Monday, December 14, 2009

Runners High

Dean Karnazes, the Ultra Marathon Man has a blog on that he updates with, how shall I put it charitably, less frequency than yours truly. Frankly, I wonder where the man finds the time to write at all, since most of his waking hours are taken up with running excruciatingly long distances in various inhospitable parts of the world. Nevertheless, Dean does find time to write and his most recent entry on the suicide of his friend, another ultrarunner, seems to have touched a nerve in the running community. One paragraph that stuck out to me contained the assertion that “Endurance athletes can be prone to depression. We experience great emotional highs from doing what we love, but the post-event lows can sometimes be correspondingly devastating.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. Apparently so have many other readers of, who have been moved to comment with their own stories of overcoming tremendous adversity through the act of running. I have absolutely no science to back this up, but there seem to be a disproportionate number of runners who defend the physical and psychological benefits of this sport with the type of zeal usually seen in Amway salesmen and Jehovah Witnesses. I count myself among them. If it weren’t for me discovering running some 20 years ago, I would probably be taking medication for depression and buying my clothes in the tall and fat store. I rarely, if ever, see this sort of gratitude to a sport expressed by people who ride stationary bikes or rock the elliptical at the gym. So what is it about running? Why does running seem to stimulate the brain and at the same time render one calm and focused? On the other hand, why can it, as in the case of Dean’s friend, exacerbate depression? I suspect the answer lies in brain chemistry-neurotransmitters. Hopefully over the next few days I can take a look at some science and let you all know what I come up with. Meanwhile, take a look at some of the comments appended to Dean’s blog. Very interesting.


  1. I read the article a bit ago, but I never really went back to read the comments. Maybe I should.

    I know for myself running has definitely helped me. I started suffering depression after the death of one of my close friends. I don't think I finally was "FULLY" recovered until I took up running.

  2. I will be very interesting in seeing what you find. Could the depression result from running itself or be more from giving up the high when the race is over or there is an injury, etc. (Speaking of which, when you did the elliptical after a knee injury, was that to promote the healing itself ot just to keep active instead of running?)

  3. Mark, I started the elliptical as a means to keep active, but then I noticed that the supporting muscles around the knee seemed like they were getting stronger as a result of the different range of motion. I believe that it helped the recovery, although I couldn't swear to it.

    George, I hear you. There is definitely some alchemy involved with running. It helps heal the psyche in some way I don't understand. I came back to the sport more seriously after my wife passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. Running helped me in ways that therapy never could have.

  4. Mark,

    Sorry to hear of your loss-that must have been awful to endure-I'm glad that your running helped you.