The Runners Cocktail

Running makes an almost daily occurrence in my life. My daily run functions, for me, as somewhat of a housecleaner: dusting-off the rumination included in the forever fleeting moments of experience – making my awareness that much sharper. It supplies me with both a sense of accomplishment and wellbeing. It heightens my reputation with myself, which, in turn, builds my sense of self-confidence. The run is akin to a wonder cocktail, that is constructed from three main mixers: physical and psychological suffering and a physiological response to movement. Although the cocktail, when put into context of those factors, doesn’t sound appealing (who would want to intentionally put themselves through suffering?), it is absolutely worth it!

I’ve been a near daily runner for around 5-years now. This was the first form of exercise I brought into that didn’t have the element of direct competition present (i.e. I was not directly competing against someone else on another team, or on the other side of the net). So, this was a completely new endeavour for me. The initial decision to take on running was to get the outcome of being healthier, with a greater sense of wellness. You see, I was gaining weight and, for the first time, wasn’t an admirer of my own appearance. The very evening upon realising this, I decided (think it was sometime in December 2015) the way I perceived myself was going to change. I knew I needed a physical change for my mindset to be able to follow. I chucked on a pair of Converse trainers and ran barely a mile. I remember that evening vividly. The cold seemed to pierce the face with continuous dart-like thrusts of wind, with the occasional openhand slap. When the sweat began to surface, the bitter cold relished in the prospect of playing my own perspiration against me. There was no runner’s high, just a good amount of shallow breathing and soreness. Nonetheless, I completed my first (in years) intentionally initiated run. Surprisingly, in the moments immediately after, I could barely remember the experience of suffering; instead, I immediately reflected on the resilience I demonstrated on the journey as well as the feeling of accomplishment I felt on completion – which could be something do with a serotonin induced positive bias (more on that later). Clearly, I continued with running from that moment on (just with better running shoes), never once missing my life when I didn’t feel compelled to tighten up my running shoes and travel the roads.

Although the process of running and physically pushing yourself is literally a form of self-imposed physical – and, at times, psychological — suffering, it’s absolutely necessary for the chemical as well as psychological wellness cocktail to be felt.

Psychologically, the journey of suffering the run induces is important. When one can endure the journey of some amount of physical suffering and uncomfortableness, it provides you with evidence that proves your own resilience – not to anyone else, but to yourself. It certainly demonstrated to me that I was capable of pushing through uncomfortableness to achieve a goal, or to gain a grater competence in a craft. It gives you a reference of experience that you can always refer to when self-doubt impinges, and negative thoughts occur. If you know you have endured before, you know you can do it again. And you have the concrete evidence to back that statement, which increases the likelihood that you will be able to push through to completion. It also takes some amount of courage to not take your inner narrative as gospel and to show you won’t yield to the thought that says: ‘just walk these last couple of kilometres’.

These experiences of pushing through uncomfortableness almost act as a counterpunch to negative thoughts that inevitably spawn from the grounds of a challenge. They can function as empirical evidence (‘you can do this, just see x’) disproving a bad argument (‘you’re above your paygrade here, give it up’).  After all, that’s what most thoughts are: unsubstantiated arguments that are keen to keep you on a path of comfort and least resistance – always assume they’re false until evidence proves otherwise.

What I’ve just outlined, in fact, is a strategy utilised in the positive cognitive behavioural therapy (pCBT) framework. This therapy attempts to get people to bring to the surface moments of accomplishment, perseverance and growth. It focuses on a person’s strengths and areas of competence, rather than simply the negative thoughts associated with a pathology. This framework reasons that, we all have moments of accomplishment and overcoming, it’s just our negative thoughts become habitual – pushing to ground whatever contradicts them.  This form of therapy has been shown to give people the tools needed to bring to the surface those contradictions and alleviate depression as well as various forms of anxiety. Providing yourself with evidence of your own feats of resilience and competence, then, may serve as a protective agent against mental illness. The journey the run provides can give you this evidence of self-reliance, competence and perseverance. These running experiences are something I pull inspiration from all the time. When I’m feeling inadequate or am on the precipice of self-imposed defeat, I bring to mind a running experience of when I’ve persevered: ‘remember that time I struggled with but completed my first half marathon?’ I have many of these running experiences I can use as evidence of my competence and toughness when negative thought patterns pervade my consciousness. In effect, I’m performing pCBT on myself. 

Along with the psychologically protective walls that running can erect around your mind, it encourages the release of neurochemical mood enhancers and builds a defence against stress.

Physical exertion appears, in part, to maintain your stress-response apparatus. The elevated levels of cortisol (correlated with physiological and psychological stress) during (and ~ 2hrs after) exercise seem to couple with the release of growth hormone in such a way that allows for stress arousal regulation. Studies have demonstrated that those, for instance, who are regular exercisers exhibit reduced cortisol levels the next morning. The levels of this cortisol inactivation appear to trend with the amount of exercise one takes; meaning, the more exercise one does, the less cortisol appears upon waking. Simply put, exercise decreases the general level of cortisol you have floating around your body, leaving you less susceptible to the impact of stressors that you will encounter throughout the day.

The vitally important mood related neurochemical, serotonin, has also been shown to be affected during and after physical exercise. The building block of serotonin, tryptophan, is often competing for access to the brain against other related proteins. During a run, though, the muscles in use demand more of these tryptophan competitors, which frees-up more room for this serotonin precursor to move into the brain unimpeded. This is what researchers believe leads to the observed increase of serotonin within the cerebral cortex and brain stem during exercise. Elevated serotonin within the brain has been both related to self-reported feelings of wellbeing and even to the better processing of positive information. Antidepressant drugs – specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs; these increase the overall level of serotonin available) – for instance, have even been charged with positively influencing the initial appraisal and levels of attention that positively associated stimuli receive; which is believed to install a positive bias in our mind. Running, then, through the mediation of serotonin, could even be adjusting our perception of the positive, allowing it a great acuity in the mind.

The culmination of these effects is why I endeavour to never break my habit of running. It maintains my mind’s acuity, gives me reason to not doubt myself and, without fail, elevates my state of being to something bordering on content. I encourage all to order and get drunk on the runner’s cocktail. Have fun.

By Thomas Cornish

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