Running, dopamine, and surviving winter

March was the month we were all supposed to finally commit to our New Year’s resolutions. How are you doing with that? I will be the first to admit, not so well. I will actually admit to running just a little over 2 miles in the entire past month. What’s going on?

It might be some seasonal depression. Are all my New Jersey friends happy about this? Are you all saying “I told you so” – I told you that Chicago was COLD – as you sit staring out into your frozen snow-covered landscape? Aside from that crazy couple of days in January where Chicago saw -21*F, it’s been just as cold in New Jersey. And Northern New Jersey has seen more snow. There.

Let’s face it. It’s probably – relatively speaking – cold where ever you are (it was only in the high 50s in Southern California today!). Who’s got the worst winter isn’t a contest, although I will admit – as most Chicagoans will tell you – this winter has been extremely harsh. Of course, it has. Although the upshot is that this will be the benchmark by which I will judge all future Chicago winters.

Above Lake Shore Drive. Chicago, Illinois. January 2019.

Anyway, back to running. Or wishing I was. I did a solid two weeks of runs on the treadmill at the end of January when conditions were at their worst. I then went to Southern California for a long weekend and have had trouble getting motivated since. First it was some aches and pains left over from the half marathon that made me think a week off was a good idea. One week turned into five.

I had planned to get back out there this week to celebrate my 23rd “runiversary” which was March 4th but I was a little sick. A valid excuse, although it got me thinking that it might actually be the result of not running. In an effort to get back on track, I finally joined the local gym, just a short walk from my apartment. If running on the treadmill isn’t appealing, perhaps a mile swim will be more so. Need to get those endorphins and dopamine up!

This is a lesson I learn over and over again (I wrote about it here), and yet still wind up in this place every couple of years (pretty sad when I have to go back to read my own blog for motivation, huh?).  One thing I now know is that as we – women – age, restoring healthy levels of dopamine is a key factor in maintaining mental health.

Decreases in Estrogen are linked to the decrease of dopamine cells in the brain. Dopamine, along with endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin, is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Specifically, it’s the one responsible for motivation. So yeah, pretty important for a runner. As women enter menopause, estrogen drops significantly. For breast-cancer survivors like me, Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) isn’t always an option, and others would prefer a more natural way to increase the “happy neurotransmitters” anyway.

This is a pretty strong reason for every woman approaching middle-age to take up running, and more specifically training for a goal race. “Physical exercise stimulates a spurt of dopamine and is one of the neurotransmitters responsible for ‘runner’s high’” (Alban, D., “Dopamine Deficiency, Depression, and Mental Health” and  since “any form of accomplishment that gives you that ‘Yes, I did it!’ feeling will increase dopamine” training for and completing a distance race will help even more, right?

The first step is always the hardest. It usually requires a real push. Although, we know that the biggest factor in correcting a problem, is admitting to having one. So yes, I will the push myself out the door to get my dopamine, which will hopefully motivate me to get moving on some other projects that have stalled lately. To hold myself accountable I will report back next week.

I’m also signed up for 2 races later this month. A St Paddy’s Day 5k next weekend (yikes!), and The Shamrock Shuffle 8k the following weekend. In between, spring officially arrives. Surviving my first Chicago winter alone should give me that “Yes, I did it!” feeling…even if the “real feel” isn’t quite there yet.


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My Team Gilda Chicago Marathon Page

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