Today, I experienced something really out of the ordinary.
I had about 45 seconds of feeling complete in-my-body joy whilst I was running.
If you’re a runner this won’t sound that odd. But if like me you have only ever run in the hope it would do you some good, you’ll get this.
I won’t bore you with my history of failed attempts at running. Let’s just say that I have never, ever enjoyed running, so I only do it in bursts of ill-fated attempts to create a healthy exercise habit. But today was different.
Today, I suddenly felt uplifted and full of joy and fun, as my feet bounced off the pavement. The ‘high’ only lasted about 45 seconds, but as Nobel-Prize-winning Professor Daniel Kahneman will tell you, it’s the height of the peak that matters, not the duration.
So why, after so many years, did I finally experience what people might mean when they talk about a runner’s high?
There is a back-story to this
It wasn’t a total fluke. There was a smidgen of thought that led to this point. I’ll talk you through how this happened, just in case it can help you work towards experiencing similar joy.
First, a few months ago I read “Jog On” by Bella Mackie. It wasn’t really my sort of book because it’s about running, but I was reading it because I read tons of self-help books in order to pass on recommendations to my clients of any book that might help them. And it’s only if I’ve read it that I know who to suggest it to.
As I say, not my sort of book as there was a lot of talk about running in it (don’t let that put you off – it’s a number 1 bestseller and has lots of glowing reviews). But one thing stuck with me, as Bella Mackie said that when she began running – from a similar very low level to me – she just ran down an alley and back. I was, I admit, disappointed that she never said how short the alley was. I’d have liked her to set a bar so low that I would have beaten it from the off. But it seemed to me that no alley could be that long, and if she ended up with a serious running habit (spoiler alert… she did) from down an alley and back, there was hope for me. And the main thing I look for in a self-help book is hope.
I had Bella Mackie’s alley-running mulling away in the back of my mind over the winter, until the bewildering start of the covid crisis, when the one thing I decided to do was to walk or run each day, to introduce some sort of routine/discipline into my enforced lockdown. I’ve run round the block every day since (10 minutes) and on a few days gone a longer route of 20 minutes. I like to think that round the block is longer than Bella Mackie’s alley.
Most days I’ve just run and tried to think useful thoughts. Useful thoughts tally is zero so far, but at least I did run. I had a go at listening to the Spotify playlist my son made for me last year when I began the couch-to-5k programme narrated by Michael Johnson. Unfortunately I couldn’t work out how to play the music and run the app at the same time and my son had gone off to university, so I had the app without music, and never got past Week 7 of couch-to-5k.
My accidental runner’s high
Back to lockdown and Spotify. Yesterday I did my 10 minutes run listening to the playlist and part of the way round the block, my favourite song of all time started up, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (I’m not sophisticated when it comes to music, or anything else for that matter). The beat of the music was in time with my stride, and I got the happy buzzy feeling I always get in the strumming before Freddie starts to sing, but even better, the way the music fitted my bouncy stride super-charged the buzz. Now for the astonishing bit.
My deliberate runner’s high
I decided I was going to recreate that feeling, and I was going to do it right at the start as I thought it would get me into a good groove for the run. This morning, as I stepped out of the front door, I flicked through my playlist and put CLTCL on first. I started to run, and as the strummy intro gave way to Freddie Mercury’s “This thing called love, I just can’t handle it” I had this amazing burst of something flowing through me as my feet hit the pavement in time with Roger Taylor’s drum. By the time I got to the end of the road, I was still enjoying the tune, but my runner’s high had passed.
My next runner’s high
No matter. All day I’ve been enjoying the thought of running tomorrow, starting with Queen. I have never looked forward to a run in my life, but here I am fixated on it. As Daniel Kahneman explains in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, the Peak-End Rule is that what we remember is the best bit and the last bit of an experience. The rest doesn’t stick with us. And it’s the memory of what we’ve done before and its associated level of pleasure or pain that dictates how much we’ll want to do it again.
Essentially, the serotonin pleasure rush we get with the experience of pleasure creates a drive (dopamine-driven) to engage with the pleasurable experience again. The music plus the bouncy rhythm of running gave me the flood of serotonin, and now my dopamine system is urging me to repeat the fun. And I will, first thing tomorrow, rain or shine.
Thank you Bella, Freddie, and Roger, Brian and John. It’s early days, but I think you might have made me a runner.
Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books