A few years ago, I blogged about the cycling “sweet spot” — the amount of cycling distance/effort needed to produce the effects of “runner’s high”, that feeling of well-being (and even euphoria) that athletes sometimes get. While normally associated with running, cyclists can experience this high too, and for me, when I’m in good shape, I get this effect after 30-40 miles or so of “training” — training here meaning a mix of steady, moderate effort intertwined with more strenuous hill climbing and/or sprinting intervals. The reason I use the term sweet spot is that too little exercise doesn’t do the trick. Neither does a really strenuous or very long workout. The latter just makes you tired.
While I can experience this high while cycling, (and in my case, this usually means after 40 miles I’m raring to go for even more miles while others want to go back home to their Lazy Boy recliners), it’s more often the case that the feeling comes afterwards, after I’ve cooled down and showered. It’s a great feeling, and can leave me buzzed for hours.
Well, It’s B-A-A-C-K!
After not cycling as much as I used to — my fitness having taken a nose dive from too much time off due to injury, I haven’t experienced much of this runner’s high the past few years. Until recently, that is. This spring I’ve been helping a friend train for century rides, and my fitness level has been steadily improving as a result. So much so that my runner’s high is back — in a big way!
This week, after participating in the Tue/Thu morning Tri-Scottsdale training rides, which for me amount to 30-40 miles of the aforementioned mix of effort, I’ve had intense feelings of euphoria afterwards, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. On Tuesday, the effect lasted all day long. Wow! Talk about a buzz! And on Thursday, it also lasted all day, but in an even more intense form — so intense I was bouncing off the walls, so to speak. My whole body was tingling.
What the heck is going on?
Your body produces endorphins under certain amounts of physical exercise. These endorphins are pain-killing, euphoria-inducing chemicals that are somewhat like morphine, to put it simplistically. It’s been long suspected that this is the cause of runner’s high.
However, studies done in the early 2000s seem to disprove this theory. See this New York Times article for example. The conclusion reached is that it’s probably a mix of things, and not any one particular substance.
One thing I don’t like about the study mentioned in the NYT article is that they claim it’s “hard to experience this high” and so they did the study on rats.
Ummm, maybe I’m unique, I don’t know, but if I’m in shape it’s very easy for me to experience runner’s high. Like I said, a brisk cycling workout of 30-40 miles is all that’s needed. So they really should have experimented on me, not rats. Ha! And I can tell them that the effects can last for hours — all day even.
Some theorize that the endorphin chemicals are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier, so even if the body produces endorphins in the blood stream there’s no way for it to get to the brain and thus it can’t be the cause. One psychobiologist, Dr. Huda Akil, claims that “endorphin[sic] in runners is a total fantasy in the pop culture.”
Now, I’m no psychobiologist, but this sounds a bit dismissive to me. Yeah, it may not be the endorphins directly being the cause, but they certainly could cause a chain reaction of other chemicals that are. It’s up to you to decide whether this difference — that is, whether endorphins are the direct cause or not — matters. Doesn’t matter to me, for runner’s high is very real. I can attest to that.
It turns out that your body produces another natural chemical called anandamide, from the Sanskrit word for bliss. It’s supposedly similar to THC — the chemical in marijuana that produces its high. And the hypothesis is that there are brain receptors that respond to both anandamide, (a natural chemical produced by your body), and THC. So there is the possibility that this is where the runner’s high comes from. A study done by a Dr. Arne Dietrich seems to confirm this.
The only problem for me is that I don’t think this is the “high” I experience. I don’t get the somewhat drowsy, mellow and laid-back feeling of a marijuana high, (but I wouldn’t really know, for I’ve never partaken of that substance at any point in my life.) No, the feeling I’ve gotten lately is very much an intense feeling of euphoria and bliss that doesn’t make me drowsy or mellow at all. Quite the opposite, I’m very much alive and “on fire.”
And this last description, of being “on fire” leads to another, wilder hypothesis. My two intense feelings of runner’s high came about under the following conditions: (1) A solid vinyasa (flow yoga) workout of 1-1/2 hours in the evening, followed by (2) a moderate to hard 30-40 mile cycling workout the next morning.
Yes, this combination of yoga and cycling did the trick for me twice this week.
Hmm… yoga …
There’s a form of yoga called kundalini yoga whose main purpose is to awaken the so-called kundalini energy in your body, that supposedly lurks, to put it simplistically again, at the base of your spine. This energy, sometimes called the serpent energy, can “uncoil” and flood your body, causing all sorts of sensations.
Some think this form of yoga is dangerous, having nasty side-effects. I don’t know. I actually practiced kundalini yoga for a brief period back in the late 80s. In fact, it was the first form of yoga I was exposed to. We did a lot of poses that involved a form of breathing known as the breath of fire — a rapid in and out breathing pattern, done in such a way as to not cause hyperventilation.
I only practiced kundalini yoga for six months or so. I don’t remember why I quit, but I think I lost interest, or got busy with other things. At this time I did get exposed to the more conventional forms of yoga, and went to such classes for a while, something I wouldn’t start up again until 2008 when I joined the Yoga Pura studio here in Phoenix. These days, I really enjoy the sun-salutation sequences of vinyasa class.
But anyway, the descriptions I’ve heard of the kundalini energy have me wondering if that’s not what I’ve been experiencing this week. Could it be that through a combination of being at the right level of fitness, and doing consistent workouts of both vinyasa yoga and cycling of just the right intensity, that I have inadvertently awakened this energy?
Of course, most scientists poo-poo that any such energy exists. That doesn’t bother me in the least, even though I consider myself a rational, science-minded guy. There are probably a near infinite number of things that scientists have yet to discover. It only stands to reason. The scientific discipline hasn’t really been around that long, in the grand scheme of the universe. And the universe is large and mysterious and filled with wondrous things, more than science has had time to figure out. And I also note that the discipline of yoga has been around for thousands of years longer than western science.
Now that my curiosity is piqued, I see I’ve got more research to do, both of the runner’s high — and of the awakened kundalini.
I have no idea if I’ve really awakened this energy. Chances are, not. But it’s something to ponder. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing both the yoga and the cycling — and see where this potent combination of exercise leads.
Okay, I’m off for another round of yoga, cycling — and bliss! Ha!