The wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals

Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003
Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I remember back in the late 1970s and early 1980s people were speculating that endorphins might be the source of runners high—and I remember how disappointed they were when experiments showed that exercise-induced levels of endorphins were much too low to produce the reported levels of euphoria.

They may simply have been looking for the wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals—it now looks like runners high may be produced not by endorphins but by endocannabinoids. Further, according to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, there’s reason to believe that this euphoria is important enough in improving reproductive fitness that it is broadly selected for in cursorial mammals (that is, those with bodies suited for running). See Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution for an overview. (The paper itself is behind an annoying paywall for people without some sort of university affiliation.)

This could explain a lot of otherwise hard-to-explain behavior:

. . . 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, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.

Sadly, the evolved system does not show much promise for turning couch potatoes into endurance athletes:

. . . couch potatoes are not about to leap suddenly out of their comfy chairs and experience the pleasurable effects of exercise, because they probably cannot produce enough endocannabinoids. . . . Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation.

This is why I’m so pleased at having come up with an exercise regimen that I can persist with over the winter—I enter spring already able to enjoy the euphoric joys of exercise without having to first get in shape.

Running and me

I’m of two minds about running for exercise. Except when I’m running or wishing I was running; then I’m all for it.

I used to have a lot of reasons I ran for exercise, but they’ve been dropping away.

One reason that I run for exercise is that I want to be able to run. (Sometimes I want to get somewhere reasonably close in a hurry, and running is great for that.) I always figured that, if I wanted to be able to run, I needed to run for exercise—to build and maintain the capability.

Except, twice this month I had to run to catch the bus, and I did—even though I haven’t been running for exercise since last year. These impromptu bus-catching runs weren’t long runs, but I did them flat-out, without warmup or stretching, wearing whatever shoes I had on at the time—and both times were fine. I did them without undue effort and without getting hurt.

So, it seems that my regular fitness activities are enough to maintain at least a minimum capability for running.

Another reason I run for exercise is that it’s wonderfully efficient. All winter, the aerobic portion of my fitness regimen has been to walk for an hour on the four days a week that I’m not lifting and doing taiji. In an hour I walk a bit over 3 miles. If I cover the same distance running, I do it a good bit more quickly, meaning that I don’t have to spend as much of the day exercising.

Except that I’ve found myself fitting the hour of walking in very easily, without scheduling any exercise at all. There are several local errands (grocery store, bank, neighborhood restaurants) that are about a 10 minute walk each way. To run my slightly more distant errands, I take the bus. It’s a similar 10 minute walk to the bus stop, but that’s typically followed by 10 minutes of walking at the other end as well, for a total of 20 minutes walking each way.

So, if I go on one outing by bus plus one neighborhood errand, that’s my 60 minutes already. Running is efficient, but it’s not more efficient than that.

Less important than either of those, but still a reason I run, is that it gives me a sense of health and fitness. If I have an irrational sense that there’s something wrong with me, going for a run will usually take care of it. (Surely, I tell myself, if there were something really wrong with me, I wouldn’t be able to run like this.) I always knew that this was the sort of false comfort that’s only appropriate when I’m really quite sure that my sense of unwellness is, in fact, irrational. Going for a run is a fine way of dealing with, let’s say, a  panic attack. It’s a really dumb way to deal with a heart attack. (I don’t have panic attacks, but I am prone to worrying about my health unnecessarily. Those worries don’t prey on my mind as much when I’m running regularly.)

The problem with running is that I get hurt. Almost every runner I know gets hurt. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a walking injury more serious than a blister nor a bicycling injury more serious than a sore butt. But I’ve lost months of exercise time due to running injuries.

Still, despite the problems with running, and despite the loss of some of my rationalizations for running, I’ve started running again. But I’m doing it a little differently, now that I recognize that my reasons for running aren’t as strong as I’d thought they were.

