We have all heard about it and if you are reading this you may very well already be “hooked” on the fabled runner’s high. In this post, I am going to dig into the physiology of the runner’s high and how the benefits extend well beyond the miles on your feet...
Endorphins are one component of the runner’s high...Although they typically take all of the credit for the euphoric feeling a nice run gives us. But, the riddle is much more complex. Endorphins are part of the team- they are hormones that our body releases in response to exertion. They function to reduce our perception of pain, allowing us to run faster and farther. The role of endorphins in the runner’s high pretty much stops there. They do not pass the blood-brain barrier, so they are pretty much there to trick us into thinking our workout doesn’t hurt. Well, as bad, hill repeats pretty much always hurt. This is actually very adaptive because it enables us to elevate our fitness. Since endorphins are not numbing (proof by the hills still searing your lungs and quads) our bodies still can perceive pain. Which is necessary in situations where injury risk is possible.
Now, onto the endocannabinoid molecules that are produced in your body in response to exertion. These molecules are also largely responsible for the relaxed calm-feeling you feel at the end of a stellar run (or workout, running can’t take all the credit of exercise benefits-I am just biased because it’s my go-to sport). Endorphins previously took all the credit for the runner’s high before we started to learn more about the complex nuances of exercise and its benefits. The release of endocannabinoids in response to vigorous exercise releases an immediate and long-lasting sense of calm and stress relief. Stress is the next piece of the exercise mental health puzzle.
This is where things get a little tricky. Vigorous exercise produces cortisol, a hormone released to promote our fight or flight response. This is super helpful if we need to fight a mountain lion (like the trail runner guy who did it last year)...However, we were not intended to be fighting off mountain lions on a regular basis. So, when our bodies are under chronic stress we end up with too much cortisol in our system. Regular consistent exercise is not going to induce an overabundance of cortisol production. But, when you combine it with weeks, months, and even years of chronic stress it can easily become a stress overload. Even if you keep a pretty low-stress life, if you’re getting too much of a good thing with your training you can find yourself with a stress overload. If you lead a stressful life outside of training you may find that lower training loads will cause you to feel drained, because stress is cumulative. Our bodies don’t discern the difference between back-to-back long runs and a hard week at the office, our bodies see them both as needing to fight off that mountain lion!
So, what’s the issue? Stress? Cortisol? Mental health? What’s the connection?
Excess cortisol has a negative impact on our brain chemistry. So instead of feeling happy and relaxed after hitting the trails, you find yourself anxious, depressed, irritable, and exhausted. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and if you begin to find that your run leaves you depleted and miserable, cranky and worried, then it is definitely time to evaluate your training, recovery, and life balance. This is why having an individual coach is helpful, we can help you identify patterns and symptoms and help you to get just the right amount of training.
Now onto more of the benefits...serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are generally situational or biochemical. Exercise can help with both. Exercise stimulates the production of brain chemicals that improve mood, such as dopamine and serotonin. So much that exercise is considered a viable (and often stand-alone) treatment for depression and anxiety. Although, this is something to be discussed with your provider! Exercise is not a substitute for therapy or medical treatment for anxiety and depression, but it certainly helps your body boost your brain!
Exercise also helps because it can serve as a mindfulness meditation activity. Meditation can rewire your brain out of thinking patterns that can cause depression and anxiety. When you exercise, if you really focus on each movement, each breath, and your surroundings, you can take yourself out of your worries and sadness and into the moment. Try it, on your next run try to focus on listening to the sounds of your footsteps hitting the ground, the feeling of your breath, your heartbeat, listening to the birds...it is a great way to be present and improve your mental and physical health.
Another benefit of exercise is that it can be a way to build positive social connections. Friendships and community improve our mental health. When you find a friend to hit the gym with or join a group run you are fostering positive social connections with like-minded people that support the development of your physical health as well. This can also be great for people trying to leave old destructive habits behind, whether it is an addiction, eating disorder, etc. You can find a positive community and boost your overall health.
Another mental health benefit of exercise is the fact that it builds your confidence and self-worth. Treating your body well is an intrinsic means of validating your own worth. It is a way to show yourself love and that YOU matter! Also, it gives you the opportunity to engage in something that you can always be growing and improving with. This builds confidence and reinforcement in your abilities.
The benefits of exercise extend far beyond the surface and serve as a powerful tool to improve your mental health. I hope this provides you with added motivation to get out there and take care of your mind and body-you deserve to be happy and healthy!!!! Mental health is as important as physical health! With more attention, understanding, and less stigma we can collectively help ourselves and others.