Literally Running Late

Minuteman Bikeway SignI was looking forward to my Saturday morning long run. I got my winter running clothes organized the evening before and set the alarm clock to 7:00am. I was ready to head out on another 8:00am early morning run in the cold late Winter weather of the Northeast. I was no longer ready when the alarm rang, so I hit the snooze button… There was no running group to meet up with on this cold and windy morning, making it even harder to get out and run! I always hear about runners going out for a run at 5:30am or even at 5:00am. Occasionally, I have done this too in the past, but usually on a beautiful summer morning, not on a cold and windy Boston winter day! To me, it is extremely difficult to get up early and run, but I do it. Why? I do it, because it feels good to be done with it before work and, in the case of a weekend, I still have the whole weekend ahead of me! There is a problem though. I simply can’t do this for a leisurely run, even though I know that once I’m out there running I love it! I’d rather get up later and go running after breakfast or lunch. Why should I force myself to get up early just for a run? For me, the trick is to sign up for a race such as the Boston’s Run to Remember Half Marathon and make a training plan. Then, I simply gotta run and it feels good, exceptionally good! Runners tend to annoy non-runners by bragging about how early they got up for a run. I understand them, I have to admit I’m sometimes one of them (I know those who have little kids are shaking their heads at this, but then there are external forces at play for parents of young children). It’s simply a difficult thing to do, this battle with yourself while you are in a cozy bed on a Saturday and Sunday morning. Runners are proud they did it, because it means they won their battle against enticing immediate pleasures in exchange for a delayed reward.

Snow along Minuteman PathSo approximately 80 minutes later I finally got out and went for a run. I was literally running late. Since I was able to do about 6.5 miles last weekend with the Alzheimer’s Association runners’ group, I was ready to tackle 8 miles. Because there is still a lot of snow on the ground everywhere (see photo on right), I decided to run along the Minuteman Bikeway which is usually plowed right away after a snow storm. To my surprise, a lot of runners, walkers, and bicyclists were out and about despite the stiff winter wind. The first four miles were tough. Normally, it takes me about a mile to get warmed-up and into¬† a comfortable running speed. However, I didn’t expect the strong wind hitting my face so soon. My legs also felt as if they were complaining about having been forced to leave the bed too early. But once it was time to turn around, at mile 5, all of a sudden it felt easy.

Is this what people refer to as “Runners’ High”? I wondered. Somewhere I read that a cascade of chemical events happening at the cellular level in your brain when running has a very similar effect to SSRI‘s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), highly potent psychoactive drugs prescribed for depression. Good enough a reason for me to keep running despite the stiff winter wind. In animal experiments on the effects of running on the brain researchers have also found that¬† a chemical called “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor” (short: “BDNF”) is upregulated at least transiently following aerobic exercise. This chemical has neuroprotective effects in the brain, especially in a brain region known as the hippocampus that is important for learning and memory. John Ratey, in his book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro” of the brain. In the hippocampus of animals researchers have shown that BDNF can help grow new brain cells even in the adult brain.

Back to my run. Minuteman TrailI don’t know whether I was under the influence of SSRI-like brain chemicals or whether my brain was being “fertilized” by BDNF during my run, the second half of my run suddenly felt easy! I thought I could have gone for at least two additional miles. I am glad I didn’t, because when the “Runners’ High” or whatever it was that I was experiencing wore off, I felt exhausted and all I could think about was sitting down and resting my legs! The GPS application that I took with me on my run recorded I was running the 8 miles in 1 hour, 20 minutes and 41 seconds. Not surprisingly, I felt too tired to dedicate Sunday afternoon to strength training with Joe (see a previous post). So tomorrow morning, I have both a two-mile easy run and strength training focusing on legs, hips and core on my training plan. Let’s just hope that I won’t hit the snooze button again tomorrow morning or I will be literally running late once more.

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