Now I recognize that I run mainly for fun. I run because I really enjoy it. I enjoy the runs themselves. I enjoy the feeling of tiredness in my legs after a run. I enjoy knowing that I can run further and faster than I’m likely to need to.

If my enjoyment is the main reason I do it, that suggests that I should only do the fun part. So, I’ll abandon any effort to make a plan or set a schedule. I used to carefully structure my runs around an idea of stress followed by recovery. (I’ll still include both stress and recovery, but I’ll just decide each day which is appropriate, based on how I feel.) I used to aim to be able to run a particular distance on a particular date, so I could run in a race. I won’t do that any more. (Although I might run a race on a whim, if I feel like it.)

I went on my second run of the year today. It felt great. My first run, a couple of days ago—merely a good run—moved me to haiku. In the original Esperanto, it’s:

spiro laboras, genuoj doloretas… jara ekkuro.

Which in English might be rendered as:

Breathing hard,
Knees a little tender…
Year’s first run.

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

On the social aspects of wearing a reflective vest

My reflective vest

People treat me differently when I wear my reflective vest.

I bought it four years ago, for when I run after dark. But as long as I’ve got it, I’m inclined to wear it anytime I’m going to be crossing streets on foot after dark.

Last night I was greeted in a friendly fashion by an older black man who called me brother. The last time I can remember that happening was in the 1970s.

My theory, based on that and a few other encounters, is that some people see me and assume that I’m a working-class guy heading out for for some sort of outdoor nighttime physical labor job. If they’re also a working-class guy familiar with outdoor nighttime work, it prompts them to greet me in a comradely fashion.

There’s another common reaction: Many people seem to think I’m “official” in some way. Cars that would have zipped around me in the daytime exercise additional caution, just in case. People make way when I’m going down a hall, in case I’m on my way to some minor emergency. Related to that, surprisingly often people who know me don’t recognize me—they see the vest and don’t imagine that anyone they know might show up in one.

I expect the reaction I’d get would be very different, if I wore a reflective vest designed for runners. I’ve got one of those too, but it won’t fit over a coat.

On not overtraining

Overtraining is not my usual worry. Like most Americans, my big problem is undertraining. I never manage to get any serious aerobic exercise during the winter, because I don’t like exercising outdoors in the cold, and I don’t like any sort of indoor aerobic exercise I’ve ever tried. (Stationary bikes and treadmill running are both much too boring.) This past winter I did manage a regular routine of weight lifting and taiji practice. That stood me in good stead for maintaining some basic fitness, but wasn’t really enough.

Since the weather turned warm, I’ve been running and riding my bike a lot. My training log for this week shows:

  • three short (1.5 mile) runs
  • one long (3 mile) run
  • two short (11 mile) rides
  • one long (28 mile) ride

This is all great, but I’ve reached the point where I need to be careful. Up to now, the limitations of my fitness have made it impossible to overdo the exercise. If I ran too fast, I got out of breath and had to slow down. If I ran too far, I got tired and had to walk. Now, though, I’ve gotten fit enough that I could very easily push a little too hard and get hurt.

This is tough, because I’m just getting to the point where running is fun again. Today I finished up my short run and thought, “It’s over already?” Up to now, what’s been motivating me is my memory of how much fun it is to go for a run that’s well within (instead of barely within) my capabilities.

So, this post is mainly to remind me to be careful. My next long run shouldn’t be more than 3 miles. (If I’m smart, the long run after that should probably be 3 miles as well, but I’m probably not that smart.) When I do up the distance, it should probably only go up by half a mile, not by a mile.

If I am careful, I can probably have my long runs up to 4 miles by mid-July and 5 miles by mid-August. That gets me comfortably in shape for the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in late October, giving me a couple of months to train at distance and on trails.

(And it wouldn’t be like I’d be stagnating on the endurance thing. I can pile on some real bicycling mileage without much risk of injuring myself.)

