runners high

Science has been backing up the notion that physical activity–and running in particular–is a powerful stress reduction tool. It triggers a host of biochemical changes in the brain, such as the release of “high-inducing” endorphins that have the power to alter your mood.

Most recently, a study conducted at the University of Bristol and University College London found that lactate–as in the lactic acid that is released during exercise–stimulates brain cells to release more norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline), a hormone and neurotransmitter that is critical for brain function.

In particular, it regulates a hormone that is crucial for motivation, stress responses and control of blood pressure, pain and appetite.

So if you’re feeling pissed off, stress out or overwhelmed, what’s the best type of run to get the right feel-good chemicals to work on your brain?

Here are three recommendations:

Unwanted feeling: I’m seething with anger/frustration and am ready to throttle the next person who says the wrong thing to me. My heart is pounding and I’m storming around, ready to explode.

Prescribed Run: A short, intense run of around 45 minutes.

You’re wound too tightly today to worry about warming up, so you might as well just get down to business. Find a high-tempo pace that suits your current energy level. The exact pace doesn’t matter so much as you find a rhythm. Avoid overstriding by focusing on a very high turnover, moving with quick, light steps.

Ideally, the first five to 10 minutes are on flat terrain, and once you’ve settled into your pace, run two or three hills (repeats of a single hill or on rolling ground) that last about 30 seconds to 2 minutes max.

During the hard uphill efforts, notice your lungs fully fill with each breath, savor the flex of every muscle and even the burn that may appear.

Push yourself as hard as possible on these hills, slowing to an easy recovery pace between each one. Settle back into your starting pace for the final 10 minutes of this run. By the time to get back home, you should have exorcised those negative feelings from your body and mind.

Unwanted feeling: I’m overwhelmed with everything on my plate and feel as though everything is closing in around me. My chest is constricted and my breathing is fast and shallow.

Prescribed run: One- to two-hour trail run.

A natural environment enhances the release of hormones that promote mental and physical relaxation. Running off road, surrounded by a forest, along a river or lake or surrounded by mountains and away from the noise and distraction of traffic and people, is one of the easiest and most effective ways to gain a fresh perspective. Start off at a relaxed pace that you feel you could maintain over the long haul.

Focus on your breath as you settle into a steady rhythm and think about your foot placements, choosing the most efficient path over the technical terrain.

After at least 45 minutes or an hour, pause at a quiet place on the trail, ideally with no other people around. Take three deep, slow inhalations through your nose, releasing the air softly through the mouth. Keep your mind empty, thinking only about the air moving in and out of your nose.

Look out at the landscape. Notice the distance to the horizon, the air moving around all the space between you and the horizon line. Take another moment here before you resume your run at the same relaxed, consistent pace.

Unwanted feeling: My energy is so low I can barely peel myself out of bed or off the couch. All I really want to do is crawl under the covers and hide from the world.

Prescribed run: Progressive run of 30 minutes.

Start running at a very, very slow and easy pace for at least the first 10 minutes. Accept that it may feel uncomfortable or clumsy. Instead, congratulate yourself for having gotten out the door at all. At around the 15-minute mark, start a series of short intervals: five short bursts of 30 seconds during which you push yourself to run faster than you feel like doing, followed my one minute of easy running. End this segment with one minute fast.

The intervals should start to feel easier as you stimulate the release of lactic acid, which stimulates the brain to release noradrenaline and other hormones that raise mood and improve brain function.

Even though your limbs may have felt heavy and sluggish at the run’s start, this workout reminds you of the power and momentum that resides within that once you tap into it, anything is possible.

After completing the intervals, finish with at least 10 minutes of slow, easy running to help your muscles recover and gradually bring down your heart rate.