Bliss in a Pill?

Most runners have heard the story of how superstar marathoner Alberto Salazar over-trained and over-raced himself into depression, and how he briefly “recovered” by taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs.

What is it about these “feel-good” drugs – sold under the commercial names Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc. – that makes them improve performance?

In “Runner Meds,” I ruminated on serotonin and performance. I described the good feelings serotonin produces, and speculated on how good feelings and performance are linked. I had several very enjoyable runs after taking 5-HTP, a serotonin-increasing supplement available at health food stores. But I expressed doubts about the value of this and other “white-powder” solutions for increasing performance.

I’ve always resisted the notion of “bliss in a pill.” I’ve tinkered with just about every available “performance-enhancing” athletic supplement, from vitamins to creatine to 5-HTP. And I’ve seldom found the results completely satisfying or lasting, even if they temporarily helped me run farther or faster.

In “Runner Meds,” I told about my conversation with a spokesman for a bee-based running supplement that increases the body’s ability to burn fat. The women’s winner of the Rio Del Lago 100-mile race used it and consumed just 1500 calories during the event. Hard to believe! I assume it’s true; yet I doubt I’d use the supplement.

I can’t really say rationally why taking performance-enhancing pills has little appeal for me. I suspect it has more to do with my personal goals as an athlete – what satisfies me, than with hard logic. It’s just a personal feeling.

For me, it’s a question of whether I’d rather attach a rocket to my butt and race well, or simply consume a normal diet and see how well I can run and how happy I can be.

When I started running, it was the late 1960s. Flower Power was in the air, along with a great deal of smoke from south of the border. When I discovered running, I thought, well, somebody should tell Cheech and Chong. Running was a natural high, for sure, man. Why take dope when you can run and avoid the hangover?

Forty years later, I guess I’m still exploring the natural high, and finding no end of places I can get it.

Also, I’ve discovered, during 67 years of living, that the satisfactions that last, in sports and life, come by expanding my awareness, starting from within.

I realize that “expanding awareness” sounds rather abstract and dreamy. What do I mean?

I mean there seem to be two paths to “expansion” as a runner: two ways to run fast, feel good, be wise and inwardly strong. One path increases my happiness; the other, not so much.

Okay, I’m standing at the starting line. I glance around to see if anybody’s watching, and reach in my shorts, attach a rocket to my butt, light the fuse – and away I go! After the race, standing on the podium to accept a first-place trophy in the old-farts division, I smile happily. I’ve won!

Or have I? Are my abilities any better than they were yesterday, when I ran rocket-free, without an afterburner attached to my flabby old butt?

No, I haven’t grown. And growth is what I find produces real joy, in sports and life.

A scientist with the absolutely unpronounceable name Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the factors that enable athletes to enter the fabled sports “zone” – the state where you’re able to perform at an unprecedented level, yet it seems effortless. Meanwhile, your mind goes silent, your thoughts having faded to a trickle then shut off completely, and your attention is riveted with laser-like, relaxed concentration. You feel, “I’ve found the real me. I am wholly myself. Yet the experience is profoundly impersonal.”

“The zone” is an experience devoutly to be striven for, because it’s so extremely enjoyable. But you can’t get there by popping a pill. And that’s because, as Dr. C’s research showed, it only happens when we exercise at the farthest edge of our ability. And that means our natural ability, un-boosted by butt-rockets or white pills. We enter the zone from within; we can’t get there by attaching pills to one part of our metabolism, any more than by affixing rockets to our nether portions.

“Zone” experiences can happen any day, even when we’re feeling sub-par or comprehensively overtrained. Imagine that you set out on your weekend long run, and quickly discover that your body is having an off day. You’re tempted to press the pace regardless, perhaps with the thought that “I’m just being lazy – I’ll make my lazy body work hard until it snaps out of its funky mood.”

Of course, that never works. And being an intelligent runner, you immediately dismiss the notion. Instead, you slow the pace and let the body lead you (not training theories or impatient emotions). You run the way that seems to make your body feel happy. Perhaps you end up slashing the scheduled distance by 75 percent. Yet you enjoy the run very much, and you go home feeling wonderful. Why? Because, even though you weren’t able to expand your fitness, you did the most expansive thing possible for the day. That is, you did what would allow your body to remain healthy, recover, and run hard again as soon as possible. And nature unfailingly rewarded you with expansive good feelings.

I call that a “zone experience.” Obviously, it isn’t the same Zen-like type of zone where you find yourself flying through a 10K in a state of silent, effortless ease. It’s a mini-zone. But it’s definitely working with things exactly as they are. And nature’s infallible law always rewards us when we do so.

In the West, we tend to think “either/or.” Either we win, or we lose. Either we’re in the greatest, most spectacular kind of zone, or we’re “not there.” But that isn’t how reality works at all.

