Sunday, March 30, 2008

Endorphins Rule

“Researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, report in the current issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex that the folk belief is true: Running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.”

I have started running again. For now it is just two days a week, but I will soon up that to three times a week and then to four over the next two months. I used to run a lot and then I hurt my back—two herniated disks down low at the same time. The pain was terrible and, needless to say, it put me off of running for quite a while. Swimming, sit-ups, and push-ups have improved my core strength and gotten me to the point where running is once again an option for me.
I saw the above report in the New York Times this week and it made me think about when I began running six years ago. It was during a long, hard slog through an Upstate New York winter. In February of 2002 Erica and I made up our minds that we were going to complete a marathon in the fall of the same year. We each had our own reasons for needing a huge goal to consume us and training for a marathon was just the right thing.
I can remember the first run I did in preparation for the marathon. It was a cold February evening and I didn’t own a pair of running shoes so I set out in my Chuck Taylors to run a 2.3 mile loop through our little town of Trumansburg. My lungs were seared by the cold air and my leg “muscles” hurt. I pushed into our living room and reported to Erica that “running is stupid.”
But I stuck with it and within a month my longest run had stretched to four miles. And then five. And soon enough I began to look forward to the long Sunday runs that were the heart of my training program. I was not aware of the endorphins flooding my brain, but flooding they were and I certainly did feel good about what I was doing.
Now that I look back at it all, there must have been a heck of a lot of endorphins in order to account for my behavior at the time. One stupid June Sunday I ran fourteen miles through a cold, windy rain. By that time I had running shoes, but because of the cold and the rain I made what turned out to be a BRD—a bad runner’s decision. I put on a pair of thick wool socks instead of my usual thin cotton socks and then went out into the downpour. My socks absorbed much of the rain that fell, causing them to swell up and fill my shoes too tightly. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but suffice it to say that the next day my two big toes were missing their toenails.
And I went out and ran five miles anyway. Endorphins kick ass.
In October of 2002 I made it through the Wineglass Marathon in and around the beautiful countryside of Corning, New York. It took me four and a half hours and even the endorphins were not enough to make that run anything but hard. But I finished.
Now, six years later I find myself needing a big goal again—something to help focus my energy and make me feel progress. I love what I do for work, but as a teacher I can’t always see concrete results from all the time and effort I put into my job. Running is different. I can see and feel progress from day to day and week to week. Four miles today felt far easier than four miles four weeks ago. But teaching a fifth grader how to use a comma appropriately doesn’t ever feel any easier. And there have been no studies so far to prove that teaching grammar to ten and eleven year olds releases any corresponding flood of endorphins. Unless and until teaching is shown to flood my brain with natural mood-lifters and pain-killers, I will continue to run. It works. Really. Dr. Henning Boecker proved it.

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