But I still need to be careful. The first time I was running seriously I increased the mileage too quickly—in fact, now that I think about it, in order to get into shape for the very same Allerton Park Trail Race—and hurt my Achilles tendon. It took more than six months to fully recover. I don’t want to do that again.

But I do want to go for some long runs. I remember how good it felt.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Long runs and rides

Bicycle on the side of a country roadI miss being in shape for long runs and long rides, so it’s great to finally be making some progress.

Since I always get out of shape over the winter (I’ve never been able to get myself to run in the cold), I’m always having to ramp up in the spring.

I’ve got a nice 1.5 mile loop that I use for my early season runs. An important milestone is when I’m first able to do a “long” run of longer than that—this year a 2.12 mile run last Sunday. Not very long, but I know from experience that, once I can do a long run, I can ramp the distance up pretty quickly. If all goes well, by mid-summer my “short” runs will be 2.5 miles (same as my short loop, except adding a second lap around Kaufman Lake) and my long runs will be 5 or 6 miles. Still short by distance running standards, but long enough for me to feel like I’ve gotten a good workout.

The biggest obstacle to making proper progress is a pernicious habit I have of letting the weather tempt me into deferring my rest days: When the forecast is for rain tomorrow, I’m inclined to squeeze in a workout today, even if I ought to rest.

That can lead me seriously astray when—as is common on the prairie—we get into a weather pattern with several days in a row where the forecast is for rain tomorrow. Each day I think, “I’ll go ahead an get in one more run today, then take a rest day tomorrow when it’s rainy.” A few days of that, and pretty soon I’ve got sore knees or sore ankles—something that can blight a whole season.

Happily, the rain actually did arrive today, so I’m taking the rest day I should have taken Monday or Tuesday.

I follow much the same pattern with long bicycle rides. All the more so, really, because they’re even more dependent on the weather than a run. But the result doesn’t seem as pernicious. I can wear myself out with a few extra rides on what should be rest days, but so far the result hasn’t been the sort of injuries that set back my training.

So, rest day today. The forecast is for thunderstorms tomorrow as well, but we’ll still get in lifting and taiji, even if we can’t bicycle to them. Then, Friday, back to outdoor exercise. We’re just about ready for our first long ride of the season, traditionally to the center of the universe, for lunch at the Philo Tavern. (That link goes to a post from 2005 about that year’s first long ride.)

Illinois Marathon

Illinois Marathon runnings near mile 18
Lucie Mays-Sulewski in the lead near mile 18 of the Illinois Marathon

Several miles of the Illinois Marathon course run quite close to our apartment, so I thought I’d wander over and watch some of the elite runners go by.

The people who win a marathon run at about a 5-minute-mile pace. So, with the nearest point along the course being roughly mile 18, I figured they’d come past about an hour and a half after the start. My figuring was just about right, but I was a little slow getting out of the house, so the first two runners went by while we were still a block away.

We got to see the rest of the top men go by. They were pretty spread out—it doesn’t look like this is going to be a tactical race at all.

It was a grey, cool day. A bit windy for anyone hoping to get a great time, but otherwise perfect for running a marathon. It was, however, just a bit chilly for standing still. We watched runners go by in ones and twos until we saw the first of the women go by, then headed back home.

[Update: Checking the results, I see that the woman in the picture is Lucie Mays-Sulewski who went on to finish first among the women (and 24th overall) with a time of 2:52:54.]

Writing—and exercising—daily

Theodora Goss has a good post about writing every day, comparing it to exercising every day. She makes the point that, when you’re used to exercising every day, missing a day makes you feel crappy.

My own experience has been different, perhaps because my choices of preferred exercise include lifting weights and running, which both tend to wear your body down. They make you fitter, but only if you give your body a chance to recover.

