Snow Day! or WTF is a Runner’s High?

Last night we had our first real snow of the season and the allure of the white-frosted trees and fresh, crisp air seemed like a great excuse to ditch the gloomy confines of the gym today and take ‘fitness’ into the great outdoors. Jack and Don were happy to oblige and accompany me on a run followed by some at-home strength training (push-ups, eeew!) and a brief snowball fight (which I lost).

This was the second time this week that I opted out of the gym and into a run in the fresh air; once in a while a change of scenery is necessary in order to avoid the ‘workout doldrums’.  We have been blessed with a very mild winter here in Germany with temps staying consistently in the mid-30s (F) or higher, so it has been pretty easy for me to switch things up and take my workout on the road whenever I get bored with my normal routine. There is just one teeny-tiny little thing that would make it easier for me to skip the gym and get my cardio en plein-air and that would be if I actually enjoyed running.

There are a lot of things that I like about running… I like the thought of doing it, I like making an iPod playlist for running, I like the way I feel when I’m finished with a run, but I don’t enjoy doing the actual running. I find it slightly easier to do on a treadmill when I can control the speed and make sure the terrain stays absolutely flat, but running is never easy.

I’ve heard people say that they like or even LOVE running, and I don’t understand how that can be possible. In fact, I don’t believe them. I do believe, however, that they like or love the way running makes them feel, I like that too. There is something very satisfying about dripping sweat with your heart pounding and your legs aching from a good long gallop; it feels great to be finished with a run and know that you have just done your body a lot of good at no cost aside from the price of a pair of sneakers, but it just can’t be possible that anyone likes the actual running part!

From start to finish, running is more work than something that supposedly comes naturally to people should be. When moving from a warm up walk into the first steps of a jog, my body feels stiff and clunky. Whatever muscles I worked on at the gym the day before twinge in protest at having to move at speeds greater than an amble, and it takes a lot of concentration to establish a rhythm. And why is that??? Human beings have been running since the dawn of time- either toward something that will become dinner or away from something looking to make a human its dinner- so it seems like running should be as easy as walking, but it most certainly is not.

When I finally manage to jog out all of the kinks in my body and feel a little loose, the next challenge is that I can no longer breathe and my heart threatens to explode. I know that it wouldn’t be considered a cardio exercise if it didn’t tax our cardiovascular system a little bit, but why oh why oh why does running make my heart pound so that I have to turn up my podcast in order to hear Ira Glass tell me about Act One this week on This American Life over the drumming in my ears ? And why does every breath I take feel like fire in my lungs? Or worse, in the cold air, why does it feel like my trachea is no larger than one of those coffee stirring straws forcing me to gasp air like a goldfish whose bowl has been knocked over?

The grand finale of running discomfort comes when I have resigned myself to the fate of not being able to breathe and knowing that I could go into cardiac arrest at any moment. Just when I think that I can live with these things, my limbs turn into lead. Little by little, it takes more effort to lift my legs and pump my arms until it feels like I am running underwater, or maybe it’s more like being the Tin Man in a rain storm; my joints get creakier until I can’t possibly move them anymore.

So when people talk about getting a runner’s high, I think about how I feel- stiff, sore, lungs on fire, heart beating faster and louder than the bass line in a Ke$ha song and then, as if in a terrible nightmare, it all starts to happen in slow motion- I can only assume that a). these people black out while running because they can’t suck enough oxygen through their swizzle stick tracheas and they don’t accurately remember what the experience of running feels like, or b).  these people are trying to make themselves feel better by imagining that there is some payoff from running greater than simply checking off the exercise box on their to-do list. Either way, I’m not buying it.

For certain there are benefits to running. It is stress-relieveing and anxiety-reducing (no extra energy left to be stressed or anxious after a good, long run), it gets your blood moving which is great for all of your organs, it can help clear your thoughts (I spend most of my runs thinking about anything and everything so that I don’t have to think about the fact that I am running and I get a lot of planning done that way), but none of those benefits include a high of any sort. A Runner’s High is like a Unicorn or a pleasant-tasting cough syrup; it would be nice if any of those things existed, but they are all fantasy creatures and it isn’t fair to delude ourselves by pretending that they are real.

Sometimes I entertain the possibility that maybe I just haven’t run fast enough or far enough to experience the mythical Runner’s High, but I can’t find the motivation to want to try this theory out mostly because it would involve running faster and farther than I presently do. Once in a while, I’ll have a run that is kind of enjoyable. I’ll get through the first stages of creaky zombie-legs warm up and hit a rhythm and feel pretty good for a few miles, but most of the time I just feel like I would rather lie down on the pavement and call Don to come pick me up in the car than run another step.

Those are the days that I have to remind myself that running is not optional. I don’t have to do it every day, but I do occasionally have to do it if I want to be a fit and healthy person. Sure there are plenty of other cardio options, but every once in a while, even if its just for a short distance and at a very slow pace, it is necessary to remind my body what it feels like to run if only for the sake of proving to myself that it is not IMPOSSIBLE because it generally feels like it is. Also, even though all cardio exercises help to strengthen your cardiovascular system by insuring that you have a good, strong heart and big, healthy lungs, each exercise is slightly different in the way it works your body and it is always good to vary your exercise so that you are well-rounded in your fitness; focus too much on one thing, and you run the risk of looking like Popeye- scrawny all over with one concentration of big muscles!

Running is awful, it is difficult and sometimes painful and I often feel like I am failing at being a human being because I think running should come more naturally to me, but it is something that we must all do once in a while (even if we do it while pretending we are in the Hunger Games because that is the only way we could ever justify its necessity to ourselves). When I read articles about running either online or in magazines, it seems like the world is full of half-crazed running fanatics who swear that running is SO FUUUUNNNN or that it makes them SUPER HAAAAPPPPPYYYYY, and I’d like to remind everyone else out there that you are not alone. There are plenty of us who feel like running is an awful chore and the only thing about it that we look forward to is being done with our run so that we can spend another two or three days in the warm embrace of the elliptical machine, but when the gym starts to feel like a gloomy dungeon and our normal workout routine seems stale and boring, it is really nice to have the option of throwing on a pair of sneakers and getting a (literal) change of scenery. Running: I absolutely hate it, but I also kind of like it.

Jack doing his post-run stretching.
Jack doing his post-run stretching.

2 thoughts on “Snow Day! or WTF is a Runner’s High?

  1. I had a runners’ high once. All of a sudden, I could breathe again and I loved running and I felt like I could conquer the world. It lasted about 5 minutes. I haven’t had one since.

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