Getting high at the sweet spot

In response to my recent post about the sweet spot in the mind, Mystery Coach reported the very interesting comment by Alberto Salazar about his tremendous improvement when he took the antidepressant, Prozac. He reported that within a few days his running returned to a level that he had not been at for years.

In his response to my post, Ewen had described his experience of  a fairly ’sharp’ tipping point — he reported how he finds that when training his is going well, his mind is strong and he is enthusiastic to continue to improve the training. Then when he becomes tired for whatever reason, his mind weakens and he finds it hard to drag himself out of the slump.

I think this describes very well what happens when we train beyond the sweet spot.  The body’s distress signals, which include an increase in release of cortisol from the adrenal gland, triggers a depressive response that results in further increased release of cortisol creating a vicious cycle that tips us into a downward spiral   It is crucial that training produces a balanced strengthening of mind and body. If the body outstrips the mind, we become like Alberto Salazar when he was depressed – the mind prevents us achieving our potential.  If the mind becomes stronger than the body we risk serious injury to the body.

But what happens at the sweet spot?  Maybe the sweet spot is another term for the runners high.  This is often attributed to the release of natural opiods in the brain.  Maybe this can happen, it is not what I would describe as the ‘real runners high’ – the real sweet spot.

Memories of a balmy evening summer evening in Adelaide

I have a very vivid memory of one evening many years ago when I experienced the ‘real’ sweet spot and it did not feel in the least like an opium-induced deadening to pain. On the spur of the moment I had decided to run a 10,000m in a midweek evening meeting on the old Adelaide Harriers cinder track.  It was a small local meeting, but it provided one of the few local opportunities for a 10,000m on the track at that time, in the late 1960’s.  I arrived at the track late from work, and did not even have time to warm up, but perhaps the rush to get there on time had provided both the physical and mental warm-up I needed.  At the sound of the gun, I experienced a surge of energy and confidence.  By the end of the first lap I was leading.  In the second half of the race I was lapping runner after runner – perhaps not all that impressive because the old AH track only about 350m per lap, but I felt unstoppable   I do not have a record of my time when I breasted the tape – I wasn’t particularly interested in PBs in those days.  However I am sure that I had run at something near my usual 5000m pace; but instead of the pain that I was accustomed to experience in the final laps of a 5000m, the final few laps in that small local event on that balmy Adelaide mid-summer evening are among the most treasured of my running memories.


Although I did not know anything about brain chemistry then, I am fairly sure that the dominant brain chemical that fueled that high was dopamine. In fact in the 1960’s the role of dopamine was scarcely known to science.  It had first been identified in 1958 by the Swedish neuroscientist, Arvid Carlsson.  He eventually shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2000 for his contribution to unraveling the mysteries of dopamine.  A few years ago,  I had a discussion with Professor Carlsson at a scientific conference during which he had described to me an experiment that he had performed on himself during his attempts to elucidate the role of dopamine in the brain.   He described how one evening he had been planning to play tennis with some friends after work, but in the early afternoon he had administered to himself a drug which drastically reduced the levels of dopamine in the nerve terminals of his brain.  The consequence was a total deadening of any enthusiasm for anything.  He descried graphically but simply how he had not turned up for the tennis match after work.  He simply could not summon the energy required.  I was reminded on my opposite experience on the Adelaide Harriers track many years previously, and I wondered what part the natural release of dopamine had played in my experience that evening.

There are artificial ways to produce a massive release of dopamine.  Both amphetamine and cocaine achieve their effects by promoting the release of dopamine in the brain.  This was demonstrated in the sad case of Tommy Simpson, who died at age 29, about 2 Km short of the summit of Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, as a consequence of using amphetamine together with brandy.

It is pure madness to interfere artificially with the normal balance of mind and body.  However, I suspect that one of the consequences of a well balanced training program is the natural development of a harmony between mind and body: a situation in which the physiological messages generated by physical effort – perhaps a combination of the effects of both adrenaline and cortisol – produce a surge of dopamine in the brain that enhances motivation and induces the central governor to allow even greater physical performance.  The details of this proposed mechanism are speculation, but my experience as both a runner and a neuroscientist incline me to believe that the core of the theory is not only plausible but probably true.



