Why There Will Never Be a “Running Pill”
The benefits of running go far beyond health and fitness. Scientific advances may replicate the physical benefits, but running gives us much more; it makes us better people.
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Imagine you could take a pill that replicated the benefits of running. Just swallow a little white tablet, lean back in your favorite recliner, and feel yourself getting fitter.
Does that sound good to you? I rather doubt it.
If you’re like me, you work hard at your running, and the notion that any old couch potato could reap the same rewards without properly earning them doesn’t sit well. More than that, we runners love and value the experience of running, and it would be a shame if a “running pill” came along and stood in the way of potential new runners discovering this experience.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in fact a running pill of sorts exists already. Scientists working at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, have developed a compound known as GW 1516 that mimics the metabolic shift from glucose oxidation to fat burning that occurs during exercise. In sedentary mice, its administration has yielded effects similar to those of wheel running on body composition. The World Anti-Doping Authority has already banned its use by athletes.
Granted, GW 1516 won’t improve your 10K time much, but other medical alternatives to exercise will. The term “gene doping” encompasses a variety of techniques that can be used to alter a person’s genes or their expression in ways that make them fitter. One such technique entails transferring genes (say, those that produce the natural blood-boosting compound EPO in the body) between human hosts through viruses. Another method, gene editing, involves inserting tiny bits of DNA at precise locations in the genome of living cells to enhance desirable properties, such as muscle growth. Although we’re not there yet, these methods, unlike GW 1516, have the potential to fully replicate the entire spectrum of exercise benefits, rendering actual workouts totally obsolete.
Learn by Doing
Or do they? Not really. Contrary to popular assumption, a number of running’s major benefits derive from the thing we runners relish most about it—the conscious experience—and simply cannot be replicated by any substitute. For starters, consider the improvements in movement efficiency that occur as a normal part of training and are a major contributor to better running performance. These improvements come about through a learning process that depends on active two-way communication between the brain and the proprioceptive system—a network of nerves located in the muscles and connective tissues—during running. By both talking to and listening to the body as it moves, the brain discovers more energy-sparing ways to run and incorporates these discoveries into the “blueprint” it uses to execute the stride. Like all forms of learning, this one is inseparable from doing the thing you wish to learn. Becoming a more efficient runner without running is therefore no more feasible than becoming a more skillful juggler without juggling.
Another experience-based performance-boosting benefit of running is increased pain tolerance. Research has shown that the performance gains resulting from high-intensity running in particular are accounted for in part by heightened ability to handle physical discomfort. In a 2017 study, for example, British scientists divided 20 healthy volunteers into two groups. For six weeks, one group engaged in an exercise program consisting entirely of high-intensity interval workouts (HIIT) while the other group did an equal volume of exercise exclusively at low intensity. Testing performed both before and after this six-week intervention revealed that, although the two exercise programs resulted in roughly equal changes in aerobic fitness markers, members of the high-intensity group showed significantly greater improvement in a time-to-exhaustion test and, separately, in a test of pain tolerance.
It doesn’t stop there. Running also enhances inhibitory control, which is the ability to override immediate impulses, such as the urge to slow down or quit during a race, and remain focused on a less-immediate goal, such as crossing the finish line or achieving a certain time. Running nurtures this mental aptitude, which is important not only on the race course but in life generally. The extra inhibitory control you acquire through running will give you a better chance of making healthy diet changes stick, embracing the short-term sacrifice necessary to achieve long-term rewards in your career, or even working through a rough patch with your spouse.
We have now opened the lid on the Pandora’s Box that is the psychological benefits of running, none of which are reproducible by medical means. To highlight just a couple more, another 2017 study published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology reported that completing a first marathon significantly increased general self-efficacy in women, and in another 2017 study, six weeks of aerobic exercise were shown to reduce anxiety scores by 24 percent in university students with no prior history of exercise. Through such effects running does more than any pill to increase overall happiness.
The Inner Journey
Let’s pause for a moment and imagine now that the conscious experience of running—as distinct from the medically replicable physiological effects of running—did none of the above—that it neither improved neuromuscular efficiency, nor increased pain tolerance, nor strengthened inhibitory control, nor enhanced self-efficacy, nor reduced anxiety. If all of this were true, I would still choose running over any running pill, because for my money, the single greatest benefit of the running experience, and one that, more than any other, cannot be copied by medical means, is the inner journey it takes you on, a bona fide spiritual voyage through which, if you take full advantage, you discover and gradually become the person you want to be and live a richer, more authentic life than you would otherwise live.
