Runners high

There goes another one…

Yesterday morning, as I left my office building to walk across the parking lot to our new building, I saw a runner.

I see a lot of runners, but this guy stood out. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and had a deep tan. I assume he’d been out there running every day with no shirt on. And he looked awful.

He was an older guy, and you could see all of his bones sticking out. He moved in the most awkward and diseased way. Every step looked painful. His eyes were kind of glazed over and he didn’t even look at me. He looked like he was completing a prison sentence and pushing himself to do it.

His movement was stiff and his body looked broken. He had very little muscle, his ribs were sticking out, and he was hunched over …

But as bad as he looked, a lot of runners say they enjoy running. They look forward to the runners’ high.

But runners’ high is like all other highs and a bad idea over the long run (no pun intended).

In this case, your body releases endorphins which give you a feeling of euphoria. But why would your body release endorphins? Because it’s trying to minimize pain.

Problem is the release is addictive. And chasing that high is probably a bad idea. Just ask anyone who’s been addicted to drugs.

When I looked at the runner, all I felt was misery. I saw a creature who looked like he had given up everything that was fun and now he was broken and old before his time.

Reminded me of Robert Kraft, who they call “Raven.” He’s been in media reports for jogging 8 miles on Miami Beach every day for almost 40 years. He’s now logged over 110,000 miles.

At just 62 years old, Raven has a chronically injured back, torn up knees, foot pain, neck pain, degenerative discs, sciatica and arthritis.

Last year he had to go to the hospital for shortness of breath. He says he’s in intense pain from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning. Often he can’t even stand up straight. “I’m basically crippled,” he told the media. Just walking out of his room is a Herculean task.

This is not unique to Raven. Injury and intense pain are common among long-distance runners. The runners’ high gets you through it while you’re running, but afterwards…

Just look at some of the article titles on the Runner’s World website:

  • “No More Sore Shins”
  • “Get Over It: Foot Pain”
  • “My Knee Aches”
  • My favorite is “Painful Thoughts: When your body pleads with you to stop, your mind can keep you going”

The runners’ high is often how your mind lets you keep going. But let me be clear: Jogging is a good way to destroy your body. Raven’s story and the writers at Runner’s World show exactly what’s in store for anyone who runs long distances frequently.

Jogging is the exact opposite type of exercise I prescribe to patients who come to my Wellness Center looking to get into shape. And most of them are very surprised to hear that you can burn fat and pack on muscle without brutally long workouts or hours in the gym.

If you have your heart set on running, why not try short sprints instead?

Brief sprints increase your lung volume, strengthen your heart, and get you in great shape.

The LA Times cited a study that looked at 47 people doing either traditional endurance exercise or brief, intense sprints. Those working out with a focus on intensity spent 85% less time exerting themselves, and still had significantly lower blood pressure, better aerobic fitness, and lower body mass index (BMI).1

That was just looking at intensity vs. endurance.

Another recent study divided 36 people into three groups. One trained for intensity, one for duration (like jogging) and the other for strength. The intensity group had the most significant fitness improvement. It was the only group that had their lungs grow stronger.

Their VO2 max (the rate at which your lungs can get oxygen to your body, a measure once thought unchangeable) improved by an average of 14%. And lung strength is the number one indicator of how long you’ll live.2

What I like to do is find a nice hill to work with. That’s tough to do here in South Florida where it’s so flat. But I’ve found a park with a nicely inclined hill that’s perfect for this exercise.

I sprint halfway up the hill; then I turn around and finish the last half running backwards. By then, I’m at the top of the hill and can use the walk down as my recovery.

Here are the three most important things to remember when doing sprints:

  1. When doing sprints, it works nicely to take a deep breath in through your nose and fully fill your diaphragm for a count of 3-4 steps. Then, exhale through your mouth during the next 3-4 steps, completely releasing all air from your lungs.
  1. Ideally you should feel somewhat winded after each sprint, and your heart should be beating faster than normal. You shouldn’t be lightheaded. Feeling slightly winded and panting is what you’re looking for.
  1. As your sprints gets easier, focus on increasing the intensity. In other words, as your body adapts, step it up a notch. You’ll become healthier, leaner, stronger and younger.

1. Buchan, D. et al, “The effects of time and intensity of exercise on novel and established markers of CVD in adolescent youth,” American Journal of Human Biology Aug. 2011;23(4):517–526
2. Schünemann, Holger J., MD, PhD et al, “Pulmonary Function Is a Long-term Predictor of Mortality in the General Population,” Chest Sept. 2000;118(3):656-664