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The Best Kind of High -- A Runner's High

Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA

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May 27, 2021

I have been reading more and more about how exercise benefits your mental health, so I was wondering why more physicians, especially psychiatrists, don't prescribe an exercise plan for their patients. I personally ask my patients about their exercise routines and encourage them to exercise daily, but I have to admit that I only have a 30-second conversation and it really doesn't extend beyond this.

For me, running helps structure my time and, in the end, helps me become more productive. When I struggled at times during my residency, a run helped me get out of a funk. Anxiety and depression seem to plague those who don't exercise regularly (based on my observations) so I am going to make a point of having a more extensive conversation with my patients about exercise.

There is nothing better than a runner's high; I wish more people could experience this natural high. It's amazing how I feel so sluggish at times, and then halfway during a run something clicks, and I feel like I can run forever! It is this effortless feeling, an experience of feeling disconnected from the world, like you are floating among the clouds. How cool to feel this way without putting any drugs, pills, or alcohol in your body.

The runner's high doesn't happen to me every day, but I always feel happier after a run. My friends and colleagues ask me if I find running boring. The answer is a resounding no! I don't listen to music and I rarely listen to a podcast while running. I love running with other people and have formed lifelong friendships with people I otherwise never would have met. I also think it's a form of meditation to run by yourself and hear your own thoughts. How often do we do that? For me, I feel like I don't have time to reflect, so a run is a perfect time to do that.

I also have specific goals during each run, especially when marathon training, so it can break up the monotony (if you think running is monotonous).

Tuesdays

I meet a group of adult runners at a track and we do a speed workout. The speed workout is usually a lot faster than my marathon pace, but I am running shorter intervals. The intervals usually range from 400 meters (one lap around the track) to 1 mile. The shorter the interval, the faster I try to go. This really prepares my body to change paces and I've learned to push myself when tired.

Wednesdays

I do a recovery run, consisting of putting in a fair number of miles but at a slow (conversational) pace. I will call a friend sometimes if I don't have anyone to talk with during the run.

Thursdays

I put in a tempo run (running faster than conversational pace, usually at a race pace for the half marathon), fartlek (periods of fast running mixed in with slow running), or hill workout (sprinting up a hill). These are all faster-pace runs that help me change paces and get the feel of what race pace will be like.

Fridays

Another recovery run at conversational pace. Typically, I run 5-6 miles.

Weekends

Weekends are reserved for the long run which helps increase aerobic capacity. This is the hallmark of marathon training. This can range from 10 to 20 miles. The other days of the week are recovery runs, which help prepare my legs by running on tired legs to get the lactic acid out.

See? This is not boring at all!

This type of training doesn't happen overnight, but I think every person can modify this. A track workout can be changed into intervals of walking and then running if you are a beginner. Or a hill workout can be walking the steps instead of an elevator or walking around. A long run can convert to walking for 10 extra minutes, etc.

It would be great as a psychiatrist to help my patients develop some sort of workout plan. I hope to do a better job of educating my patients on the physical and mental health benefits of exercising and get their endorphins flowing so they can experience a runner's high!

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About Dr Emily Goncalves
Emily S. Goncalves, MD, MBA, is a psychiatry resident at Delaware Psychiatric Center in New Castle. She is a competitive runner and ran for Syracuse University. She continues to live an active lifestyle and has competed in eight marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Emily hopes to share her passion for running with her patients and is interested in pursuing a career in consultation and liaison psychiatry. She also enjoys writing about her running adventures.

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