Cognitive Daily

Tomorrow I’ll be running my first-ever (and possibly my last) half-marathon. I’ve been an amateur runner since high school, but the longest race I’d run in previously was a 10K race, less than half this distance, nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t run competitively since college, but I have consistently run around three miles a day for nearly that entire span. It was just this summer that I decided to go for the half-marathon, and I’ve upped my training regimen to include runs as long as 12 miles. But tomorrow’s 13.1 mile race will be the longest I’ve ever run. What can I look forward to?

How about the Runner’s High? WebMD’s article on the subject describes it this way:

“Psychologically, runners may experience euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in sense of time while running,” says Jesse Pittsley, PhD, president of the American Society for Exercise Physiologists.

Wow! That sounds great! Unfortunately, I’ve never felt it, even in my 12-mile run. My running partner did, though — she was singing the theme from Rocky for the last mile of our longest training run, driving me absolutely bonkers. Is the runner’s high a real, physical phenomenon, or is it all in your head? The WebMD article waffles on the subject, and obviously the fact that not everyone gets the sensation suggest that it’s at the very least a complex phenomenon.

But how about the negative aspects of marathoning? The New York Times points out that this year has brought more heart-attack deaths during marathons — 6 — than in several recent years combined. The same article discusses a study where runners in the Boston Marathon were given a heart exam and echocardiogram before and after the race.

The runners (41 men, 19 women) had normal cardiac function before the marathon, with no signs of troponin in their blood. Twenty minutes after finishing, 60 percent of the group had elevated troponin levels, and 40 percent had levels high enough to indicate the destruction of heart muscle cells. Most also had noticeable changes in heart rhythms. Those who had run less than 35 miles a week leading up to the race had the highest troponin levels and the most pronounced changes in heart rhythm.

Is marathon racing too much of a strain on the human body? The experts in the New York Times article are divided on the subject. One doctor advises patients with heart problems to “train for the race,” then watch the actual event on TV.

I have to say, so far the health effects on me have been all good. I’ve lost about 20 pounds, and where before I could barely manage a 5-mile jog, now that feels like a short distance. Will I run another one? I’ll have to wait until after the race to make that decision.

In other news:


  1. #1 Katherine
    December 8, 2006

    My guess is that your health effects have all been good because you’re running a HALF-marathon. Some people can do the full marathon without a problem, but it will usually end up taking some sort of toll on you. The body is not designed to run 26.1 miles. But I think most people could benefit a lot from training for shorter runs.

    Good luck on your race tomorrow!!

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    December 8, 2006

    The original plan was to run a half-marathon this year, then a marathon next year. I’m pretty sure at this point I don’t want to run a marathon. Just training for the half takes too much out of me. On my long-run days, I can barely think, let alone write. Even on shorter days, I find my productivity suffers.

    Others clearly have different mental effects from hard distance training though, as evidenced by the avid marathoners in the NYT article — along with ScienceBlogs’ own Kevin Beck.

  3. #3 Craig Pennington
    December 8, 2006

    A few years ago, after I turned 40, I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I will achieve that goal at 42 this Spring. I have dropped abt 50lbs in that time and I expect to drop 10 more by Feb and then stabilize at 180 for the marathon in late March.) I get a general euphoria after my runs which is somewhat reminiscent of, but milder than, a morphine euphoria. There is none of the drowsiness. I do suspect it is at least partially physiological, and it is definitely a complex phenomenon.

    BTW, I agree w/Katherine that many (if not most) people are not built to run marathons regularly. I have a 16.5mile loop that I regularly run that seems to be about my max that I can sustain on a weekly basis without pushing my limits and I am far more comfortable w/13 miles. After this Spring, I will probably limit myself to halfs (as events) for the time being.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    December 8, 2006

    Good luck, Dave – be sure to let us know how you fare. A half-marathon had been in my plans for January but I let other stuff get in the way of my training.

    I certainly enjoyed trail marathons but doubt that I will ever plan to do one on pavement. Good luck to Craig, too!

  5. #5 Fletcher
    December 8, 2006

    Dave, good luck on your event tomorrow. I started running in January, participated in a sprint-triathlon in August, and am preparing to run a half marathon in May. I have never experienced “euphoria.” Mostly it has just been a great sense of accomplishment as in “I can’t believe I was able to do that.”

  6. #6 Sarah Dasher
    December 8, 2006

    Way to go, Dave! I hope it goes well for you. Finishing (and even training for) a half-marathon is a really nice accomplishment.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    December 8, 2006

    Thanks for all the well-wishing, everyone!

    I’m hoping to run an 8:30 pace per mile, which would have me finishing in an hour and 51 minutes. But I’ll be happy with anything under 2 hours.

    I’ll post an update (and maybe even an action photo) when I’m done with the race!

  8. #8 Kevin Beck
    December 9, 2006

    “I’m hoping to run an 8:30 pace per mile, which would have me finishing in an hour and 51 minutes.”

    Okay, so your pace estimate was off by about 3/5 of 1%, but it looks like otherwise you had a good day out there! Congrats!

    The half has always been my favorite distance, although the romantic allure of the more heralded marathon has always been a draw too. (The same basic phenomenon explains why all distance runners start out as milers — anyone can relate to the distance.)

    I’ve always held that “runner’s high” exists, but is much more subtle than popularly conceived. Those runners who have eaten Dilaudid for any reason can attest to the fact that the pill-provided buzz is a little more intense.

    Any physiological stressor will cause the release of endorphins, and running certainly counts, so the framework is clearly for a “high” in place. I’ve found, however, that being out of shape (e.g., after an injury lay-off) actually makes it easier to attain the “high,” because there’s a definite tolerance phenomenon at work — when I’ve been doing 100 miles a week in prep for a marathon, an easy 10-miler, while certainly pleasant, is no more a euphoric experience than mowing the lawn.

    I also think that the depression experienced by runners who quit cold turkey (e.g., runners who injure themselves) may be rooted in endorphin withdrawal as much as it is in the awareness of one’s own sluggishness; there’s the subjective feeling of “Damn, I feel like a slug” mixed with what I am certain is a true physiological derangement involving various neuroransmitter axes. But I’ve never looked into this because I’m lazy.

    People may also conflate the general, well-earned emotional arousal inherent in crossing the finish line of a half-marathon or other race for the first time with the distinct physiological effects of endogenous opioids. Really, money could never buy the feeling one achieves when that finish line you’ve dreamed about for months finaly comes into view, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon.

  9. #9 Nina
    December 10, 2006

    Congratulations! I finished the half-marathon, too, but a good bit after you did (2:15:46). I agree, the race went by a lot faster than expected. The run was just so pleasant … I had a blast. Looks like you did, too!

  10. #10 Dave
    December 10, 2006

    I live and die by the runner’s high. I stopped running competitively after a few years of high school, but have kept it up on a very sporadic basis since then. It’s the only thing that can lift me out of the really pervasive “bad moods” that I get every once in a while. There’s something about the repetitive motion of running, getting outside and going somewhere under my own power that is really invigorating in a way that nothing else is.

  11. #11 Gordon Worley
    December 12, 2006

    I read an interested book on about running entitled “Why We Run: A Natural History” by Bernd Heinrich (it was also released under the title “Racing the Antelope”, but it was retitled after some legal trouble). The author runs ultramarathons, and even though I dislike running long distance and, thankfully, no longer can (arthritis), I enjoyed this book a lot. Well worth a read.

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