Why does running make you feel so good?

Ok, ok, not ALL the time, but the runner’s high is a real thing, and with over 858,000 people downloading the NHS couch to 5k app in lockdown 1, there must be something going for it! There are many elements that make running positive for your mental health, and it is increasingly being seen not only as great for the body, but for the mind too. So what is it about running that makes it so good for your brain and mood? Let’s look at the science.

The runner’s high is a real thing!
  1. brain imaging study on endurance athletes and healthy controls at rest showed an increase in coordinated activity in some brain regions involved in executive functions (decision making) and working memory. They also found a reduction in ‘default mode’ activity – what our brain does when distracted, i.e. nothing very useful. This part of the brain is also linked to clinical depression, showing one pathway by which consistently running may reduce depressive tendencies and improve brain health. Interestingly, these are similar results to those seen in meditation – while running you’re turned into your surroundings, and what your muscles and breath are doing, not worrying about work, family or other stressors. So, running could be seen as a form of ‘active/moving meditation’.
  2. Another study in mice showed that exercise breaks down a stress-inducing molecule Kyneurenine. The molecule itself builds up when you’re stressed, and can enter the brain, causing stress-induced depression and anxiety in some people. During exercise, there is a build up of an enzyme able to break down this molecule in the muscles, meaning it’s unable to enter the brain, protecting it against stress-induced depression. 
  3. Beta-endorphins are released in running, improving mood post-run. The hormone is generally used by the body to reduce stress, and, as an endogenous opioid, is also linked to reducing pain. This happens not just over the course of one run, but also over the space of several months, meaning that the effects can last long after you’ve ended a run. This is potentially the source of the elusive ‘runner’s high’, which usually starts to kick in after 30 minutes of running. It’s also one of the reasons that runs can feel very hard at the beginning but get easier throughout – pain relief and a reduction in anxiety are both side-effects of our body’s reaction to exercise. 
  4. While endorphins have long been credited for the runner’s high, it is likely that endocannabinoids play an even larger role. These are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier (unlike endorphins), and act on the same receptors and systems that THC (the active ingredient of cannabis) does. This triggers feelings of euphoria, a sense of calm and reduced anxiety. There’s still a lot of research in this area and the mechanisms in humans still aren’t quite ironed out, but it looks promising!
  5. Running (and exercise in general) also acts as a buffer to life’s stressors. In the same way that stressing out the body through exercise can lead to physical adaptations to cope, it can also lead to mental adaptations associated with resilience, which are then transferrable to other areas of life. Regular runners tend to be better able to cope with stress, thanks to the effects of
  6. In rats, high intensity aerobic exercise such as running has been shown to literally create new brain cells. Up to a limit, running stimulates an increase in grey matter in the brain (beyond that limit, grey matter temporarily decreases, e.g. in extreme multi-stage endurance events – not surprising if you’re running 4,487km like those in the study!).
  7. There are other endogenous benefits of running that may benefit the brain through indirect means, such as improved insulin response, improved immune function, improved circulation (including to the brain), increased energy levels, better sleep and improved focus (including the ability to multitask better!). 
  8. Tangential mental health benefits of running include having a feeling of community (the running community is like I’ve never experienced before), having quantifiable goals and the sense of accomplishment that comes with that, which is transferrable to other areas of your life. Running has been shown to improve your self-esteem – placing the focus on what your body can accomplish and how it feels rather than what it looks like is one of the best to move away from being sucked into diet culture and the constant drive to lose weight. 

Evolutionarily, this all makes sense. As hunter gatherers, we would have had to chase prey for any miles, and having adaptations to a) make that feel good and b) reduce pain on long runs would have meant we were able to run further. And enjoying the chase/run would have meant more food for everyone, so better survival.

It’s important to note that many of these studied were either done on animals, or in small numbers of volunteers. However, anecdotally the benefits of running for the brain are multi-fold and substantial, and it’s great to see this backed by multiple studies. Hopefully we’ll start to see more of this in the coming years as the link between physical and mental health becomes increasingly clear. 

While these benefits mainly pertain to running, it’s also possible to get many of the same benefits through other forms of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The benefits may be to differing degrees, but the important thing is that you find a form of movement that is enjoyable and sustainable for you – there’s no point in overdoing it on a sport that you hate. Moving your body in whatever way feels best is a good place to start! And if you’re just starting your running journey, keep it up! It is always hard at first (and at second, and at third), but the benefits are SO worth it. If you enjoy this topic, check out the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson. It’s fascinating and delves into the science further without being hard to read. 

