Sunday, March 24, 2013

Runner's High and "The Wall": Fact or Fiction?

This would be the ultimate "bonk."
Today, we're going to discuss two somewhat mythical concepts that exist in the world of distance running, phenomena known as "Runner's High" and "The Wall."  There is some debate as to whether these two things actually exist, or if it's just a load of mumbo-jumbo.  I'm certainly no expert myself, but here's what the research and my own personal experience would suggest.  You can judge for yourself.

The Runner's High is said to occur after long periods of strenuous exercise, such as long-distance running.  Once a runner gets past a certain level of exertion and glycogen depletion, endorphins are released which allow him (or her) to continue in spite of exhaustion and/or physical pain.  In some cases, it also causes a feeling of euphoria or happiness.  Interestingly, the Runner's High is believed to be evolutionary in nature.  Apparently, way back in the Flintstone Era, we humans had to rely on running as our primary means of transportation and when we were hunting for our dinner, we'd come upon the occasional, I don't know, saber-toothed tiger or fleet-footed wildebeest.  Since succumbing to shin splints or the occasional pulled hamstring would result in our becoming dinner for said predators, nature kindly provided us with a mechanism for sucking it up until we got back to the cave where we could pack our injuries in ice.  This is how that period of history became known as the Ice Age.

I myself have yet to experience Runner's High, in spite of the fact that I've run the marathon distance on two separate occasions.  On the contrary, after completing those runs, I experienced what might be better described as a Runner's Hangover.  This involves flopping down on your bed, guzzling as much Gatorade as your bladder can manage, and whimpering in pain due to your burning muscles and aching ankle and knee joints.  Once the pain subsides, there is a general sense of accomplishment and pride, but to call this a "high" would be an exaggeration.  Maybe a Runner's Buzz.

Runners also frequently discuss The Wall, a somewhat arbitrary barrier during a marathon where the body pretty much says, "Okay, I'm done.  Call a cab and let's get the hell out of here."  This pleasant experience, also known as "bonking," happens when a runner has used up all his glycogen stores, and the body begins burning fat, muscle, bone, eyeballs, anything it can get its metabolism on.  The good news is that with proper nutrition and training, it is possible to delay or completely eliminate the appearance of The Wall.

Since, according to most experts, The Wall doesn't really come into play until after mile twenty, I've only had two opportunities to experience it.  So far, I don't think I have.  Now, don't misunderstand, I'm certainly not saying that miles twenty through twenty-six point two are all fun and games.  They aren't.  But I haven't had my legs just up and quit, nor have I upchucked my gels and Gatorade all over the pavement.  All that's happened is the pain in my muscles has progressed, and my minutes-per-mile pace has slowed.

So far, so good, I guess.

But just for fun, I think I'm going to put some Pink Floyd on my running playlist.

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