Why running is addictive


I have been running on and off for more than a decade, mostly for health reasons. I always have heard people who claim running to be addictive. To be honest, for the longer part of my last 10 years, I never find it addictive. In fact, I was struggling keeping it on as a habit. This changed a year ago when I started running every day — not for the health reasons (as all expert advices are against running everyday) — but for some random kind of resolution, a dare, to see if I can. I did… well, until two weeks ago. I finally had so-called runner’s knee injury. The injury forces me pause my running, and only then I suddenly realize: OMG, I got the running addiction!

Now I paused running, I get to think: what is in it that makes running addictive?

I googled. Many articles will cite the so-called runners’ high. When our body are engaged in stressful exercises for long, our body will produce a hormone called endorphins, which as I read, is functionally the same as morphine. So they claim people are addicted to running just the same way as people are addicted to drugs. Then there are these articles who describe those crazy ultra-runners — who runs (much) longer distance than marathons — that they likes to run crazy distance because the longer they run, the longer they experience that runner’s high.

Well I cannot say they are all bullshitting because I never go that crazy and even I did I cannot claim others have to have the same experience as mine. But for me, I never experienced this runner’s high. If I run slow, I feel miserably unsatisfying. If I run fast, I struggle to keep it going. In either way, I feel miserable at the second half (even the second quarter) of my run — Isn’t runner’s high supposed to kick in to make me feel good? For me, the longer I run, the more miserable I get, and the more my inner desire to stop. My endorphins is definitely working. It keeps me going much longer than I thought when I feel cannot go on. It prevents me to actually feel much of the pain — part of the reason I hurt my knee so bad. But it never makes me feel good about it. Physically, running is just miserable (except maybe the first 10 minutes).

So what makes running addictive? What makes me wanting to go back to running the next day after such miserable experience? What bothers me right now that I couldn’t run as much as I would like to?

The addiction is always about a good feeling. Sugar, coffee, alcohol and drug all make us get away from pain and feel happy or excited or at least dreamy. What is in running if it doesn’t really give us physical good feeling? As I reflect, I argue that in running, we are addicted to accomplishments. Yes, it is all mental. Accomplishments, small or big, make us feel good. And it is this mental good feeling that draws us back.

Let’s imagine a run. Regardless your fitness level, before the run you will feel good about it. You will believe you can jog and enjoy. You will believe you can cover certain distance — a mile or ten miles. Or to a seasoned runner, you may believe you can maintain a pace and break your personal record. In any case, you always start with a goal. And in running, you always feel this goal is easily achievable because at beginning, you just feel good, you just feel you could run.

Now as soon as you start the run, you will start doubt your initial judgement. For seasoned runner who controls their pace more diligently, this initial phase can last longer. But inevitably, you will start feel exhausted and the steps become heavier and your muscles start to feel sore. All these physical feeling are real and they feel bad. Physically, your body wants to slow down and stop. So you start to doubt your goals; you start to question your own ability; and to extreme and not unusual, you start to question whether you are capable of accomplish anything. You just feel like a quitter.

Your body wants to quit. Yet psychologically you feel bad about quitting. So you start to modify your goal — how about run another mile then allow yourself to walk? How about just around that corner?

This is miserable, no other way to describe it. Not only you physically are suffering, you are mentally defeating yourself. But unconscious to you, the running miracle starts to kick in. Just as you are struggling with your feet and breath, just as you are negotiating with yourself on quitting, you passed that corner! And you have not collapsed yet! In fact, miserable, yes, but it is not much worse than a minute ago. So while physically you are still miserable, you start to feel accomplishment. This accomplishment makes you feel good about yourself. Just as you were ashamed of yourself a minute ago about quitting, now, as a revenge, you think to yourself, how about continue until next corner?

Of course, quickly you will doubt yourself again; then you will realize your accomplishment once more. And the accomplishment feeling is so encouraging, you even start to making bolder next goals which will bring you to stronger urge to quit. These cycle again and again in rapid successions, each with varying flavor. Then it comes the half way, the half way of the remaining half way, … and just as you grow into despair, the end of run is within sight! Then you finish your run!

Exhausted, but you feel so good! You convince yourself that you are not a loser. You convince yourself that you can accomplish goals. And you are amazed at yourself that you actually are capable of finishing goals. It is not physical, it is mental. And the mental rewards overcomes the physical penalty.

We are addicted to accomplishments, and a single run provides a succession of them.

However, according to *scientific* advice, you are supposed to rest between the exercise. Naturally, the rest is often comfortable, and the memory of pain lingers and the resistance to run again can easily buildup… unless you make it into a routine, a routine that matches your natural rhythm, which provides plenty of cues. Once you have a routine, that is when addiction begins.

Routine runs naturally supplies you additional and longer term accomplishments. Let’s face it, during a run when all you do is repetitive motion, it is quite boring. So your mind will wander off, but not too far since you are still struggling with your breathing. Most often, your mind is thinking about run, and you become creative, forming all kinds of goals. Some are little — see if you can match your steps exactly to a song. Some are simple — see if you can beat your last run in either speed or distance. And sometime you come up with silly goals. I once wanted to see if I can put a hole to the bottom of my shoes just by running — I am yet to accomplish this and it still keeps me going.

A longer term goal keeps you coming back for the run. Sometime you wanted to accomplish certain goal so bad, you end up thinking about it whole week — I guess from other person’s eye, you are addicted.

Here we have it: we are addicted to running not from its physical effect, but we are addicted to its endless doses of accomplishments. We are addicted to feeling good about ourselves.