Do marathons run on grit or mental strength? I will consider the link to the brain and running. I often hear about serotonin, adrenaline, dopamine, endocannabinoids, etc., but what is the difference? I wonder if those things are sparking inside my brain, like in the pictures of fireworks?
Let’s start with serotonin. I expect that running produces a lot of serotonin. Exposure to sunlight suppresses melatonin and increases serotonin, which awakens the brain. Serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced at neurons in the brain and released at synapses that cause excitatory or inhibitory responses in target cells. Serotonin is one of the happy hormones, that normalises the autonomic nervous system and calms the mind.
Other typical happy hormones are dopamine, adrenaline and beta-endorphin. Dopamine is produced in large quantities when working hard or achieving a goal, and provides motivation. When it comes to a race, what effect does dopamine have on us? On the other hand, adrenaline, which is often confused with dopamine, is secreted when people are stressed and helps to enhance crisis defence, concentration and bodily functions. Many runners consume caffeinated energy gels in the final stages of a race, to give them a boost from the stimulant effect. Beta-endorphin is mood-elevating, euphoric and analgesic. It is easily secreted during strenuous exercise, and an example is runner’s high, which gives a feeling of elation even when tired.
More recently, the theory that runner’s high is driven by endocannabinoids, rather than endorphins, seems to be gaining more plausible support. Some say that being tired and zoning out is runner’s high. Medical fact is less important if it makes running easier. In passing, I have felt the second wind, when my breathing suddenly becomes easier after my body has warmed up, but I have never gotten the runner’s high.
In any case, with the exception of caffeine, hormonal control through diet can be difficult. I have learned that, on a happy note, serotonin and dopamine seem to help me feel calmer and more motivated during and after the run, thanks to their work. I wrote a lot, but I think that’s all there is to it. If you feel tired, it is a natural sign that your brain is taking care of you.