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'I Tried To Learn To Love Running—Here's What Happened'
From my perch atop a pay phone, I spotted him—that shock of white-gray hair and trademark mustache. Through droves of runners stampeding down Boylston Street, my dad was nearing the finish of his first Boston Marathon. I had watched him pour literal blood, sweat, and tears to prepare for this moment, and my 9-year-old hands couldn't clap loud enough over the deafening cheers. The pay phones are long gone, and hundreds of thousands of runners have crossed that fabled finish line. But two decades later, I will never forget the look of pure elation on his face that warm April day.
I grew up on the sidelines of my dad's many marathons and was raised to revere running royalty like Steve Prefontaine. I live in Boston, arguably the most iconic running city in the country. I've always wanted to be a runner. So why, then, do treadmill minutes feel like hours to me? Why do my legs turn to deadweight the second I break into a jog? Mind you, I played every youth sport, and today I'm a health writer and a group-fitness junkie. I'll hit the barre any day and squat until the sun goes down, but... I'm just not a runner. Still, the desire to be one persists.
Related: 6 Triumphant Moments Of Runners Helping Other Runners At The Boston Marathon
Maybe it's a longing to understand and be part of this culture I've known so well but never joined. Or perhaps, subconsciously, I want to make my dad proud, even though he'd never dream of pressuring me to pursue his passion. For whatever reason, I've longed for the moment when running would click and I could swing the pendulum of our relationship from hate to love. I've got company in that camp: In a 2019 survey, only 7 percent of more than 10,000 runners surveyed said they were motivated to start running because they actually enjoyed it; other surveys estimate that as few as 10 percent of runners have ever felt the runner's high. And yet,somethingkeeps them running.
So after years of waiting for some grand epiphany to strike, I decided to search for that something myself.
THE RUNNER'S HIGH... IS COMPLEX
Boiled down, it's a cocktail of brain chemicals that your body produces in response to aerobic exertion. You've got uplifting endorphins, stimulating dopamine, and mood-regulating serotonin; they all act as natural performance enhancers.
But here's the catch: This cocktail impacts everyone differently. Some runners describe feeling euphoric; others experience bursts of energy hours after their run; and still others slip into something more understated: a meditative, almost trancelike space. So, maybe one reason so many people claim they haven't felt the runner's high is because they're looking for some narrow definition of it.
Take Meb Keflezighi, the only person in history to win the New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon, and an Olympic medal. "When I ran the 2014 Boston Marathon, I don't remember going through the halfway point. I was in the zone, and I was also experiencing the runner's high," he tells me.
What?! Ivividlyremember that day. Keflezighi won the year after the race was rocked by terrorism, guided toward the finish line by thunderous "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants. How could he, of all people, have forgotten even a second of it?
Quite easily, says clinical psychologist Jonathan Jenkins, Psy.D., in the sport psychology department of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Keflezighi calls it being in the zone, but experts call it "flow," a state where your body and mind are perfectly synced and you can achieve success without deliberately thinking about what you're doing. Jenkins compares the phenomenon to slipping into autopilot while driving a familiar route: You reach your destination, but you can't totally remember the trip. In the car, your brain's tuning out familiar stimuli it doesn't need; during a race, it's purposely working to alleviate pain and fatigue.
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In this scenario, the runner's high helps negate some of those physiological factors that might disrupt your progress while also helping your body stay in a steady rhythm to avoid injury, Jenkins explains. A kind of exercise hypnosis, if you will.
But what if you're not winning the Boston Marathon? Could the same phenomenon kick in during, say, a two-mile run?
"If you're going to walk it or jog it, then you might not feel it," Keflezighi says. "But if you said, 'I'm going to go for a six-minute-mile pace,' you might." By Keflezighi's example, the runner's high is correlated with effort. Only when you push beyond your comfort zone will your brain kick in to help you zone out.
My occasional 10-minute-mile jogs, then, could use an upgrade. Taking a few creative liberties with Keflezighi's advice (six-minute miles are not in the cards), I cue up Beyoncé the morning after we talk and set my sights on a pair of eight-minute miles. I return 90 seconds after my goal time, feeling like death. My lungs burn, a blister on my heel reopened, and my face is radiating heat.If this is the runner's high, I think bitterly,I don't want any part of it.
