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Why are endurance sports so addicting?

Endorphins stimulate a powerful pain relief and pleasure response when we exercise. But there's more at play when part take in endurance sports.

endurance sports

The runner’s high, it’s the feeling of euphoria you experience as you explore a new route, set a new personal best or complete a tough workout. Simply put, endurance sports are addicting. It’s why you wake up early before work to get in a run. Or why you take to the open country roads on the weekend. 

endurance sports
The runner’s high we all chase.

This state of euphoria is craved by endurance junkies. The point in which your body releases a surplus of endorphins upon exercise, stimulating a powerful response of pleasure and relief. Though we may not experience a “high” every time we go out for a run or quick spin after work, endorphins are always working.

The name endorphin comes from the combination of endogenous (produced from within) and morphine (an opioid and pain-relieving drug). These endorphins are polypeptides – chains of amino acids – that are made by our central nervous system and can act on hormones in our pituitary gland. 

The joy of being free, moving and on the open road.

In general, the release of endorphins is stimulated in response to discomfort or pain. Its effect is to reduce the sensation of pain, as well as producing states of pleasure. While these two effects may seem at odds with each other, it’s what makes the “runner’s high” so addicting. It’s the great joy and mystery of pushing the body’s limits, yet enjoying and taking pleasure in the activity. 

Related: 7 reasons why you should start your day with a run

The main mechanism of action occurs through an interaction between the central and peripheral nervous systems. Perception of pain relief occurs through the binding of beta-endorphin to receptors on the periphery. The most powerful receptor that beta-endorphin binds to are Mu-receptors. When binding occurs, cellular mechanisms to prevent the release of pain agonist signals. At the same time, this binding also occurs in the central nervous system. However, binding in the central nervous system causes an increase in the release of dopamine – known to many as being the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter. 

The combination of pain-relief and pleasure is extremely addicting. Which explains why we just can’t get enough of endurance sports. But why the endurance attraction? What about soccer, basketball or football? It may have to do with what endurance sports offer, and what other traditional sports don’t offer.

Related: Five beginner tips for your first triathlon

Endurance sports are accessible. How much more accessible is going for a run compared to playing a game of soccer? Waking up and going for a run is based on you – your schedule and motivation. It does not rely on other people’s schedules or locations. Additionally, with the rise of green spaces in some of North America’s largest cities, going for runs and cycles is becoming more and more popular and convenient. 

Endurance sports also lean towards your more adventurous side. This doesn’t mean you’ll be immediately drawn into an Off-road Xterra triathlon, trail run or century mountain bike ride, but it does offer the joys of exploring new routes, terrains and places. 

Related: The rebirth of off-road triathlon in Whistler

Let’s not forget, endurance sports also appeal to our competitive spirit. With numerous running races, Grand Fondos, time trials and Ironmans to chose from, endurance sports are an endless adventure of competitions. These events don’t just give us something to train for, they also are a way of joining a community of like-minded people. Just as there were teams for hockey, soccer and baseball when we were 10-years old, there are teams and clubs for the adults. 

Related: Running in the golden hour

Though we may be restricted in this present time, we can continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of morning runs, golden hour bike rides and the thrills of being active. Exercising now may be more important than ever because of the positive health effects it has. So, go outside, be active, enjoy the thrills of moving and respect others by practicing physical distancing.