Runner's high without running?
January 17, 2011 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Is there another exercise that gives you that classic "runner's high"?

My wife is a long time fanatic runner. She has run for more than an hour a day for years. She claims that running is almost magical: That it cures the common cold, that it gives her energy though out the day, that it improves her mood, that it cures PMS, and that it makes her feel "high".

Not being a runner I can't evaluate or comment on her claims but I think her love of running is awesome.

Now the bad news: Her knee is giving out. She has been to doctors and the news is that there is really nothing she can do about it. She is now getting depressed because she is going to be forced to give up her most loved thing in the world.

My question: Is there any other exercise that will give her the same psychological benefits as running? She is a bit dogmatic in her belief that running is the only True exercise. But what about elliptical machines? What about biking? Couldn't they have the same psychological benefits if they are done right?

What I'd like to do is to solve this problem for her. I want to buy an expensive machine or do something else that will give her the experience that she craves.

Can anyone tell me if this is possible? If so, how?
posted by crapples to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I know a number of cyclists, former runners, who came to cycling because they were having knee issues, and got hooked. I'm not a runner, either, so I can't offer that perspective, but it's - usually - a pretty knee-friendly form of exercise. An orthopod's perspective might be in order first, but it's was interesting to me how many of them are cyclists too.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 5:18 PM on January 17, 2011

Many of the avid cyclists that I know started out as runners. Some folks can run for a lifetime but the constant pounding sidelines many people. You can ride bikes forever. It just takes a little longer to get high.
posted by fixedgear at 5:18 PM on January 17, 2011

I'd urge you to look into POSE running (through a trainer if at all possible). Changing her gait may help slow or stop the knee damage and let her keep running.
posted by Loto at 5:20 PM on January 17, 2011

This is a real long shot, but when I was living in Europe I frequented the local swimming hall and took up aqua jogging after watching the locals do it. I found it really gave me an endorphin boost, but I have never been a runner, so I have no idea how the experience of running in the water compares to on land. And finding a pool is and going there regularly is nowhere near as easy as just going out for a run. But I offer it up as at least a possible alternative.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 5:20 PM on January 17, 2011

Any kind of cardiovascular exercise sustained at the right intensity for long enough will give the same endorphin rush, the physiology isn't special to running somehow. I get them from long distance walking. Swimming, cycling, elliptical machine, etc, all are contenders. You just need to find something she likes enough to keep up and hard enough to get her into that cardio zone.

Also a hot enough curry can do the same thing (exact same brain chemistry and everything), which is kind of fun. I find that a lot harder to calibrate though and have only managed it a few times.
posted by shelleycat at 5:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

How many forms of exercise has your wife actually tried out before coming to the conclusion that running is the only thing that can give her this "high?"

Cycling. Low impact, faster, far more thrilling and the pleasure that covering real distances brings is magic.
posted by fire&wings at 5:27 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah what everyone else said. It's all about the cardiovascular workout. I get the same from using an exerbike vigorously or from an intense capoeira class.
posted by drethelin at 5:29 PM on January 17, 2011

I am an avid amateur cyclist. I love it. I've tried running, I can't do it because it hurts my knees. It's easier to do lower-intensity workouts on a bike, because you can really slow down in a way you can't really do while you're running (not without walking, anyway), but it's just as easy to keep up a fast pace on a bike, too. One thing that seems different to me between the two sports is that runners seem to prefer mostly level ground and where cycling gets exciting is in the mountains. Once you've pedaled up 3,000 vertical feet, you feel like you've earned the 40mph+ downhill run.

I'm speaking from the point-of-view of a road cyclist. Mountain biking is fun too, but it's less about the workout and more about the riding, I think (i.e., you mountain bike for reasons more like why you'd ride a motorcycle). That's certainly not true of every mountain biker, I'm sure, but a lot of the sport is about fast descents and technical turns and getting muddy, where in road cycling, hill climbs and time trials are bigger, which are the sorts of things I'd imagine your wife would like. Also, road cycling is more accessible in general. Pretty much everyone has roads right out in front of their homes, but not so many have mountain bike trails nearby.

Also, if you can afford it, I'd say prepare to spend $2,000 on a decent bike and gear (shorts, gloves, helmet, pump, etc) to get outfitted. You can definitely do it for cheaper if you have to, but I'd put a nice bike and decent stuff that's all brand new somewhere around this price point.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:30 PM on January 17, 2011

Spin class. Or some other form of cycling.