Related: 'I Switched To Morning Runs For 2 Weeks—Here's What Happened'
THE RUNNER'S HIGH... IS EARNED
I presented my less-than-euphoric results to Jenkins to find out what went wrong. "It has to be a sustained effort, to the point that your body then recognizes, 'We're going to be doing this for a while, so we need to prep and be in that engaged type of mode,'" he says. While Keflezighi might be able to quickly zap into the zone, most runners need at least 20 minutes—and some closer to an hour or two—to reach that "high" state. Oh, and it helps to run where you won't be disrupted by traffic or pedestrians, Jenkins adds.
As luck would have it, I speak with Jenkins from my parents' home in rural New Hampshire, the capital of peaceful, uninterrupted running if ever there was one. The next morning, I set off aiming to run for at least 45 minutes—a relatively modest effort, but longer than I can usually force myself to go.
For about half an hour, my stride comes easily; the runner's high seems within my grasp, and my excitement builds. Then I come to a hill. In seconds, my body quits. I go from lip-syncing to my music to muttering obscenities. I make it up the hill, but any glimpse of a high has shifted into more of a runner's low.
If you've run on a treadmill in your life, you'll be able to relate to these thoughts every woman has had on the treadmill:
The whole thing feels like a failed effort. But a few hours after my sorry performance, Molly Huddle, a Rhode Island runner and 10,000-meter American record holder, tells me even she has painful runs—and plenty of them. "Fifty percent of my runs feel like that, to be honest," she admits. "It's just one of those things you get through."
Huddle says she doesn't feel it often, but when the runner's high strikes, it's almost always in the form of an endorphin boost at the end of a run. On good days, the buzz lasts a couple of hours after she cools down. But don't get too excited just yet: "It usually takes a few months to get past that point of not being fit enough to enjoy it," she says.
It's the feedback I've been dreading: I might not be fit enough to love running yet. How long it takes to get in running shape varies from body to body, but it doesn't happen overnight for anyone. In one study, it took new runners nine months of running two or three hours per week to see a 24 percent increase in VO2 max (an indicator of aerobic fitness). Nine. Months.
Related: 8 Items That Will Make Your Next Run Feel WAY Easier
THE RUNNER'S HIGH... COMES WHEN YOU'RE NOT LOOKING
The thought of suffering through slow, painful runs for almost a year makes me want to cry, or tear my sneakers to shreds. Feeling dejected, I consult Jeff Levin, a New England life coach who often works with young athletes.
Turns out, searching for the runner's high may be the worst possible way to find it. (Encouraging, right?) "A lot of people are afflicted with outcome fever," he says. "That's a prescription for miserable." Levin tells me that stressing over outcomes only disconnects you from your body—and, by extension, blocks the physiological processes that make the runner's high possible.
Jenkins backs this up. "Research has shown that you're more likely to invite a runner's high if you have a positive mindset, whereas anxiety may keep it at bay," he says. (Case in point: A 2008 study of college athletes found that positive thinking helped them get in the zone, a finding reconfirmed in a 2019 study of ultra and distance runners.) So, my deliberate quest for the runner's high may be the very thing keeping me from it. Good to know.
Related: 3 Workouts That Burn More Calories Than A 3-Mile Run
A week after talking with Levin, I wake up dreading my morning run. My legs are sore, I have a headache, and a leisurely breakfast is calling my name. Somehow, though, I channel my inner Molly Huddle and get out there. The first few miles are torture; I knew they would be. And then something amazing happens: I start to feel good. Not high, exactly, but good. Quick. Strong. Clear. I finish happier than I started. It is by far the best run I've had during this experiment, and just like Levin predicted, it happened when I least expected it. After, I can't stop grinning.
Finding the runner's high, it seems, is a lot like running itself. The road feels long and tiring when you set out, but if you can push through, something beautiful is waiting for you on the other side. You won't find me bibbing up for the Boston Marathon anytime soon, but it feels like maybe, just maybe, I'm getting closer to experiencing that finish-line feeling for myself.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Women's Health. For more greatadvice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!
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