How the pressure to chase endorphins helped me re-connect and appreciate the great outdoors.
The pain of the hills, weather and distances is offset by the beauty of the outdoors.
Running and cycling has done so much good for me mentally and physically, giving me a buzz. DO you have something similar you love as much?
The press and media pepper a narrative around exercise and how it makes you feel good. Get those endorphins! Do this for endorphins! Life isn’t good enough without endorphins!
Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted with the brain and nervous system and have several physiological functions. They are peptides that activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect. During exercise, these endorphins are released, and this can produce feelings of euphoria and a general state of wellbeing. The endorphins produced are so powerful that they can mask pain (analgesic effect).
We also try and create that ‘this makes me feel good’ factor without endorphins.
In times of stress or unhappiness, people tend to have a coping mechanism to make themselves feel better. It may be cakes, our manner and interactions, alcohol, junk food, chocolate, sex, drugs. But when these methods are consistently used, the impact of the mechanism loses its intensity.
We have to keep pressing harder and harder to chase those feelings.
It doesn’t matter how good the second cake/alcohol/junk food/chocolate, etc. are; it will never be the same as the first.
My research on endorphins and experiences showed the endorphins are just one chemical in the process of having a great experience.
Media pressure and bombardment about releasing endorphins can be overwhelming, especially when you do not like or can’t do the exercises they highlight. My inner dialogue was telling me it was the amount of effort I put into running and cycling; I thought it was about how high I could get my pulse consistently over time that gave me the endorphins.
In October 2011 I began training for the London marathon 2012. With 2 marathons already under my belt, I was on track to improve my time; it was a personal goal for me. Then on 22nd Nov 2011, my dad died. The police knocked on my door that Tuesday night to come and tell me. Even after nearly 10 years the impact of that story hasn’t lost its edge. The unexpected part of my grieving process was I found it hard to breathe whilst running; my chest felt rigid; I lost the soft fluid motion of breathing when it becomes like meditation. If you run, I am sure you will know this feeling. My London marathon time in 2012 was one and a half hours longer than my previous time. Disappointing, but I was glad to finish.
Because of that, I took a step back from running. I did enter a triathlon and a half marathon with a couple of clients, but I was doing it for them and not for myself. I could inspire and motivate them, but I was not getting any endorphin joy for myself regularly. I was sad, my fitness dwindled, I felt a fraud amongst my peers and there is me, a fitness professional, and I cannot even run to the end of the street.
The next 6 years were, in reflection, a grim wilderness. I did not know myself or what I liked. I felt like the ball in a pinball machine, reacting to what was happening around me and unable to make my own decisions and choices. I paid for business coaches and courses searching for the answers to give me the confidence that I needed, hoping someone else could do it for me and supercharge me. But they could not…
The offer of an entry in the Ride100 London in 2018 was a gift. I like cycling. I wanted a challenge that was not running, and it was a summer event. I jumped in with 9 weeks to train (not recommended), but I loved it and because of that I trained a lot, cycled everywhere as fast as I could, and I became a whizz through London traffic. Ride day was the opposite of the blistering heat I’d trained in. It was wet and windy for the first half but brightened up and was dry in the second half. It was fab! I loved my new sport and I continued to cycle as much as possible.
My cycling joy was short-lived. At the end of 2018, just 5 months after completing the Ride100, I became ill with a gastric virus that triggered Reactive Arthritis in my ankles and left knee. Life was painful: my swollen ankle joints especially would get stabbing pains so strong that they would take my breath away; I couldn’t walk pain-free and often had to hold on to things to move around my flat; I was eating ready meals because it was too painful to stand in the kitchen and cook. The one thing that I had to give in to was the fatigue and that was probably what saved me. I thought my fitness career was over and I did not know what to do with myself.
It took 12 months, the end of 2019, for the Reactive Arthritis to completely leave my body. I remember one day thinking, ‘nothing hurts, wow, no stabbing pains in my joints. Slowly, the early nights and the afternoon naps began to revert to my normal and my energy flow began to return. But I also had the realisation that my fitness was sliding into oblivion and I didn’t know how to make myself feel better. I had high expectations because of what I had achieved before.
During the first 2020 lockdown, I tried a bit of running, 1km, and that was a struggle. I seemed to struggle at every hurdle and the flicker of a sense of enjoyment was not enough to keep it going.