I did a three hour everest ride once and-yep. Runner's high in spades.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:35 PM on January 17, 2011

Absolutely. Almost any endurance exercise will give similar benefits. None of them will have the same associations that running seems to have for her though. Get her a membership at a big gym where she can try out all the machines and see which ones work for her (and her knees). I'm a runner and I really like the Concept 2 rowing machine. I can't stand ellipticals though. As a runner, the movement feels really unnatural. Biking is great too. Probably the best replacement I can think of if her knees can take it. She'll be able to bike outside when the weater is good and there are lots of nice stationary bikes when it's not.
posted by smokingmonkey at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2011

I can only get a real runners high on long, sustained climbs while on the bike. Those can be hard to find in many places. On the other hand, a rowing ergometer can provide a similar rush. If you have a chance to actually get on the water, on water rowing is apparently pretty awese as well.
posted by rockindata at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2011

Swimming works for me.
posted by The Toad at 5:38 PM on January 17, 2011

Lifting weights makes me feel incredible right after in a way nothing else short of mountain climbing ever has, with long afterglow after that. Not sure which she'd be ok to do but if she can, oooh.
posted by ifjuly at 5:46 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Though cycling is quite knee-friendly, almost anything at the intersection of exertion and endurance will do this. Spinning, weightlifting, Jazzercise...pretty much anything legit (meaning not baseball). Go to your local newstand and check out the enthusiast magazines for exercise sports.
posted by rhizome at 6:17 PM on January 17, 2011

Cycling is awesome and you get to coast down hills and stuff, which is super fun. I have messed up knees from dance+car accident and I don't have much knee trouble with cycling. I only do actual riding a bike outside cycling, and have found spin class to be kind of boring in comparison to the "real" thing, personally.
posted by elpea at 6:20 PM on January 17, 2011

I'd n-th cycling and would add cross country skiing to the list. I suppose some people would also enjoy skating as well. Part of my own love of all these sports is getting outside and moving, so most gym machine workouts really just leave me tired and crabby.
posted by advicepig at 6:40 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know how good climbing is for knees but I always get an amazing rush when I'm (indoor) rock climbing (plus awesome back muscles).
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:46 PM on January 17, 2011

I've never run long enough or well enough or whatever to get runner's high. But when I was swimming furiously for a month to lose weight by a deadline, including some aqua jogging, I'd walk out of the gym feeling better than I've ever felt naturally in my life. I felt so fresh, so energized, so light, and like there was light shining out of me. I wonder if that's the same kind of thing. It was fantastic.
posted by Askr at 7:07 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I swim, run, and bike, and to me biking gives much less of a high than the other two. Biking outside doesn't allow the same even effort as running because you have to be aware of road conditions, stop at intersections, etc. Biking inside is unbearably boring (though I haven't tried a spin class). Swimming, on he other hand, is a good balance of zoning out effort and actually moving your body through space.
posted by yarly at 7:09 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Askr's experience is my experience. 45 minutes of vigorous swimming makes you come out of the pool feeling like you could wrestle a bear and win!
posted by jessamyn at 7:12 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Biking can have the high, but not every time. A long light, a near-miss, or any number of things can take you off your game that gets you to the high. But when it's there, oh baby. For me, the ride that gets the best high is a long strip of urban flashing lights at night. Keeping up with traffic makes you feel like God.

Swimming takes more to get to the level that you can get the high, but getting yourself to that level and it's every.damn. time. I used to slog through one two-hour workout a week for variety, but always felt like a million bucks after a good 3k.
posted by notsnot at 7:15 PM on January 17, 2011

If she tries biking, make sure to get a good bike fitting so she doesn't hurt herself more. Poor bike fit (with a seat too high or too low or with pedals that limit the natural range of motion of the knee) can cause knee problems.

Has she tried rowing? I would think a good rowing machine (like the Concept 2) would let her get to that point, but it's indoors, which might limit the psychological impact a bit for her.
posted by BlooPen at 7:48 PM on January 17, 2011

The conventional wisdom is that runner's high is the effect of your body flooding your brains with endorphins. I run a lot of miles and have no idea when (or if) that is happening. I associate a lot of the positive benefits I've experienced ("destressing", feeling in a better mood, etc.) with being in a flow state, or in the zone. Maybe it is all the same thing; Csíkszentmihályi doesn't have a brain chemistry theory to go with it. So take what I'm about to tell you with a grain of salt, because I have no idea whether my runner's high is the same as your wife's, or any of the commenters above. Whatever it is, it seems like the attributes that get *me* into that state of mind are:
  • aerobic/endurance activity
  • high intensity
  • uninterrupted
  • activity requires some amount of attention (not completely mindless)
Running works, but I can get into that state of mind faster with a trail run than a run through my neighborhood. Road cycling is OK, but mountain biking for sure gets me there faster than road biking. Climbing, while not aerobic, gets me there immediately. Long Crossfit workouts can get me there if I can sustain continuous motion. Exercising on machines almost never gets me there, exception being rowing on an erg at very high intensity. Cross country skiing when I lived in snow country. I've spent a lot of time in the pool and have never been able to get there from swimming.

A bunch of people above have suggested cycling, and a couple have suggested rowing. I think both of these are very good suggestions. My add would be that based on my experience, getting into the runner's high state of mind in cycling is going to require some practice and patience (to get comfortable on the bike and get a little cycling fitness) combined with the right route. I agree with notsnot's observation that it is easy to get jarred back to reality with a long light or a near miss with a car. So the roads and traffic where you live may make this easier or harder. For rowing, same thing -- a little practice/patience. When I first got a Concept II, I didn't know any better and would jump on and row 5K at a moderate pace. No runner's high there and pretty boring. When I started rowing sets of intervals, 2K time trials, that sort of thing, it got much more interesting. Good luck -- I would be crushed if I couldn't run, I hope your wife can find a good substitute.
posted by kovacs at 8:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a runner. I find I sink into runner's high (for me it's actually more of a daze — I can feel myself going into it right before it happens) when I'm running at just the right pace and intensity. I disagree that it's merely the cardio aspect. I have read a lot about runner's high and there also seems to be some kind of meditative faction at play with the repetitive movement and a syncing of body and breath.

