We get it right! Us runners. That amazing feeling when we run. It’s almost like the word ‘run’ doesn’t quite do this mind-changing activity justice. The incredible cocktail of chemicals and physiological benefits we get from running is so powerful that it can be life-enhancing, not to mention healing. Running is the most natural activity for our species. Humankind would not have migrated around our beautiful earth without the ability to run, socialize and project our goals ahead from the ‘mental sketch pad’ of our pre-frontal cortex.
On a personal note running is one of the best aspects of my life and I’ve been doing it for forty-six years since I was seven. Although I have had to deal with many challenges in my life and running career, I’m currently running injury free with my long-term aim, to be able to run with my son James who is seven as he starts his own running journey. Fingers crossed he gets to international level as I did. No pressure James!
I would like to share with you my Four Pillars of running.
Principles I believe that have allowed me to run a lifetime so far. These are based on my latter running years around mindfulness and running benefits to health, as opposed to my former international days that were only about technique, training and following the guidance of my ex-coach, Harry Harvey. Running is my meditation, and it helps me on so many occasions to assimilate problems, innovate new ideas and foremost relax.
My four pillars are Mindfulness – Rest & Sleep – Respond – Nutrition. They are centered around neurochemicals and the mindfulness aspect of running especially since I realized just how healing it can be for us all.
To get the best relationship between your mind and your body you need to pay equal attention to all four. After a lifetime of running, 10-years as an international athlete, and 30-years as a sports injury specialist in biomechanics and gait analysis I’ve seen and heard every kind of story and emotion from my running clients. There is something incredible that occurs between the brain and body when we run. Something so unique that it can heal many things, not least of all mental health in children – a subject close to my heart and a life ambition of mine to do my bit, which is why the ‘Daily Mile’ initiative in schools is such a fantastic idea i.e. keeping children fit and healthy in mind and body could actually contribute, massively to them as individuals and wider social issues.
What comes first, the motivation to run or motivation generated from the act of running? Probably the latter, the action of running sends a message from the body to the brain which then rewards the body with the motivation to repeat. The act of running can be so positive for the brain that new neural connections are established, that it can become a regular part of behaviour. When the act of running stops the nerve connections will soon wither and motivation withers with them.
There are several neurotransmitters at play when we run. The most well-known is the opioid endorphin, produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland. It consists of two parts: endo– and -orphin; and these are short forms of the words endogenous and morphine, intended to mean “a morphine-like substance originating from within the body.” Without endorphins nobody would run, training and competition would not exist, and you would only run when being chased by a predator, and that would create stress hormones and the ‘fight or flight’ response (Walter Canon).
The principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the communication of pain signals; they also produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by other opioids. This means that the more you run, the more endorphin is created and the easier it becomes, coupled with other physiological changes increasing fitness. A certain level of discomfort would not be felt; however, the afferent nerve roots carrying the pain signal from tissue stress and over-use injury would be registered by the brain. Communication with the pre-frontal cortex then gives us the conscious awareness and previous knowledge to manage the issue by modifying activity thereby reducing further damage. A pity so many runners override this feedback loop and worsen their injury.
It is not unusual to produce endorphins in response to the pain itself, which is why some people self-induce pain purposely to elicit a euphoric state. The pleasure we get from these neurochemicals — which have similar effects to hormones such as dopamine and serotonin — are both legal and good for you long-term. The issue comes when a dopamine response occurs concurrently with endorphins, and you become addicted to pain and self-harm. This can spiral into a learned behavioural response, and the brain craves more pain to get the same high. Running might be the antidote to this type of issue, like laughter is an antidote to stress. Crying is an excellent antidote to pain; however, running has the added homeostatic benefit of ‘flushing out toxins’ and balancing numerous chemicals needed for a happy, balanced life.
You don’t even have to be a ‘runner’ per se, to do the ‘running action.’ Go for a walk, preferably with a friend for the social aspect. Jog a few yards until you need to stop. Repeat the next time you walk and who knows, one day you may want to go for a run instead of a walk.