November lockdown came. I reached out to my neighbour to go for walks; they started with an hour and have since built up into some 14 milers. I love walking! I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it but not thought of it in London because I love the countryside. Nevertheless, this opened up a not quite so countryside London with lots of hidden pockets of gardens, parks and greenery that I didn’t know about before. Christmas and New Year 2020 had the potential to be lonely: no travel, no family, none of the traditional stuff that we do as a family. I enlisted 3 friends to walk with me, all on different days (so I didn’t put them off) but I got to walk 10 days out of 12. We covered 139km or 86 miles over hilly London terrain. They were a happier Christmas and New Year because of it.
Because of this, I felt the effect of my endorphins. I connected with feeling good again and it started having an impact on my outlook about my life. There are not many things to be grateful for in these Covid times but I am grateful for the opportunity to reach out and connect with others, to walk with others, for them to have the time to walk with me and feel my passion for life returning.
But hold on, I was feeling my endorphins by non-traditional methods of stimulating endorphins. I needed to understand why…
My research on endorphins and experiences showed the endorphins are just ONE chemical in the process of having a great experience.
An experience is a collection of feelings and a feeling is the last part of the process that starts with a stimulus.
This always makes me think of Diana Ross ‘I’m in the Middle of a Chain Reaction.
Things are happening around us all the time and if something grabs our attention, we call that a stimulation.
A stimulation causes a muscular and a physiological reaction that makes your body aware of either an opportunity or a threat. Your brain decides whether it’s an opportunity or a threat and then it associates that decision with a fleeting feeling which becomes part of the next stimulus.
Multiple feelings become an experience and then that experience, when it is positive, is what makes you feel nice. Then we are enjoying the moment and can reflect on the experience.
We get caught up in judging each feeling by how nice it makes us feel and not part of the whole picture, the whole experience.
Three years ago I took up that challenge of the Ride100 London. I had nine weeks to train to cycle 100 hilly miles in eight and a half hours or less. The training was tough. From marathon training, I knew that if I was going to get anywhere near being strong, fit and capable enough to complete the 100 miles I needed to ride hills, a lot of hills. In the beginning, I was so slow I was nearly peddling on the spot: it was painful, my body hurt, my lungs hurt and I hated the moment. That was until I got to the top and it was downhill again.
We see storytelling every day on the page and on the screen. Each story is multiple feelings creating that experience: positive, negative or numb. In my reflection of my Ride 100, the hills were, and still are sometimes, a negative feeling for me, but they are part of the big picture of fitter, stronger and more capable. The great ending of completing the Ride100 made the beginning and middle of the process less important. At the end, I cried. I cried at the beginning of the unknown. Halfway round I hated it but could not turn back. And the finish line was joy and relief.
Here’s what I’ve learned: it’s about creating great experiences that make you feel good!
I loved everything about the outdoors so much I didn’t need to chase the endorphins.
Instead of chasing the endorphin I now plan the experience.
The great thing about loving endurance means I can go for long walks so I can enjoy the outdoors more. I’m not ruling out not doing a long run or a long cycle again, I’ll just be doing them for a different experience.
I have come out of the wilderness.
Here are my hints, tips or plan, whichever works for you, but make one or borrow mine.
- Put the time in your diary to have your experience – make a date with yourself. Wrangle in another person for the company if you need to and COVID-19 restrictions allow.
I have long walks planned at the weekend and I have company on these walks. It’s fun! Take plenty of photos and try not to walk the same road twice on a walk.
- Audio is great for shorter walks and when you’re alone. It can be audiobooks, podcasts, or radio play. Tune in to the audio and walk.
Next up for me is Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe (audiobook) and anything by Brené Brown (podcast). What’s yours?
(Remember: when wearing headphones please be aware of your surroundings at all time)
- Include in your days/week something to support your experience. This could be a dance or yoga or Pilates class or a workout routine such as squats, lunges, jumps, and twists or a game that you like to play.
I use Pomodoro to time my work (when I am not training clients) and I do 1 exercise in the 5-minute breaks to make sure I move away from my desk
- Try something new!
This pie chart is me making poor choices.
This is my positive balanced life pie chart
It’s being persistently consistent that gets the results you want, and we are all on a journey to our results.
If you would like to create your own positive life pie chart or let me help you design your great experiences I would love to work with you. Contact me