If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog. If you’re looking for a little challenge to focus on for your training, why not join in our 5k time trial challenge at the end of March?

Why everyone should run an ultramarathon

If you’d asked me a year ago, perhaps two, whether I thought I could realistically run an ultramarathon, I would have laughed in your face and probably said something like ‘no, and I don’t really want to either’.

The root of this belief was:

1) That I found (and still find) running 15km very difficult so could never imagine how I was supposed to run over 3x that amount and not die…

2) If I believed I could, I knew that I would have to give it a go. ‘Giving something a go’ means months of hard training, anxiety, doubt and the possibility of ‘failure’, which many of us aren’t inclined to experience, let alone seek out.

Last month I ran my first ever ultramarathon, 50km across the gorgeous Peak District hills. I signed up 3 weeks in advance of the race with no expectations, no ‘goals’ per se, just a desire to race at least once in 2020 and spend time outside. The race went better than I ever could have expected, and I truly loved every minute.

Image by Benedict Tufnell

4 weeks later I took part in my second ultra (depending on your definition) – 48km along the Jurassic Coast – simply because it was close to home and I know how beautiful the route is. I signed up one week before, and the whole experience was a delight.

Image by Jake Baggaley

From what I’ve seen of ultramarathons, they are friendlier, prettier and far more forgiving than your average road marathon. People rarely run the whole thing, you have support the entire route (in the form of checkpoints with water, foot, medical aid etc every 10k or so) and everyone is so friendly! Walking isn’t frowned upon and you see people of all shapes and sizes signing up – there is far less judgement than I think people expect from these events. Because it’s a small community too, you tend to get to know people pretty fast!

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, people stop believing in trying out new experiences in favour of keeping to the known and the predictable. In short, people stop believing in themselves.

With this comes the knowledge that you’ll probably always be OK, but equally, probably never have the best time of your life, never find a new hobby and never experience all that life has to offer. Fear of the unknown, combined with mental images of elite athletes laughing at you for hobbling around a 50k course is enough to put anyone off… but I’m here to say that it shouldn’t!

Reasons to run an ultra:

  • Without pushing your body, you will never see what your body is capable of. It’s a lot more than you think.
  • Humans like to see progress. There is almost nothing more satisfying than seeing physical progress in running, whether that’s running to the end of your road, doing a faster 5k, or simply enjoying your run for the first time!
  • Trail ultras are far more forgiving on the joints than road marathons and similar, which means you’re less likely to experience running related injuries.
  • People (women especially) tend to improve or maintain endurance long into their 40s, meaning it’s the sort of hobby that you can take with you through your life, or pick up late! Runners (contrary to popular belief) actually have better functioning joints in older age than the average person.
  • It’s essentially an eating competition – the longer the run, the more you need to eat. If eating is one of your favourite pastimes (I know it is for me), you’ll probably do pretty well in an ultra!
  • The views! Maybe you think running is boring. Ultra running is NEVER boring. Choose one in a place you want to explore and enjoy the views!
  • You can’t pressure yourself to get a particular time on an ultra. Unless you’re an international champ, there’s no ‘doing well’ or ‘not doing well’ on an ultra. You signed up and showed up – that’s pretty epic! If you finish, you get a medal. Everyone is a winner here.
  • Training is about time on feet rather than pace or even distance. One of the hardest things about an ultra is being out on your feet all day, but if you have a busy job and spend a lot of time standing up, or enjoy walking a lot, you’ll probably be really good in an ultra. Of course, running training is important, but you have a head start if you are used to spending hours on your feet, even if you’re just standing still!
  • You get space. You might enjoy running with thousands of people around you – in which case I’d suggest doing a road marathon or something like the Great North Run. For ultras the chances are you’ll meet plenty of people along the way, but will never be penned in or surrounded by people.
  • It’s an adventure. While many road races feel quite similar, ultras are all different. They’re a great excuse to travel and explore somewhere new.
  • It’s a life experience. Ultras, especially multi-day ultras, can take over your life for up to a year, but the chances are they’ll also become one of the best things you’ve ever done. I’d say that’s reason enough to sign up!

