Back to Fitness: Redefining the “Runner’s High”

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By John Andersen

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, one 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 using scientific terms like endorphins and endocannabinoids. Often, the runner’s high is painted as an 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 seem just perfect and I’m 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. 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, and takes both physical and mental effort. You have got to put in effort every time you step outside. Running is never given to you. Running preys upon laziness and inconsistency, but always respects hard work and commitment.

Regardless of your belief system, 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 going run again!  But this time…it’s really hard! We’re quickly out of breath. Our muscles and tendons 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, it’s 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. It’s work, but soon the machine warms up 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. Some people fantasize. Some people plan. 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 meditation would turn into a nap.

But when running we’re reliving a movement that is as old as we are. There’s no napping, no phone, no distractions. We are focused, yet unfocused, and our brains need that. It needs the freedom to just float from one thought to another.

Meanwhile, we are in a constant state of movement, conscious and unconscious, and continuously receiving feedback.

The runner’s high, to me, is not an absence of work or an absence of pain, fatigue, stress, or work. The runner’s high comes from 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 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 frigid morning.

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 it’s not always happening while you’re exercising. It’s 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 work and commitment, I guarantee you’ll be flying high.

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