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Chasing the Runner's High

Runners swear they get an endorphin rush, but researchers don't buy it. What gives? - By Amby Burfoot

Like so many of the other firsts in my life - first kiss, first bump-bump in the night, first child - I remember my first 'runner's high' as if it were yesterday. It came on a perfect October afternoon while I was running. A warm sun dappled through the oak leaves, roadside twigs crunched lightly under my feet, and the smell of home cooking spread sweet and heavy through the air. For three kilometres, maybe four, I slipped into another world, a timeless one where there was no effort, no clocks, no yesterday, no tomorrow. I floated along for 15 minutes, aware of nothing, just drifting. Then a big truck thundered past and the spell was broken. Goodbye runner's high. Hello noxious fumes.

Recently, I added up my lifetime running mileage, and found that I'm hovering around 173 900 kays. That distant October turned out to have been my only serious encounter with the runner's high. It might have been vivid, but it hasn't happened again. By my math, this means I have experienced the rush on 0.00002 percent of all my kays. Or, to put it another way, I get high on one out of every 21 600 workouts. Not very impressive.

Seeking Proof

The researchers aren't doing any better than I am. They've been chasing the runner's high for the last 25 years, and, until very recently, have come up empty-handed. In her personal and scientific journey, Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health, the New York Times science writer Gina Kolata devotes more than 20 pages to the quest for the runner's high. In the end, she concludes that it's a myth. Kolata notes that running and the runner's high seem linked more by chronological association than by scientific proof. Endorphins, some of the body's natural painkillers, were discovered in 1975. Running took o ff a few years later. Soon, legions of runners were bumping into each other at weddings and cocktail parties, saying things like: ?Who needs drugs? I get an endorphin rush every time I run more than 10 kays.?

Of course, talk is cheap. Science demands rigorous proof. And last year, in her book and a Times article, Kolata pretty much buried the runner's high forever. She interviewed a number of leading experts, and none of them bought into the runner's high theory. As psychobiologist Huda Akil put it, ?I believe this endorphin rush in runners is a total fantasy of the pop culture.?

New Drug Found

The endorphin theory has several problems, the most serious being that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that border-patrols your grey matter. And if something can't get into your brain, it can't make you high. Too bad. So what are we going to talk about at cocktail parties now? Turns out the answer could be that 1960s favourite: Marijuana.

A year ago, Kolata couldn't have known about the work of a marathoning neuroscientist named Arne Dietrich, now at the University of Beirut . He considers himself more a memory specialist than a brain-chemicals guy, but Dietrich has run six marathons with a best of 2:52, and he had to think about something when he was out there. From his readings in the ?eld, Dietrich knew about a relatively new brain receptor site, first discovered in 1990. This site was shown to be the receptor for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that produces another kind of high entirely. The site was named the cannabinoid receptor.

Since the body is an intelligent system that doesn't develop receptors for no reason at all, this meant the new receptor must be home to a natural body chemical - and not just THC, an exogenous, or ?outside the body? substance. The natural chemical was discovered in 1992. It's called anandamide, from the Sanskrit word for ?bliss.? Anandamide is very similar to THC, and it produces pleasant feelings of relaxation and pain cessation similar to those often described by runners and pot smokers.

Could anandamide be the missing link to the runner's high, the substance that endorphins are not? On one long run, Dietrich worked out all the details. ?I was convinced that I had hit the nail on the head when it came to a biological explanation for the runner's high,? he says. ?Of course, it would take me two years to prove it.?

Labwork

Dietrich started by devising a simple experiment with a small group of subjects who ran or bicycled for 40 minutes at 76 percent of their maximum heart rate, and then had blood samples drawn immediately after exercising. Next the blood samples were ? own to a special lab in Irvine , California for testing. The results showed that both the runners and cyclists had significantly more anandamide in their blood after exercising, with the greatest increase among the runners.

Equally important, as Dietrich already knew, anandamide doesn't have a blood-brain barrier problem, the way endorphins do. If you've got anandamide in your blood, it's going to reach your brain, where the cannabinoid receptor will hungrily grab it and give you a nice buzz. ?Anandamide is a tiny little fatty acid that crosses the blood-brain barrier like nobody's business,? says Dietrich.

Anandamide does more than just get you high. It also dilates your blood vessels and the bronchial tubes in your lungs. Both of these physical adaptations should help you run better and longer.

This makes perfect sense to Dietrich. After all, a couple of million years ago, your great, great, great (plus some) grandfather had to jog 12 to 15 kays a day across the East African veld to find enough fruit and meat to avoid starvation. This was hard, exhausting work - and painful, at times. Lacking painkillers, Granddad no doubt wanted to take a nap under the nearest Banyan tree by 11am.

If he had, you wouldn't be here today. You'd be as extinct as the dodo.

But a few Paleolithic hunters apparently developed the ability to produce anandamide, which masked their shinsplints and runner's knee, and these well-adapted folks survived through the brilliance of natural selection. ?The whole system makes sense from an evolutionary perspective,? notes Dietrich.

Running Rules

A similar interpretation explains why runners get higher than cyclists, swimmers or those who simply stroll around the block. Cyclists and swimmers don't support their own body weight while exercising, and walking isn't nearly as intense. In other words, these activities don't produce as much stress as running. No pain, no gain - at least not from anandamide. So a runner's high doesn't come from endorphins. It comes from a blissful substance that Dietrich believes could help people suffering from chronic pain. The thing is, I tell Dietrich, I don't get a runner's high often enough. I want more. I still remember a certain October workout, because it was, like, groovy. I'd welcome a few repeats. So I ask Dietrich if he can provide a magic formula to improve my 0.00002 percent ratio.

According to Dietrich, you're more likely to experience a runner's high when you run just a little slower than your 10km race pace, also called tempo pace. Slow down more than that, and you don't produce enough stress. Run faster, and you become overwhelmed by the effort.

At your tempo-run pace, you're in the zone. You probably already know that this is a great pace for boosting your fitness, efficiency and race potential. Now there's another reason to do tempo training. It can give you a nice buzz, man.Big%20smile

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Runners high se voet, I just k@k off all the time when I run... pain glorious pain... my knee's still sore from last nights 10kay Thumbs%20Down

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Sounds like you're not running at tempo or you're not fit enough yet.

 

Stick it out?

 

Hmmm.... someone close to me had an addiction to that green stuff, maybe I can use this to get him out on the bike?!
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If running does make you high, that would finally give me some understanding as to just why someone would want to do that to themselves.....what a seemingly pointless 'sport'

IMHO of course Big%20smile
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I tried running in the 90's

 

I got to the bottom of my street and walked home
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Could we not find a longer article with a smaller font on something more pointless than running to get high?

Otherwise loved it but now need to go to the optician - better run before they close.

I have detected a lull in quality postings today maybe the Argus factor has set in.  80 mins. left and that's it with work - time for Cape Town.

 
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