It simply doesn’t wash with me when a client says that they can’t run because they are ‘big boned’ or have the ‘wrong type of metabolism’ because I know it is BS. Every able person can run even if it is only a few meters.
We have the same biological tools and chemistry set as pre-homo sapiens (Middle Paleolithic, about 200,000 years ago), pre-bipedalism (human bipedalism began in primates about four million years ago, or as early as seven million years ago with Sahelanthropus) and probably as far back as the Cambrian explosion – 541 million years ago (A period when most major animal phyla appeared in the fossil record). This was a time when the limbic system was evolving in lizards and other reptilian species. So, next time you feel stressed and depressed, it’s only your lizard brain playing up. My advice is to give your lizard a name and switch your thoughts to your frontal lobe by thinking about positive future events in your life, like a holiday.
There are other neurotransmitters at play too, and these include norepinephrine (noradrenaline) released from the adrenal glands and brain is an excitatory agent responsible for our drive, ambition, alertness. The willingness to continue running mostly comes from this chemical especially as it also helps with long-term learning and memory. Along with epinephrine (adrenaline), which is responsible for increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles, plus increasing heart rate. This cocktail of neurotransmitters is responsible for the ‘’flight or flight’ response, one of the drivers that have allowed our species to operate in a hostile environment and survive. Increased or lowered levels of these chemicals can create a wide range of medical conditions, which is why running is so important in maintaining homeostasis in the body. Once in homeostasis, you will find yourself happier, calmer and have better sleep patterns amongst many other benefits.
That euphoric feeling you get in the middle of your run – when your feet feel like they are floating over the ground and you feel so comfortable in the metronomic state of a steady run. Well, it turns out it’s not all in your mind. Scientists at Concordia University, Montreal have discovered that the hormone leptin – nicknamed the “satiety hormone” – may be at play.
The primary function of leptin is to regulate energy stores in the body. Researchers have found that levels of leptin can fluctuate in obese people, extreme tiredness starvation, and stress. In obesity, a decreased sensitivity to leptin occurs, resulting in an inability to detect satiety despite high energy stores and high levels of leptin.
When you run, your leptin levels may fall, and the researchers said this could “send a hunger signal to the brain’s pleasure centre to generate the rewarding effects of running.”
In an experiment with mice, researchers compared a control group of mice to those that were genetically engineered to lack a leptin-sensitive protein called STAT3 that relays the leptin signal to release the reward chemical dopamine in the brain. The control group ran a decent amount each day, logging an average of six kilometres a day on a running wheel. But the genetically engineered mice ran an extraordinary amount, nearly twice as much as the normal mice – 11 kilometres – each day.
The new study supports previous research in humans that showed that low leptin levels are associated with exercise addiction and fast marathon times.
While leptin is probably not the only thing controlling the high of running, the study “suggests that people with lower fat-adjusted leptin levels, such as high-performance marathon runners, could potentially be more susceptible to the rewarding effects of running and thus possibly more inclined to exercise.”
If you are a dopamine dominant runner, you would be more addicted to running, and although you don’t need to be encouraged to go for a run, you would also be hard to stop when you are injured. You are the type of runner who would ‘crack’ when you can’t run, and you are more likely to develop a chronic injury. Dopamine dominance can be an issue if deficient in mood-balancing inhibitory neurotransmitters like serotonin. These runners become anxious when not running and can have emotional breakdowns when injured, primarily if the motivation for running is associated with weight control. These are the type of clients that burst into tears as soon as they get in my clinic. My suggestion is to focus on these four pillars, and read my previous blog posts.