If so, what are the practical conclusions? The first conclusion is that the goal of training is to produce seemingly effortless running.  There is little denying that training sessions should be hard, but the goal is construction, not destruction.  Perhaps the best interval session is a session where you know that you could have done yet one more interval even a little faster.  The best long tempo run is one where you could have maintained the tempo just a little further.   Because training sessions rarely have the buzz that comes with racing, a good training session should be harder than racing, but not that much harder.  And it must be followed by adequate recovery.  Leaving your guts on the training track too often is not the way to achieve the elusive sweet spot where mind and body work in harmony.


6 Responses to “Getting high at the sweet spot”

  1. RICK Says:

    Prozac, used by 40m people, does not work say scientists
    I think Alberto may have only got a placebo effect from the prozac, read report above.
    i think New Science is showing that the power of our minds is far stronger than we ever use to imagine! This has great implications as far as how we should think in the future, our perceptions change ‘our world’

  2. canute1 Says:

    Thanks for that comment. I think the meta-analysis by Irving Kirsch (referred to in the article to which you provide a link) is presented in an unnecessarily negative tone. It places undue emphasis on the evidence of limited efficacy of antidepressants in mild to moderate depression at the expense of acknowledging the clear evidence of efficacy of antidepressants for severe depression. However, the main conclusion reached by Kirsch is in fact fairly similar to the conclusion of the major analyses of the data regarding antidepressants. The conclusion is that antidepressants are superior to placebo for severe depression but not for mild depression. This conclusion was confirmed in a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Fournier and colleagues (JAMA. 2010 Jan 6;303(1):47-53.)

    However even in mild depression the picture is not simple. I have little doubt (on the basis of good reviews such as that by Fournier) that there is no substantial overall therapeutic effect when you examine the data from trials of a large number of cases, but I think it is very likely that there is benefit in some individual cases, even in mild depression. I have certainly seen a substantial number of cases of mild to moderate depression in which there was marked improvement during treatment with antidepressants, though I cannot rule out the possibility that this is due to a placebo effect. No-one has yet managed to determine which cases of mild depression might benefit and which ones are not likely to benefit, so this question remains a topic for valid debate. I personally believe that for mild to moderate depression, it is definitely better to employ psychological strategies in most circumstances. I would not recommend antidepressants for over-trained runners.

    As for Alberto Salazar, I do not know whether the benefits were pharmacological or due to a placebo effect. The most important point is that his running was improved by something that changed the function of his mind. Whether it was due to a pharmacologically induced change in serotonin levels in his brain or to a change produced by psychological processes, remains an open question. There is little doubt we change the chemistry of our brain by psychological means.

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  4. Ewen Says:

    Canute, that was a great recollection of the 10,000 on the cinders track in Adelaide. It leaves me wondering about the time — maybe a 5000 PB for the second half of the race?!

    I like your practical conclusions. On interval sessions, as well as leaving room for ‘more’ I like the idea of running by ‘effort’ rather than straining to match times run previously or some arbitrary race pace. I also like the idea of having that effort ‘in control’ (in that one could have run a particular interval X seconds faster if required). I also like your advice on long tempo runs — stopping at a point where one could have run further at the same pace.

  5. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately I do not have records of any race times from my younger days.

  6. Eric Says:

    Hey Canute,

    I’ve noticed this site for some time and this is one of your posts that have particularly intrigued me.

    I used to love running, particularly when I got the “runner’s high”. For me, this often worked with a minimum 2week duration of a St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) regimen; 1 300mg tablet per meal. I do not believe that this was the Placebo effect. Unfortunately, this stopped working after about 8 weeks. For me taking a 2-week hiatus from exercise did not help bring the mood-elevating benefits back. Have you developed any more insight on this and/or related phenomena since this posting? I’d appreciate any feedback as to how to more consistently find running to be an enjoyable experience–especially pertaining to the runner’s high.

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