Monday, April 2, 2012

Runner's High

I forget how and where I got pointed to this article by Alasdair Wilkins, but it's the first time I've ever seen any discussion of exactly WHY the runner's high phenomenon came to exist, in an evolutionary sense.

The runners high is something most athletes experience at one point or another. It's a rush of pleasurable endorphins released by the reward center of the brain. This response is triggered by a part of the brain known as the endocannabinoid system. The runners high allows people to surpass their normal physical limits by suppressing feelings of pain and sometimes causing feelings of happiness and euphoria. This potentially can be dangerous - after all, it allows a person to overexert beyond their actual capabilities - but it's not hard to see the benefits of such short-term super-performance.

Exactly where the runners high comes from is uncertain - one less than charitable theory suggests it's actually the brain's information processing centers becoming overtaxed and going haywire - but the consensus is that it is linked to the survival of our ancient hominid ancestors. The runners high, with its ability to suppress the pain of overexertion, is one of a few key adaptations - that allowed early humans to run for tremendous distances without needing to stop.

The runner's high experience is one I have experienced ever since I began running ultra distances.  The best explanation or description I ever heard was something like "I felt like I could run forever."  For me it's a mild euphoria that comes and goes after an hour or so of running.  It's not something I seek out--like I run just to experience runner's high--rather, I run and I experience runner's high.

Exactly where the runners high comes from is uncertain - one less than charitable theory suggests it's actually the brain's information processing centers becoming overtaxed and going haywire - but the consensus is that it is linked to the survival of our ancient hominid ancestors. The runners high, with its ability to suppress the pain of overexertion, is one of a few key adaptations - that allowed early humans to run for tremendous distances without needing to stop.

This is known as the endurance running hypothesis, and the adaptations needed to make such strenuous activity possible can potentially explain such diverse human traits as large gluteal muscles, hairlessness, short toes, and even our bodies' inability to deal with obesity and sedentary lifestyles without health complications. Such running might well have been our first real evolutionary advantage that allowed us to hunt bigger, more powerful animals. Before the development of stone tools, hominids could have used persistence hunting, in which they would chase their prey for miles until the animal collapsed due to exhaustion.


The article resonated with because it combines two of my passions: Ultrarunning and evolution.  It's a great read!

 

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