Acetylcholine is the central neurotransmitter influencing an athlete’s ability to hone his or her attention and remain focused on workout goals. Like dopamine, acetylcholine is a typically excitatory neurotransmitter. Found in many bodily tissues, particularly at neuromuscular junctions, it acts as a nerve impulse transmitter and causes skeletal muscles to contract. Athletes with high acetylcholine levels are generally very able to focus. Acetylcholine-dominant athletes are quick-thinking, creative individuals who tend to push themselves to their limits. The high-speed brains of acetylcholine-dominant trainees respond best to endless variety in exercise protocols.
Being mindful of how you feel and what your body is telling you during and after running can be the absolute secret to enlightenment and a deep feeling of happiness. The key is to note the emotion you sense when you get the endorphin rush during increased secretion by the pituitary gland and central nervous system. It occurs for a short window of time either while running, directly afterward or during the interim between runs. You will get an intense feeling of well-being, enthusiasm, and euphoria. In this incredible state, your mind becomes creative, mouldable and offers an opportunity for change in a way that can improve your life and reduce anxiety – if you let it. It is a heightened state of your senses so that a view becomes crystal clear or your sense of smell and hearing becomes acutely evident. You can elicit crystal clear creative thoughts that you should write down when you have the opportunity after your run. I call these euphoric moments ‘donum naturae’ which is Latin for ‘natures gift’.
Mental health therapists often raise this type of awareness to sufferers of depression, and although I’m far from qualified in this field to get into too much detail, I’d like to offer up my thoughts and finding in this area of interest.
These exercised induced euphoric feelings actually provide a short window of opportunity reflect and may even be useful in mild cases of depression to inflect away negative emotions into more permanent positive ones. In so doing change mood – which will change temperament in the short-term and if this continues it will change a person’s personality for the better. It is said that you can’t change someone’s personality, but this is not correct. A person’s character can be drastically changed by your peers, environment and one’s thoughts. You will become what you think. Think ‘crap’ and you will become ‘crap.’ Think to help, serve and love people and you will help, serve and love. It’s not rocket science!
For those that run or are thinking about running as a conscious act of well-being, and to move away from a negative state of mind. There is a window of opportunity when endorphin levels are raised that can create an upward ‘inflection’ in your mood and temperament permanently. This is assisted by giving yourself space and silence to tap into the euphoric feeling when it arrives. Meditation is excellent for this after running when endorphin levels are higher.
Our personalities are not set in stone, as I said. They can change for the better or worse depending on how we deal with past events. The meditative euphoric state of running can create an improved quality of life as so many of us will recognize. I call this state an ‘exercise-induced inflection point,’ i.e., an upward change in mood and well-being that can be long-lasting.
Create the environment and your upward infection in mood will follow 🙂
Rest & Sleep
Humans sleep for almost one-third of our life. Relaxation and in particular sleep is vital for a healthy mind and body. It fulfills many crucial physiological functions including regulating hormones and neurochemicals that maintains homeostasis in your body.
The quality of life, performance, and mental well-being are all adversely affected by even a single night’s loss of sleep. Sleep deprivation (SD) leads to an array of disorders such as cognitive dysfunctions, attention deficits including coordination and concentration and can increase your risk of running injury. Sustained sleep deprivation (SD) impairs central thermostat, metabolism and immune functions, and can lead ultimately to death.
Not only does lack of sleep adversely affect the neurochemical levels in your brain, reducing your enthusiasms to put your running shoes on, but it can affect the repair of tissue in your body that becomes inflamed from sustained effort.
Glucose and glycogen (stored glucose) are the main sources of energy for runners. Being able to store glucose in muscle and the liver is particularly important for endurance runners. Those who are sleep deprived may experience slower storage of glycogen, which prevents storage of the fuel an athlete needs for endurance events beyond an hour.
Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. … All of these functions make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being. Lack of sleep increases levels of cortisol and may interfere with tissue repair and growth. Over time, this could prevent an athlete from responding to heavy training and lead to overtraining and injury. Increased cortisol levels in your system will make you fatigue early, make you feel week, depressed and anxious and even cause bone mineral loss and increased the risk of stress fractures.
