthwhile.
I want as many people as possible to share this joy, this connection with the environment and with other people, this contentment, this exhilaration, all these positive effects on your life. It saddens me when running is reduced by people to concepts such as weight loss or numbers on a watch. There is so much richness to be added to your life through running, which is probably why runners are evangelical about it. It’s hard getting started running though, which is why my next study is looking at beginner running podcasts and people’s experiences of them (and how we can improve these experiences). Watch this space for more details 🙂