sports The Surprising Science Behind Long-Distance Running It goes beyond the so-called "runner's high." Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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From what I hear, some people actually enjoy the challenge of running a marathon. I wouldn’t know, of course, since the last time I ran anywhere it was to catch up with the ice cream truck. But for those of you who actually get a thrill out of pounding the pavement for more than 26 straight miles, there’s some legitimate science behind the reason your brain and body respond that way.

What athletes say

Tatyana McFadden, who has won the TCS Marathon through New York City five times, understands the incredulity of people who don’t run these difficult races.

“When it’s so tough, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, why did I put my body through this?’” she acknowledged.

On a personal level, however, she said that it can be a “very emotional” experience, adding: “Everyone is running for something, running for some cause.”

For Zackary Harris, the cause doesn’t have to be anything deeper than simply making it through a grueling test of physical limits.

“Throughout the course, you’re having all these internal struggles with yourself,” Harris said. “But then once you finally get to the finish line, it’s like this sense of pure accomplishment that I don’t think happens a lot in other athletic events.”

What scientists say

In addition to being a psychology professor, Glenn Geher has also completed 11 marathons and has consulted with a number of other long-distance runners to gain some insight into the purpose behind this difficult act of endurance.

Here’s what he found:

  • The body’s hormones provide what is commonly known as a “runner’s high” that is unmatched in other forms of physical exertion.
  • The cheers and encouragement from onlookers provide motivation to keep going.
  • The evolutionary need for endurance is deeply ingrained in the modern human race.
Chris Agee
Chris Agee November 7th, 2022
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