Many runners get this bit wrong and often end up injured because of not listening to what the body is telling them, coupled with being slow to respond. Taking note of what your body is telling you is essential for runners especially as it is such a demanding activity on your musculoskeletal system and energy stores.
There is a difference between the usual healthy aches and pains of training and a pending over-use injury that could potentially stop you in your tracks for an extended period. The tissue stress that precedes over-use injury usually is part of a complex syndrome of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that combined to create your injury. These include your inherent asymmetries like leg length inequality and external factors like ground reaction forces coupled with a few third-party factors like poor running shoe selection, excessive weight, running surfaces and poor training habits, etc.
Asymmetry in your musculoskeletal system from my experience is the primary driver of over-use injury, and unless discovered by a specialist will lead to injury – after -injury. Abnormal load generated from dysfunction and adaptation around the pelvis and legs to compensate for the asymmetry is the engineering, while the act of running is the catalyst.
Here is a simple description of the running gait, without getting too much into a technical breakdown of the gait cycle itself. I often describe the walking and running to my patients as metronomic, i.e., two metronomes set at the same height and speed synchronized as the body moves up and over the lower limbs. As each limb pivots with the ground, we travel over the top in a rough arc like an inverted pendulum forming a sinusoidal motion of peaks and troughs. Each pair of limbs – the legs and arms perfectly synchronized during forward motion symmetrical. In this state, the pelvic movement is optimal – moving normally in all three planes with controlled function at the sacroiliac joints.
The problem is that this functional eutopia rarely exists in ambulant humans, because of natural asymmetry found somewhere in the lower limbs and pelvis. When asymmetry exists – so does adaptation to stabilize the centre of mass in the upper body. This increases the risk of tissue stress and ultimately overuse injury.
Because we all have asymmetry – we all have adaptation, and because we all have adaptation – we all have overload. Many runners find themselves injured because of these principals and failing to deal with the early signs of pain. That said, it does depend on what type of practitioner you visit. You need to do your homework and find a musculoskeletal practitioner (podiatrist, physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor) that specializes in biomechanics, gait, and orthoses. The consultation they would carry out should include a leg length and pelvic assessment to find asymmetry and then balance the pelvis and centre of body mass with bespoke in-shoe orthotic insoles.
Other areas that runners need to respond to are footwear. Running shoes genres and selection is now a minefield with every Tom, Dick, and Harry now offering a variety of running shoes. There are dozens of running shoe brands now, and I would keep away from 95% of them. These are my personal opinions from a lifetime of running, working for many of the large brands and feedback from thousands of injured patients. I could write a whole chapter on running shoes alone but here are a few simple short observations:
- Nike has finally got their shit-together after decades of branded gimmicks, fashion and taking their eye off the ball when it came to their loyal running customers. Nike were my first significant sponsor at 16-years old, so I have sincere gratitude for them. As a podiatrist and biomechanist, I tested for them back in the day. In 2000 I tested the Nike Air Pegasus 2000 with the foam midsole. It was 11oz of absolute crap, and it injured me in all three trials (only every had medial tibial stress syndrome 3x in the shoe, in 43-years of running) because of the unstable foam midsole. I slated it so much in a report commissioned by Nike that they paid me to do, that they sacked me from the testing program. But I had maintained my integrity over the pay-cheque. Many years in 2014 they must have forgotten about my rants because they asked me to test and influence the public opinion of the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 31. My response this time around was WOW! 10-years ago they said that they were going to mend the broken relationship with serious runners and they finally revealed the new Pegasus Air Pegasus+ 30. The 31 that I tested were probably the best running shoe I have ever run in. They have got everything right about it. I’m still running in it and although I have many pairs of running shoes at home and not having paid for running kit since I was sixteen, this week I PAID for the Nike Pegasus Zoom 34.
- ASICS disappoint me these days. They are expensive, have become too hard in some and too soft in others. The technology doesn’t do what it says on the tin and runners are moving away from them from my experience.