When I was 17 years old I realized that I was far from being the person I wanted to be. The unhappy discovery occurred on May 21, 1988, which is the day I failed to report to the start line of the boys 3200-meter run at the Hanover Invitational, a big regional track meet in New Hampshire, where I was raised. Although I loved running and I had some talent for it, having led my team to back-to-back state cross country championship victories as a sophomore and junior, I feared and loathed the pain of racing, and on that fateful day my fear got the best of me, driving me literally into the woods, where I hid like some lily-livered deserter instead of testing myself against the other boys. One year later, I quit the sport, unable to overcome my faintheartedness and despising myself for it.
Quitting solved my immediate problem, but it did not fix the underlying issue, which was a basic lack of grit. Despite no longer having to deal with the misery of racing, through my college years and beyond, at work, in relationships, and elsewhere, I shrank from doing the needed thing when the needed thing was hard. A coward on the racecourse, I discovered, is a coward off it.
Still, I had no particular plan for closing the distance between my actual and best selves, least of all one based on a return to running. As fate would have it, though, when I moved to California in 1995 in search of a writing gig, the job I landed just happened to be with a just-launched endurance sports magazine. I was 24 years old then and couldn’t climb a flight of steps without losing my breath, weighing nearly 70 pounds more than I had when I ran my last race. But over time my professional milieu affected me in ways that, in retrospect, seem entirely predictable, tearing the scabs off the wounds left behind by the pathetic demise of the first act of my life as an endurance athlete, exposing raw feelings of unfinished business and an aching for redemption. Almost before I knew it, the second act of my athletic life had begun, a conscious quest to become the courageous competitor I hadn’t been the first time around.
The Marathon of Life
By 2004 I had completed four marathons, a bunch of half marathons, and 13 triathlons, including one Ironman. The last of these events was without question the toughest challenge I had ever faced—until May 30 of that year, when my wife, Nataki, suffered a psychotic break, attacked me with a vegetable chopper, and spent the next 12 days in a mental hospital, where she was diagnosed as bipolar. I am happy to report that Nataki and I are doing quite well today, but we struggled for many years to reach our present “happily ever after,” and although Nataki had the worst of it, to be sure, for me those years made the pain of racing seem like a Swedish massage in comparison.
No, that’s going too far. For the peculiar species of desperation I have felt in my worst moments with Nataki, that zero-sum internal war between the will to survive and the temptation to give up, differs only in degree, not in kind, from the hardest moments I have faced in marathons and other races, when I’ve found myself very near the limit of my capacity to suffer, even for something I really want. On the basis of these different, yet not-so-different experiences, I harbor a bone-deep conviction that, if not for all of the time and effort I invested in my quest to transform myself into a gutsy racer, I would have failed Nataki as both a husband and as a caregiver, shirking the call to step up for her sake in a far more consequential way than I failed myself in ducking the call to the start line of the 1988 Hanover Invitational boys’ 3200 meters.
Science backs me up here. Just ask Samuele Marcora, a prominent Italian exercise scientist with a strong interest in the intersection of the psychological and physical dimensions of endurance, who says, “People who are used to the stress of vigorous exercise are better adapted to deal with other stressors (including psychosocial ones) and show a lower stress response to these other stressors.”
In plain terms, running gave me the strength and the resilience to hang on with Nataki through a true living hell, the horror of which is only hinted at by the numbers: seven total hospitalizations, at least two dozen 9-1-1 calls, three separations, two suicide attempts (one for each of us), and a night in jail (for me). Running also changed how I experienced our most difficult moments, and how I experienced myself in these moments, which still occur on occasion, though in less extreme form, thank goodness.
Nowadays, when the you-know-what hits the fan, I feel a core calmness, a sense of knowing what (and what not) to do and say, and a sober, “this too shall pass” sort of optimism that make these moments a little more bearable and lead to much better outcomes. This wiser, stronger way of being is something that I first tasted within races. Running gave me my first clear vision of the person I want to be and has systematically nurtured this better self over the years, so that today I am almost able to say that he and I are one and the same.
I am grateful that running keeps my weight down, my immune system strong, and my faculties sharp. Maybe one day there will be a pill that does these things as well as running does. Regardless, I am most grateful that running allows me to look in the mirror and see a man I respect, something I could not always do—and there will never be a pill for that.
Matt Fitzgerald’s most recent book is: Life Is a Marathon: A Memoir of Love and Endurance. Fitzgerald calls it the book he was “born to write.” The engaging memoir blends interviews on the appeal of marathoning gathered during an 8-marathons-in-8-weeks-quest, with larger reflections on the running life and its ability to make us better people, drawing from the author’s experience as a runner and husband.