The Joys of the Runner’s High ~

 Or why you should Run Like A Dog

Under the full influence of the runner's high, with Whiskey at the finish of my first Equinox Marathon - 2008

Ah the runner’s high, the wonderful reward earned when one runs enough to change the chemical balance in their brains and trigger the pleasure/reward center, thus giving the runner feelings of happiness and well being, Ahhh~

The high must be earned, you literally have to run hard enough and long enough that your body experiences this change. You have to have faith that it will come and that your run will, in fact, turn into something wonderful and empowering. Which some days is not easy to do. Your starting out, your old body warms up, you get the creaks out, and slowly your muscles warm up. Me personally, I feel like I am especially slow to start. Heck if I am being honest, some days the effort of getting out and getting started is worse then the actual run. When I start out I totally spend the first 1-3 miles asking myself, “OK why am I out here? What was I thinking?” And then it starts to happen…

Your legs start to move more smoothly, and your stride gets easier. Your breathing deeper, and you are moving comfortably feeling strong. Yup it’s happening; that point in time when you start really having fun and your inner soundtrack blasts the theme from Rocky “Gonna Fly Now“. You Rock, You Feel Good, You Are Running!!! It is not a speed issue; remember “Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself” *words of wisdom from the Sunscreen Song. It is about the act of getting out there and working your body in order to better enjoy yourself and your life. Distance runners and endurance athletes speak about it in almost addiction like terms, and when you learn more about the science behind it that analogy makes more sense. A recent NPR segment talks about research into the phenomena of the runner’s high. Listen here.  And guess what?

Goofing off and rolling down the river on the last run of the Kobuk 440 2010 - Thanks to Micheal Oliver for the photo

We humans are not the only ones who are lucky enough to posses this amazing adaptation! You heard it in the study, dogs are also gifted with the runner’s high. (Sorry ferrets, it appears your better suited to other pursuits.) This comes as no surprise to distance mushers. Now thanks to research like this (read a summary of the study here) we have the science to better explain what our dogs are capable of and why they are ideally suited to it. You can tell people about it, and it is hard for someone who has not actually seen it to understand; but a well conditioned & cared for distance dog team will actually get stronger as a run progresses. They do, I have seen it time and time again. A team hits a grove, finds its stride, and becomes a beautiful working unit headed down the trail. A team like that is a pleasure and honor to drive. I have always known this in my heart, dogs love to run! It is what they were born to do. This new study only supports my miles and miles of empirical evidence.

Running a canicross race with Jake 2009. photo (c) Scott Chesney :

I know that my running has benefited my mushing in improved physical health and well being. But I think there is more. And yes, maybe I am over-humanizing my dogs, but I felt like running myself helped me to better understand them and what we were asking them to do. Get inside the mind of the sled dog, if you will. Well I think this new study shows I was onto something; even if it is just that both my dogs and I are motivated by good food and the powerful feeling of a good runner’s high. Oh and it explains why ferrets don’t run marathons or the Iditarod.

“This study provides evidence that dogs and humans receive a chemical reward for running but that ferrets do not. When I say that dogs receive a “reward”, it’s hard not to think like the dog trainer I am and compare this change in brain chemistry to a treat, since both provide pleasure. It gives our dogs pleasure to eat steak, which is why steak makes such a great reinforcement for training. Dogs are more likely to perform a behavior if doing so makes pieces of steak available. Having the reward center of the brain activated by the chemicals produced while running is a high-quality reinforcement for running, and one that has been acted on by the forces of evolution to reward people and dogs for running. In species that are endurance runners, the changes in our chemistry as a result of running and those effects on the brain help us enjoy running.

The brains of dogs and humans—both natural runners—are hardwired to enjoy running, which may have provided the evolutionary mechanism necessary for us to develop such skill at it. The quirk of brain chemistry that makes both dogs and humans love running is not universal among mammals. Ferrets, for example, derive no pleasure from running.”

*from  THE OTHER END OF THE LEASH : Dogs and People Both Achieve the Runner’s High. Check out this blog post for additional insights on the runner’s high in canines and humans.

p.s. you do not need an entire kennel to reap the health benefits of the running with dogs. Like the blog above says “So, consider indulging your dogs the next time they are begging to run. It turns out you are just like them—born to run!” Here are some resource links on canicross, bike-jor, & ski-jor, get out there and enjoy.

Dan on the way to Nome 2010 - thanks to Walt & Janet Tremer for the photo



About Jodi

Jodi Bailey and Dan Kaduce live a life with dogs. They own Dew Claw Kennel a competitive long distance kennel where dogs come first. Jodi and Dan have each finished both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod 1000 mile sled dog races, in addition to many other races in Alaska.
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  1. Pingback: Sled Dogs ~ the truth about these amazing athletes. | Dew Claw Blog: a life lived with dogs

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