- Adidas I wouldn’t touch for running, because I feel that they have never taken the running market particularly seriously in favour of soccer, and other sports.
- Mizuno better suits light or female runners and the technology has failed to advance if it ever worked in the first place. Saucony and New Balance running shoes have improved steadily over the years, but still, don’t touch Nike or Brooks these days. Reebok for me has always been terrible and created so many injuries from what I have observed. Brooks is generally excellent especially around the mild support and neutral category because of the one-piece low shore value midsoles. Keep away from the minimalistic genres. I’ve tested Newton’s and the first On-running shoes that came into the UK. They were both shocking in my experience.
- Companies like Salomon who started as a company making saw blades, then skis and climbing gear still have a long way to go before they make an impact on the running shoe market. Hiking boot brands like Salomon, Merrel, and Karrimor really should stick to what they are good at. Focus on what you know, not on what you think you should know.
- Avoid minimalistic running shoes. It’s a long story, but they don’t work for most people, and you will probably get injured eventually.
My nutritional preparation for running hasn’t always been sophisticated, but nowadays having more knowledge, my food choices are based on the natural synthesis of positive hormones that add their piece to the whole mental health picture I subscribe to.
Tyrosine, phenylalanine, and L-dopa help with dopamine synthesis, so foods high in these amino acids can raise dopamine levels which helps you stay addicted to running and wellbeing. Some of the most abundant dietary sources include almonds, peanuts, soybeans, avocados, bananas, watermelon, yogurt, beef, tuna, chicken, chocolate, eggs, coffee, and green tea. However, too much caffeine can have the opposite effect, so I limit my intake to one coffee per day.
What is fascinating is that when I was an international athlete drug use was uncommon in the middle and long-distance runners. But caffeine was on the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) banned list of drugs that included substances and techniques that fell into the following categories: androgens, blood doping, peptide hormones, stimulants, diuretics, narcotics, and cannabinoids. Caffeine is a stimulant, and we used to bend the rules by taking twice normal strength straight caffeine (double expresso strength) 90-minutes before a race. It had a real psychological advantage for me. However, I since found out many years later that it did not work. That the perceived benefits, were because caffeine lowers the threshold for exercise-induced β-endorphin and cortisol release, which may contribute to the reported benefits of caffeine on exercise endurance.
I have never played music while I run. I tried it once but didn’t like the fact that it disrupted the meditative experience I have while running. Music that you love can provide a surprisingly useful complement to your nutritional approaches to dopamine stimulation. Researchers have found that music triggers dopamine release by activating the brain’s “reward” pathways, suggesting that listening to music while working out can often provide a natural dopamine release during training.
If you have a low attention span for your running and can’t concentrate, increase acetylcholine. Foods rich in choline like egg yolks are the most concentrated source of dietary choline; other significant sources include liver, milk, chicken, beef, pork, and wheat germ. Vegetable sources include tofu, soymilk, pinto beans, quinoa, and broccoli.
GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, acts to counterbalance the action of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Symptoms of low GABA production include becoming easily stressed out, and lying awake at night with racing thoughts. To promote calmness, runners should consider GABA-boosting foods such as bananas, broccoli, brown rice, citrus fruit, fish, lentils, nuts, oats, spinach, and whole grains. Fermented foods like unpasteurized yogurt and sauerkraut also raise GABA levels.
The stomach and bowel have a complicated relationship to health and neurotransmitter level. I often take a course of probiotics my favourite being Yakult. Cultivating the gut microbiome may also enhance GABA production. Beneficial microbes influence health and wellness in a wide range of ways, including mood regulation and fatigue levels, and researchers have found that supplementing with specific probiotics can increase GABA levels. One study showed that a strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus increased GABA levels in healthy animals under stress, leading to reduced anxiety and depression-like behaviours.
If you don’t want a complicated dietary regime, then my advice is to have clean, healthy eating. Nutritional supplements alone are not sufficient performance enhancers, and you should never use substitutes for real food.