In fact, Dr. C. falls into that fallacy. In his book, Flow In Sports, co-authored with Susan Jackson, he promotes the view that the zone can only happen at the farthest edges of performance, when we’re achieving an all-time person best. But I believe that’s simply wrong. There are many levels of “Flow.” Without denying the wonderfulness of Flow at a high-performance level, my personal experience tells me that I don’t need to wait until my body is ready to perform at that high level.

If we accept the “either/or” fallacy, then nearly all our runs become failures, measured against the ultimate sports experience of the zone. Yet I find I can experience a very large portion of zone-joy by doing the absolute right thing, even if my body is tired and I can only jog through a drastically shortened run.

Having preached against white powders, I must confess to some hypocrisy. During a marathon, would I take the excellent Sustained Energy race drink from Hammer Nutrition? You bet! I find Sustained Energy works as the makers claim: it prevents the marathon “bonk.” Yet it doesn’t mask overtraining, or stimulate the body beyond its current level of fitness. I count these as points in its favor.

Sustained Energy contains carbs and protein, plus the “metabolic enhancers” l-carnosine and l-carnitine, choline, and chromium polynicotinate. (From the product label: “L-carnosine and l-carnitine “provide antioxidant support and help maximize the use of fatty acids for energy.” Chromium aids glucose metabolism. I’m not sure what choline does.)

Am I contradicting my stance against white powders? Well, yes. And yet, not really. Here’s a key point: Sustained Energy feels natural. That is, it doesn’t prevent me from improving my fitness. It doesn’t get in the way of expansive zone experiences when I run. Nor does it boost my performance in a fake, stimulating way.

But, surely, I’m rationalizing – sounds like I’m just drawing an arbitrary line in the sand: “I’ll take these supplements, but not these.”

It’s been well established – and I’ve confirmed it through hard personal experience – that most people can’t run a marathon without taking carbs. Now then, there are carbs that work well, and others that don’t. Plain sugar will get you through a marathon, but only if you have access to a constant supply, otherwise you’ll crash badly.

So can fructose-containing drinks; but there’s abundant evidence, both scientific and experiential, that simple sugars such as fructose actively promote crashing at 18-20 miles.

You can get your carbs from dates, bread, potatoes, cornstarch, potato chips, Jolt Cola, wine, or beer. They’ll all get you through a marathon, though slowly.

I guess I’m trying to “prove” that Sustained Energy is moral and ethical and “natural,” whereas 5-HTP isn’t. And I guess I’m not doing a very good job.

The week after I wrote about 5-HTP, the universe showed me that I can have bliss without pills. I went to the gym and had a truly superior 30-minute run, followed by a very hard strength workout. I felt wonderful. And all I did was eat a two-egg omelet the night before. Sufficient unto the day was the serotonin from contented hens.

My criterion for supplements is whether they let me feel “normal.” Like good running shoes, I choose the pills and powders that let me forget I’m taking them.

I’ve tried lots of supplements that helped me perform better by whipping my adrenals, thyroid, gonads, and other body parts into overdrive. The problem is, none of them felt natural. Either they had unpleasant side effects, or they were so stimulating, I felt that the pill was performing, not me.

(By the way, if you’re attempting to enter the zone, it’s probably a good idea avoid running with a partner who’s slugging GU and blabbing her head off.)

Another problem with these rocket-launcher white powders is that they can fatigue the organs they stimulate, and if you damage those parts, you can’t easily swap them out for spares.

In “Runner Meds,” I pointed out that this is true of supplements like 5-HTP. Brain supplements are the rage now – they’re sold as “natural Prozac,” “mood enhancers,” etc. But to the extent that they operate by “attaching” to brain receptors, they’re dangerous.

The problem is, they persuade the body to think it no longer needs as many receptors to accomplish a normalizing effect – whether it be speed, mood, happiness, etc. The body loves balance; so the brain decreases the number of receptors, and it takes ever-increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the same effect. And, well, what happens if you run out of pills? When your mood deflates, you probably won’t enjoy being around you.

That’s what happened when I stopped taking 5-HTP. I spent a week feeling terrible – low feelings were preventing me from serving my clients with my usual good cheer. An irritability entered my life – it was nearly crippling. I had to expend major energy to behave expansively toward Mary Ellen.

My experiment with 5-HTP renewed my respect for nature’s wisdom. I got, in fact, a much better effect from the right diet – eggs, big salads made with organic veggies, and abundant fruit, beans, and other truly natural, full-spectrum “supplements.”

Thankfully, through this and many other personal tinkerings, the universe has shown me which running fuels work best for me. They’re the ones that fuel my body without attaching a rocket to my muscles, liver, brain, or butt.

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