If this blog post makes you keen to sign up, check out my vlog ‘10 things I learned from my first ultramarathon‘ and vlog of the ultra itself – I hope it’ll inspire you to get out there and give it a go!

Image by Jake Baggaley

10 Amazing Adventure Documentaries

With many countries around the world going into near-total lockdown, it’s fair to say that there are millions of people needing an adventure fix, who will be unable to get one for the foreseeable future. The day I decided to quarantine myself (6 days before the government officially recommended it), I was due to go to Banff Mountain Film Festival, showcasing some of the best documentaries about all things adventure. I’m obsessed with watching films like this – it’s easy to convince yourself you’re nearing the limit of your abilities, but watching what other people have achieved over the years really breaks down any concept of ‘I can’t’.

Not being able to get into the great outdoors all the time doesn’t dampen my desire to experience it, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of my favourites adventure (especially running) documentaries to keep you in the zone until we’re allowed on our adventures again. Don’t forget – just because you can’t leave the house, it doesn’t mean you have to lose all inspiration.

 

Unbreakable: The Western States 100 Feature Film
Unbreakable: The Western States 100 follows the four lead men on their journey through the Western States 100, one of the hardest ultramarathons in the world. It’s an old ‘un but a good ‘un. This film is now available for free on YouTube, so make the most of it!

 

Free Solo
This documentary was released in 2018, and profiles American rock climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to scale El Capitan without any ropes. It is no frills, for the love of it sport at its best. Would thoroughly recommend.

 

Icarus
Less about adventure, and more about what happens when you put money and national pride above the pure nature of sport, this Oscar-winning documentary delves into Russia’s doping scandal entirely by accident. It’s a thrilling watch, although makes you question all professional sport a little.

 

Tom Evans: Zero to 100
Uploaded a mere 2 weeks ago, this documentary follows British ultra runner Tom Evans as he prepares for and runs his first Western States 100. Tom only started competing in running seriously 2 years ago, making all of his running feats quite extraordinary. This is only a short documentary, which you can watch for free on YouTube, but I have no doubt we’ll be seeing plenty more of Tom in films to come.

 

Losing Sight of Shore
Rather than beating records, when these four women set out to row across the Pacific, they will be the first to ever set the record of the 8500 mile, 9 month journey. I’ve not yet watched this, but it has been recommended multiple times, so I’ve added it to the Netflix watch list!

 

Found on the 49
If you can’t get enough of the Western States 100 (I’m pretty sure I know each aid station and the rough course by now!), give this 49 minute documentary a watch. This film follows the story of Jim Walmsley’s first 100 miler at the 2016 Western States 100 mile endurance run. The filmmakers follow Jim a few weeks out from race day through his historic day ahead of course record splits and the dramatic conclusion of being lost on highway 49.

 

Paul Tierney: Running the Wainwrights
Another great British athlete on another great adventure. This film is so perfect because of how humble and down to earth Paul is. This documentary came out late February this year and has already made a mark. It is tough racing in races such as the WS 100, but aiming to beat a record without having others to race against requires a huge amount of mental strength. Give it a watch and add the Lake District to your running holiday list post-quarantine!

 

Finding Traction
I’ve not actually watched this one, but after watching the trailer I’ve added it to my list! Women and men are equally matched at ultra endurance races, and yet so many films seem to be about the men that take part. This documentary, however, follows ultrarunner Nikki Kimball as she attempts to beat the men’s record for the 243 mile Long Trail record in the US. Watch for free on YouTube.

 

Touching the Void
One to make you want to stay inside forever, Touching the Void tells the story of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson’s 1985 descent of Peru’s 21,00ft Siula Grande. I watched this at school in 2003 and it has stuck with me since – I have re-added it to my list. You can watch on YouTube for free in bad quality, or buy from Amazon Prime and other services. 

 

Where Dreams go to Die – Gary Robbins
I was going to put ‘The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young‘ documentary on here, but it’s been taken off Netflix, and I figured most of you would have seen it anyway. I did a panel talk last year with Eoin Keith, who broke his collarbone during his Barkley Marathon attempt, and decided that anyone who even thinks of partaking is officially mad. This documentary tracks Gary Robbins’ training and Barkley Marathon ‘attempts’ over 2 years – and is free to watch on YouTube!

 

I would love to hear of some of your favourite adventure films! We’re all in need of a bit of inspiration right now, so comment below or share with me on Instagram.