In that case, swimming may be just the thing. But I also came here to suggest yoga. It's a different high than I get from running, but I definitely leave yoga feeling something akin to runner's high.
posted by Brittanie at 8:28 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing cross country skiing, though I have no idea if Iowa gets enough snow.
posted by charmcityblues at 8:34 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I couldn't run, I'd do Bikram yoga every day. I hate regular yoga, but hot yoga is the next best thing to running for me.
posted by peep at 8:36 PM on January 17, 2011

Cycling, cross country skiing, spin class, and elliptical machine.
posted by TurkishGolds at 8:49 PM on January 17, 2011

Nthing swimming. I started it for the same reason (knee problems) and came to love it more because it thoroughly works out so many additional muscles.
posted by slidell at 9:05 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yoga does it for me. Doesn't have to be hot, but a nice intense class will do.
posted by susanbeeswax at 9:32 PM on January 17, 2011

Seconding Loto. Don't buy her any equipment; buy her this book and set her free from her injuries.
posted by holympus at 10:37 PM on January 17, 2011

I jog, but I'm not a great fan of it. I get that exercise high from doing heavy weights at my powerlifting club. Its hard to describe - at the end of a training session I feel what I can best describe as a calm euphoria. I think its the intense focus required to lift heavy weights without injuring yourself, and also the sense of achievement after you lift heavy. I think cardio gets too much credit sometimes!

I have knee issues, and I find squat has helped me tremendously, with the significant caveat that I train with a coach surrounded by knowledgeable gym dorks. Maybe she could try a strength sport, like Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting, or find a functional fitness gym that could help her recover from her injury?
posted by nerdfish at 3:00 AM on January 18, 2011

As a former marathon runner who had to leave the road to save my knees, I found joy in rowing a single scull. Not as convenient a sport as running or cycling but every bit a physical rush. And yes, in winter, when the river is frozen, I take to a Concept II ERG to maintain fitness. A proper workout on an ERG can always produce the endorphins without the pounding on my joints.
posted by birdwatcher at 4:02 AM on January 18, 2011

Most of the cyclists I know are former runners. Initially she won't think cycling works, but if she keeps it up she will see that you can achieve it as well. This is mostly because many people ride recreationally whereas running is almost always very hard.
posted by dgran at 6:25 AM on January 18, 2011

posted by AceRock at 6:58 AM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes on spinning. Also worth a consideration just for the high: Russian bathhouse sauna treatment.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:22 AM on January 18, 2011

Sun salutations, the opening set of yoga poses at the beginning of many yoga classes. If you can get to ten +, well, I found that even more satisfying than running.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Former runner, as in, I used to go every other day for a few years. I have gotten away from that and focused more on free weights.

Two things come to mind for that runners type high. High intensity circuit weight training. Crossfit is big on this type of workout. I do them on occasion and they take anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Really hard, but at the end, you feel completely wiped, but in a good way. Like you accomplished something awesome. Nice buzz, tired buzz but nice.

Other thing is surfing/wave riding of any sort. Not considered an exercise I guess but, spend 20 minutes body surfing and you will feel high as a kite. And probably pretty exhausted if you aren't used to it. Surfing takes awhile to learn so start with the body surfing. Of course this may not be possible if you aren't near an ocean or one of the great lakes here in the US.
posted by WickedPissah at 8:02 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another cycling recommendation.
posted by Doohickie at 8:04 AM on January 18, 2011

I used to get this from skipping rope and it actually became a pretty powerful rush for me. I got it down to a point to know that all I had to do was about twelve minutes and then I could feel it comming on and POW. The next ten minutes didn't matter because I was loving it.
But if she needs to switch over to something non-weight bearing than it should probably be swimming or cycling.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:10 PM on January 18, 2011

Nthing swimming and those who have talked about being "in the zone".

I'm not a runner, but I am a regular swimmer. I've always enjoyed swimming, but generally only for 30 minutes or so at a time. This year I got an underwater mp3 player (the Speedo Aquabeat) for my birthday and started swimming for longer sessions. I've found that with the right music (for me ambienty-type dancey stuff) I enter a slightly trancy state, where I'm not really thinking. It feels meditative and gives me a peacefulness that lasts the rest of the day. If music is a factor in your wife's runs, maybe she should try to include it in any other type of exercise she tries.
posted by *becca* at 5:43 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just re-read the question - your wife is depressed because she has a knee injury that doctors say will prevent her from running. I have chronic arthritis, and I've been frequently counselled not to do any high impact exercise. I can now squat more than my body weight. There are ways to overcome injury, and I've found doctors have a tendency to be a bit conservative about exercise. Physiotherapy and serious, supervised strength training helped me *enormously.* There are ways for her to get back to what she loves.
posted by nerdfish at 12:57 AM on January 19, 2011

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