When I exercise several days in a row, I gradually feel more and more beat up. I get sorer and sorer, weaker and weaker. Then, when I take a day off, I feel great. The next day I feel even better. I’ve often joked that it was like the old joke: “Why are you hitting your head on the wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

It’s actually pernicious. Some stupid bit in the back of my brain notices that feeling great is associated with skipping workouts. It conspires with the parts of my brain that would rather I sleep in and then sit around. It’s not smart enough to understand that I only feel great on a rest day if I had a couple of hard workouts in the days leading up to it.

Despite my particular experience with exercise, though, my opinion on writing matches hers—I do much better when I write every day. It keeps me in the flow of my work. When I write every day, I don’t need to spend as much time warming up, getting started. I definitely don’t need to spend as much time getting back up to speed on an on-going project, but I think it helps even when I’m switching between projects.

Like Dora, I’ve pondered the parallels between daily exercise and daily writing. In some ways they’re the same—there’s a discipline involved that’s definitely self-reinforcing—but in other ways I’m not so sure.

I’ve sometimes overdone the writing—written too many words or for too many hours. When I do that, it’s tough to write the next day. I don’t know what I want to say next, and when I figure it out, it’s harder to find the words. I need to take a day or two off—do some non-verbal work, mull things over for a bit—before I’m ready to get back to work writing. And by then, something has often gone missing. The carefully maintained mental construct of what I’m working on deteriorates very quickly, if I’m not writing every day.

And there, I think, is why exercise is sometimes different. Exercise is all about stress followed by recovery. Writing is about inhabiting the world I’m writing about—something that works best if I do it every day.

How much exercise?

I’ve always struggled to get the right amount of exercise.

I used to blame much of my difficulty on having a job. My experience over the past three years makes it clear that it wasn’t so simple. (It wasn’t completely wrong. Especially when the days get short—when I would be going to the office before sunrise and returning home only after the sun had set—it was very difficult to get enough exercise. That is much improved.)

There have been periods I have managed to get enough exercise. Three different summers I managed to do so by organizing my exercise around training for a future event (twice a race, once a century ride), but those efforts never carried over into the following winter. More successful have been the times when I integrated my exercise into my day’s activities, such as by walking to school or by bicycling to work.

The first time I was running seriously, I kept a training log. At the peak in late summer I was spending just over 100 minutes per day exercising. (That was averaging a 5-hour weekend bike ride in with shorter weekday bike rides, almost daily runs, and two or three sessions of lifting per week.)

The problem was that 100 minutes per day turned out to be more than was sustainable if I was also going to hold down a job, keep up with household tasks, and have a life. Even now that I’m not trying to hold down a regular job, I’ve found it impossible to put 100 minutes per day into exercise.

That’s all prelude to mentioning the extensive coverage in the news lately on a recent study on physical activity and weight gain prevention. For people of normal weight, it seems that one hour per day of exercise was sufficient to prevent weight gain. People who got less exercise gained weight. (The details were complicated. People who were already overweight didn’t seem to benefit from exercise.)

Still, even with the complex result, it seems like a target of 60 minutes per day of exercise is a reasonable one. It seems to be enough to maintain a healthy weight. (That is, if you can’t sustain a healthy weight when you’re getting that much exercise, the solution is not likely to be more exercise.) And it’s well under the 100 minutes that I found unsustainable.

The first news story I saw on the study had a great line, to the effect that if an hour a day seems like too much time to spend exercising, think instead that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

So, that’s going to be my goal: about an hour a day of exercise.

I’ve already got two days a week covered—on Mondays and Thursdays Jackie and I have a well-established habit of doing about 30 minutes of lifting plus 60 minutes of Taiji. If I aim to spend an hour a day on the other five days of the week walking, I can hit my target even if I miss an occasional day due to bad weather or schedule problems.

And I’ve already started. Thursday I did my lifting and Taiji. Yesterday I walked with Jackie for an hour just after lunch. Today I walked into campus for the Esperanto group meeting.

One great thing about this new exercise plan is that I don’t need to work up to it—I’m already in good enough shape to walk for an hour every day. I just need to do it.