Come a rain storm, put those running shoes on your feet

The dark and extremely gloomy days of Seattle are now settling in. For runners in this region who work normal day shifts, this signals the dark days of running that last up to five to six months, depending on what time of day one runs and how much free time one has. I find it more gloomy than Anchorage, where I lived and ran six years. I never minded running in the dark there, because the snow and clouds created very powerful ambient light that made running at night very pleasurable. But here, it is dark as a coal mine, and damp. People’s vitamin D levels are unhealthily low, and there seems to be widespread manifestations of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

First, let’s talk about why this is such a depressing time of year and can be such a bummer place to be.

The absence of natural sunlight impacts the body’s production of two key hormones that impact the body’s sleep-wake cycles, energy, and mood: melatonin and serotonin. Research indicates that melatonin is generated in greater quantities because of longer periods of darkness. Increasing the production of melatonin leads to sleepiness and lethargy. Serotonin, whose production rises with more exposure to sunlight, falls during these shorter days. Low amounts of serotonin are also associated with depression.

Another byproduct of the darkness is a decrease in the production of vitamin D, naturally created by the body. Though researchers have not fully determined whether low vitamin D contributes to symptoms of depression or whether depression itself contributes to lower vitamin D levels, higher levels of Vitamin D are associated with decreased risks of depression. But alas, anyone living in  Canada, and the northern tier of the Lower 48 here in North America all require vitamin D supplements too to make up for the absence of sunlight come fall. Vitamin D also is critical in many key functions: enhancing the absorption of minerals in the gastrointestinal tract and kidney and thus into the blood, and it may protect against tuberculosis, gum inflammation, MS, and some cancers—at least according to my handy nutrition textbook: Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. (I really love this tome – nicely written, well illustrated.) My response is to take vitamin supplements, but that is not enough.

So here I am in dark and rainy Seattle, deprived of naturally produced vitamin D, at higher risk of SAD. This is exacerbated by Seattle’s culture that seems to promote the absence of smiles and eye contact with strangers. What is a person to do?

Running is a perfect antidote to the blues that accompany the shorter days of autumn.

Easy, go running. While hitting my local running grounds (Greenlake), I heard some walkers recently comment, “This is when the real runners come out.” The observation was referring to the near absence of mobs of fair-weather walkers and runners whose numbers thin by nearly 80% the moment the rains fall and that stygian Seattle glooms settles around mid-October. Paradoxically, running is the perfect antidote to anything resembling SAD or depression or everyday stress. I have done this since I was 15, and I continue running rain or shine, but particularly when it rains.

One of the earliest blockbuster books on the health benefits of running, the Joy of Running, by Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, came out way back in1976. In it, Kostrubala was among the first of the self-improvement health gurus to promote using an aerobic activity, running, to help treat mental illnesses such as depression. More recently, in September 2011, the UK-based Telegraph published a typical story that is the grist for many running magazines, Running outdoors can improve mental health. The story touted how running outdoors “can both raise your spirits and give you a real buzz.” Of course there are all sorts of web sites that list evidence-based findings that point to the health benefits of running–stress relief, blood circulation to the brain, chemical releases, sharpened cognitive functions, getting outdoors, and more.

Running in the dark does not mean you can’t have fun.

There are also numerous, peer-reviewed scientific papers that highlight the mental health benefits of running, particularly in response to depression. I stumbled on one such paper doing a quick keyword search on the database PubMed, by D.I. Galper, et al., in the January 2006 edition of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, called “Inverse association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women.” That study looked at the associations between measures of physical activity and mental health in a large group of more than 5,400 men and women. Galper and his colleagues found that cardio-respiratory fitness and habitual physical activity were associated with lower depressive symptoms and greater emotional well-being.

Of course I and other dark and rainy weather runners did not need this study to confirm what our bodies are telling us every time we get out of our homes and get wet while splashing outdoors. I realize that not everyone has the time to get out after busy days. They may have classes, second jobs, kids, or all of the above. But even in the rain, in the blackness of a fall day, a run or even a walk is sure to improve one’s mental outlook, boost one’s mood, and stimulate the body’s chemistry. Here’s to the days and months ahead of soggy shoes, headlamps, and hopefully a few hellos from water-logged runners. You’re a fine crew.

Running, an evolutionary high humans share with our canine companions

NPR science reporter Christopher Joyce this month profiled the research of University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen and his hypothesis that humans are, basically, adapted to run. Well, they are not so much as adapted, but literally “wired to run.”

Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, and Cedar Bourgeois blast off at the start of the July 4, 2010, Mt. Marathon mountain race in Seward, Ak.

Raichlen’s lab’s research focusses on: evolutionary biomechanics, linking physical activity to physiology and neurobiology in humans and other critters, and studying energetics and activity levels in human hunter-gatherers and other critters. Raichlen’s team is trying to link these elements to paint a picture of how aerobic activity levels impacted our evolution.

The story quotes Raichlen, who says: “Wired to run, meaning that our brains are probably, have been sort of rewired from an evolutionary sense to encourage these running and high aerobic-activity behaviors.” The theory by some anthropologists assumes that early humans learned to run long distances in order to chase down and exhaust prey, like antelopes. The evolutionary payoff for this difficult activity would be survival in the form of all kinds of goodies – nutritious and healthy food, particularly protein, not to mention clothing and bones for tools.

However, Raichlen believes there was another reward: the so-called “runner’s high.” This high is the release of naturally produced body chemicals cannabinoids, similar to the chemicals in marijuana.

This treadmill-running-pooch photo is found on the Neuman K-9 Academy, Inc. web site at:

I find this term misused and applied to different sensations, which some say is “euphoria,” but I mainly link to the relaxed feeling that follows runs. As a lifelong runner, I can personally testify to what I believe to be the “runner’s high,” and the sensation running provides to my mental mood, overall body feeling, and attitude. And the absence of running, in my case and in those of my many running friends, definitely induces withdrawal symptoms, irritability, and poor moods and worse performance in other activities.

Raichlen and his researchers designed a test to determine if other distance-running mammals also produced those drugs. He did that by putting ferrets and dogs on treadmills and taking samples of their blood. Turns out that dogs, who are also are built for distance, produced the drug and the ferrets did not (ferrets are not built for distance).

The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in December 2011, which of course is locked behind a firewall that the general public cannot access without paying a hefty fee, a frustrating feature of the marketplace of publicly-funded science and the monopolies that control the publication of peer-reviewed journals (but I digress).

Doing the traditional “show off your stuff” run at the Alaska Kennel Club Show, February 2008.

I also find it, again, interesting how dogs and humans share this trait and seem amazingly co-adapted to share this wonderful activity of running. I personally have never been able to tell if humans or canines enjoy running more than the other. I just know that humans and dogs usually have that same wonderful expression of contentment when they finish their outings. It is the look of bliss, and if Raichlen is right, it is an evolutionary advantage.