The runner's high versus a clubber's high

If the #YOLO generation is right, it seems like we should always go for more. But more of what? Where to draw the line between your expectations and your limitations? How to soften the eternal struggle between hedonism and self-restraint? Or how to mix nightlife and a healthy life? Voila some of the questions KRIKET ambassador Koen Galle (aka Kong DJ) will explore in our new blog series. 

A long run a few weeks ago brought me to a wetland nature reserve in Willebroek, in the province of Antwerp, close to Mechelen. A beautiful well indicated 10km lap past small creeks, an old forester's lodge, meandering single tracks and the impressive 2km long rowing and regatta lake 'Hazewinkel' got me all lyrical while running. It had been a plus 30 degrees weekend day, one of those where you wonder how the hell on earth you'll be moving without instantly evaporating anyway. I planned my run in order to finish just after sunset, with the golden hour shining a soft light on the stunning fauna and flora. The shuffle function on my Spotify playlist was also in excellent shape, from curiously exploring jazz records towards long endless house tracks and mind massaging electronics. It was one of those days where you run in the clouds, on a so-called runner's high.

A crash course in science 
What does this actually mean, a runner's high? There appears to be some discussion about the physical process behind this feeling of euphoria. For long the common idea was that running (or any other physical activity that requires a certain long and repeated effort) produces endorphins. These are nature's home-brewed opiates, opposite to their chemical equivalent morphine and provide us with a euphoric feeling. In the early 2000's a study discovered that the picture is a bit more complex, with smaller molecules called endocannabinoids being at play. Let's not lose ourselves into science here - I had to look it up myself - but what is striking is that these smaller molecules are very similar to cannabinoids found in marihuana. In any article about the runner's high I consulted, the effect of running on your body is compared to drugs.

One should not be a scientist to come to this conclusion. Having had the experience of being high both while running (natural) or clubbing (chemical), I can easily see (and feel) the connection. While running this effect almost works as a natural painkiller, masking my tired legs. Another explanation often heard is that this effect goes back to our early ancestors ages ago, who had to run in order to chase down food. The ability of our body to go the extra mile might have been built into our machines as a survival kit. 

No pain, no gain
To take into account: such a runner's high isn't something you'll experience during your first running experience. It takes some time, at least a few weeks of frequent training. Like any other fully merited reward in life, there is labour to be done first. This is the opposite of chemical substances taken to create a high: they got the job done instantly.

The length of the effort also has an influence on the ability to get into the runner's high. There is no real consensus on the level of performance required. Chasing the effect definitely won't help. It's a highly personal and complex brew of physical and mental effects. In my personal running life I have come to the conclusion: the less I'm striving after any effect, the more it happens. 

Who do we run?
This brings me to the question: why do we run (or execute any kind of physical activity, why not experience a swimmer’s high)? The answer is always subjective, but to a certain degree practicing sports assist to maintain a healthy and balanced life. Novelist Haruki Murakami explains in his book 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' that it leads to focus and endurance, two qualities he needs to persevere while writing his much praised novels. 
Buddhist monk Sakyong Mipham connects in his book 'Running Buddha' endurance running with meditation, by seeking focus based on the pace of your breathing. My runs at the end of a long working day always help me digest the (overload of) ideas of the past day. And I enjoy the idea of physical fitness and the natural energy it produces. Why do you run?

High in the sky
Back to the chemical high. Any kind of soft and hard drugs can get us into a gentle or not so gentle buzz. From cafeïne and coffee to lighting up a cigarette, drinking a beer or a glass of wine, munch a bar of chocolate, ... to the boost of cocaïne, the intense euphoria of XTC or other substances. Let's face it: all of these are intensely consumed in today's society, everywhere. Why are we looking for a high? Are we bored with life, can't we find peace in ourselves, do we need external thrills? Is society out of balance, with its exaggerated pace leaving us exhausted? Do we need uppers to fight the downers? Or is it just fun we're after and shouldn't it all be taken too serious?

We're probably somehow all dealing with these questions, a reflection I also noticed when reading the comments on my first introductory blog post. What I would like to add here is not a desire to criticize or blame, I believe the struggle is real and an open debate about thrill seeking and drug use, both soft or hard, on every level of society is needed. The time is now to enter a post-Tomorrowland 2019 stage of debate, away from the the hypocritical hyperfocus on electronic dance music and the stigmata coming along. Why not look at it from a more philosophical point of view, helping people to answer the question "why do I seek a high?". In the next posts of this blog series for Kriket, I’ll talk with a few hands-on experts exploring various answers on this crucial question. 

Addicted to running?
In "The Truth About Exercise Addiction", authors Katherine Schreiber and Heather A. Hausenblas dive into the subject of over-exercise. An article on international website Runner's World lists a few withdrawal effects to test whether or not you are addicted to running? A positive effect on your health can be turned into a negative one when you over-train, ignore problems or injuries and have running consume all your time. In all honesty this has happened to me as well. Going that extra mile is not always the best advice. Seeking for balance is key for every kind of high.
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