The other day I was running round a lake. As I ran I felt a sense of well-being build. It reached a surprisingly intense crescendo of euphoria.
My first thought was: “Has someone spiked the water?? I’m rushing here.” It felt that good.
My hands were thrown into the air and my mouth was opened, emitting a noise that sounded something like “Woohoo!”
My whole body was tingling. My problems far from mind. This is what I was looking for in drugs.
When I got home I was curious to find out what had just happened, because I loved it and I wanted more.
It turns out “runner’s high” is actually a thing, and the chemicals that cause it are very similar to the ones we used to smoke and shoot.
When you run your body releases endorphins (natural opioids) and endocannabinoids. These are important, naturally occurring chemicals in the body that fulfill a whole range of functions from relief of pain and stress to mood regulation.
Drugs like heroin and the THC in weed stimulate the same receptors. If that’s not enough to get you out running I don’t know what is.
This chemical tidal wave we produce when we run for a long time serves to alleviate the pain and fatigue. And it feels amazing.
It seems to be an evolutionary feature that encourages humans to run. Recent research suggests that we are hardwired to find pleasure in aerobic exercise. Before McDonald’s opened its first Drive Thru in 1975 we had to chase down antelope over long distances until they tired and we could catch them, so-called persistence hunting. It allowed us to catch animals that were much faster than us over short distances by using our superior endurance to outrun them over long distances.
“A neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks.” David A. Raichlen, University of Arizona.
Persistence hunting is actually still used today in a few places. That’s how four Kenyan villagers caught a couple of troublesome cheetahs (alive, no harm done!) by running them into the ground in the midday heat.
And that’s how a family of hermits survived for decades in the Siberian wilderness; pursuing elk and other creatures across the mountains until they collapsed from exhaustion.
Why does this matter?
Well it means you can get a nice euphoric buzz without picking up a white key tag the next day. That’s a big thing for an addict.
But although that buzz is nice it’s not the only thing that running gives me.
18 months ago I was in hospital after my second overdose in a month. I was broke, about to lose my job, my life was miserable and my health was crumbling. It’s probably partly thanks to running that I’m still alive.
I used to snooze on a snooze into a snooze out of a snooze and back into another snooze. Repeat. And after all that snoozing I still felt awful and reluctant to encounter the day. I approached most days with dread.
Now the promise of a nice lakeside rush gets me out of bed with an enthusiasm that still feels so novel and strange I sometimes wonder if I’ve had a brain transplant.
After a morning run I feel calm and energised for the rest of the day. I am less disturbed by things. I am more immune to calamity around me. And by God, working in a rehab I am treated to calamity in abundance.
Running gives me most of the things I was looking for in heroin.
Another quick hit of science. There’s this stuff called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that stimulates the growth of new neural connections and brain cells. It’s basically brain fertiliser. In early recovery people have a deficit of this stuff, which can result in urges to find new highs through risky behaviours or relapse. Aerobic exercise bumps up BDNF levels and plugs that deficit, facilitating a neural makeover conducive to recovery.
Running has given me a newfound respect for myself and my health that has spilled over into other areas of my life. I have completely overhauled my diet. These changes could be summarised as follows:
Heroin–> Chamomile tea
Actually, to say I picked up running in recovery is not entirely accurate. I sometimes used to run when I was using. But these were normally short bursts of pace to elude supermarket security guards or to reduce travelling time to score. Interval training like this is good, but it’s not optimal for inducing a runner’s high. Steady, moderate intensity is most likely to give you that. In fact any form of cardio can get you there, such as cycling, rowing, swimming etc.
Other factors that help bring it on include music you love, regular training and pleasant surroundings.
As I ran round the lake this morning I passed files of Thai navy cadets. They all salute you regardless of whether you deserve it. A giant monitor lizard dashed across my path. I turned a corner and a network of damp cobwebs caught the light. Something about this put me in a frenzy of delight. The sun wasn’t out yet but the moon was still there. I felt like I could run there. This beats an anxious dope-sick scurry along Kilburn High Road any day.