Other chemicals and neurotransmitter needed to run and what they do:
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – This is a hormone that interacts with the central nervous system. By tripling BDNF production with exercise, it is possible to improve mood, boost cognitive function, and improve memory. BDNF is produced in the eukaryotic cells of various tissue in the body and brain and also contributes to repair of neurons and other housekeeping measures in the brain, which helps prevent neurodegenerative disease.
Calcium – Exercise creates stress on the skeleton that causes a necessary process known as bone remodeling. Cells called osteoclasts help the body reabsorb mature bone tissue while osteoblasts follow behind to create new immature bone cells. Calcium is an essential component that makes those new bone cells hard, giving the skeleton support. Calcium can be obtained in dairy products like milk and cheese, as well as green vegetables like kale, broccoli, and spinach.
Chloride – Though only small amounts of chloride are lost during exercise, it is essential for maintaining the body’s pH and fluid balance. It is also an essential component of the enzymes that digest proteins and aid in the absorption of specific nutrients. Chloride deficiencies are not common but can result in extreme fatigue and dehydration. Chloride can be replaced with regular table salt, but it is important not to overdo it, as chronic high levels can lead to hypertension and heart failure.
Cortisol – Is a stress hormone. Short-term stress is normal in the animal kingdom and cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands during times of stress. To help the body respond to the physical demands, cortisol helps metabolize carbohydrates into glucose for energy. If cortisol level and homeostasis do not return to normal levels, cortisol can cause genes to mutate protein product creating cancer. Running is a great medicine to counteract increased cortisol levels.
Glucagon – is a peptide hormone, produced by alpha cells of the pancreas. The body needs a lot of glucose to exercise, but sometimes the body has stores (like in the liver and fat cells) that aren’t immediately available. Once the body is running low on glucose, glucagon works in these storage areas to help convert stored fat and sugar into a form the body can use (fatty acids and glucose) as energy.
Human growth hormone (HGH) – Also known as somatotropin is a peptide hormone that stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration in humans and other animals. It is synthesized, stored and secreted by somatotropic cells within the lateral (outer) wings of the anterior pituitary gland. Exercise puts a lot of wear and tear on the body, but the regrowth afterward is what creates that tissue regrowth. Intense exercise drives up production of HGH from the brain, which is needed for the repair of cells, muscles, and tissues.
Insulin – Insulin produced by the beta cells in the Islets of Langerhans of the pancreas. It is necessary to regulate blood sugar levels by helping glucose into cells to be used for energy or storage. As muscles begin to use up stored glucose during exercise, insulin brings stored glucose from the liver to where it is needed. After exercising, insulin will bring glucose back to the liver and muscles for storage.
Lactic acid – Because the body is rapidly using up glucose for energy during exercise, the cells are making waste and byproducts faster than the body can get rid of them. While someone who is exercising might not be aware of all of the hormones and chemical changes going on inside their muscles, lactic acid is hard to ignore. When lactic acid builds up in active muscles, it creates a familiar burning sensation, signaling that the body needs a break.
Magnesium – Magnesium is essential for hundreds of processes throughout the body, including building proteins, immune function, regulating heart rhythm, muscle function, nerve conduction, and much more. Like chloride, magnesium is lost in small amounts through sweat during exercise. Good sources of magnesium include spinach, almonds, cashews, and peanuts.
Potassium – Potassium is another mineral lost through sweat. It is crucial for the body’s pH balance, building proteins, breaking down carbohydrates, muscle growth, and more. While bananas are the most popular source of potassium, other good sources include salmon, broccoli, and potatoes (with the skin on).
Sodium – While sodium sometimes gets a bad reputation, it is a critical component for muscle activity, nerve function, and regulating blood pressure. When sodium levels get low, muscle cramps and dizziness are common. Large amounts of sodium are lost during exercise due to sweat. The good news is that replacing sodium is easy, as it is found in table salt. Just like chloride, however, overdoing it can be bad for heart health.