Runner Meds

I found an excellent article on the Running Times website, about Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, the runners whose “Duel In The Sun” at the 1982 Boston Marathon became a 2007 book.

I found the article when I was trying to learn more about Salazar’s well-known experiences with the antidepressant drug Prozac. From the 2002 RT article:

In the early 90’s, Salazar became one of the first public figures to talk about being on…Prozac. He says he took it not for depression per se, but because of the anxiety levels that accompanied his then-inexplicable performance decline. In 1994, with his energy level restored enough to allow solid training, Salazar won the world’s most competitive ultra, South Africa’s Comrades Marathon. He talked of more ultras and sub-2:20 marathons. Instead, Salazar Phase II lasted one race.

The implied connection between Prozac and energy and performance is a little misty. What is it about Prozac that enabled Salazar to come back and win Comrades? No one seems to know.

Here’s a standard explanation of how Prozac works: Prozac capsules and liquid contain the active ingredient fluoxetine, which is a type of antidepressant known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)….

Antidepressant medicines act on nerve cells in the brain. In the brain there are numerous different chemical compounds called neurotransmitters. These act as chemical messengers between the nerve cells. Serotonin is one such neurotransmitter and has various functions that we know of.

When serotonin is released from nerve cells in the brain it acts to lighten mood. When it is reabsorbed into the nerve cells, it no longer has an effect on mood. It is thought that when depression occurs, there may be a decreased amount of serotonin released from nerve cells in the brain.

SSRIs work by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed back into the nerve cells in the brain. This helps prolong the mood lightening effect of any released serotonin. In this way, fluoxetine helps relieve depression.

I became interested in Prozac because of several recent experiences. I was having trouble sleeping, and wanted to ensure that I got a good night’s rest before a hard weight workout the following day. So I took a sleep remedy called Tension Rx Nighttime, from the Biochem supplement company.

The effects were extraordinary. Not only did I sleep well, but I trained extremely well the next day. Before I began my weight workout, I jogged 30 minutes around the Foothill College campus, and my mood was wonderful. I felt light and young – feelings that recalled the bouncy, positive feelings I had run with in my twenties and thirties.

The Tension Rx Nighttime formula contains 5-HTP, a “serotonin precursor” that is sometimes referred to as “natural Prozac.” (Note that Prozac and 5-HTP act differently: Prozac inhibits a brain mechanism that reabsorbs serotonin, with the effect that we have more serotonin in circulation, while 5-HTP simply increases the brain’s supply of serotonin.)

I’ve never been a fan of “white powder” solutions to improve performance. In nearly all cases, I’ve found that they simply didn’t offer a long-term fix. Years ago, I read a book by Michael Colgan, Ph.D., Optimum Sports Nutrition, in which he delineates the performance-enhancing effects of dozens of supplements. I dutifully purchased several hundred dollars’ worth of pills, but found that most either had no effect or were accompanied by intolerable side effects.

Of the very  few white powders that actually work for me, one is Sustained Energy from Hammer Nutrition, which I’ve found to be a really good fuel for marathons and ultras. As Hammer claims, SE “prevents the marathon bonk.” But unlike other supplements, Sustained Energy doesn’t appear to achieve its effects by lashing individual bodily organs into overdrive. It feels more like simple good nutrition. Thus, it doesn’t mask the effects of overtraining. (Don’t expect it to save your butt if you haven’t trained for the marathon distance.)

My second Prozac-like experience came during a recent long run. Around 8 a.m. the morning of the run (which started at noon), I took a small amount of 5-HTP together with a tiny amount of citicoline, a “brain metabolism enhancer.” And, once again, despite 85-degree heat and a significant hill, I had a really good run. My mood and energy were high for the entire 2½ hours, and I happily ran the final 90 minutes at 79% of maximum heart rate.

I’m not sure that 5-HTP will play a regular role in my training. I’m particularly skeptical of “brain enhancers” since it’s known that taking too much can desensitize or decrease the number of brain receptors by which they achieve their effects. I’m not inclined to tinker with my brain. That’s why I take a tiny amount – perhaps 30 mg of 5-HTP and 25 mg of citicoline.

What I’ll be attempting to find out is: (a) whether I can continue to obtain the valued mood and performance-enhancing effects by taking 5-HTP in tiny quantities and reserving it for the weekly long run and gym workout; and (b) whether I can get a similar effect by consuming serotonin-enhancing foods.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere how the quality of my long runs improved dramatically when I began eating a two-egg omelet the night before. Eggs contain tryptophan, a serotonin precursor. (There’s an interesting, somewhat folksy, article on diet and tryptophan/serotonin here.)

For years, I felt that my mood was insufficiently peppy to allow me to get the best out of my training. I now suspect that my age (66) and vegetarian diet of 42 years may have been parrtly to blame, because both are associated with decreased serotonin availability. When I was young and still running with sparky enthusiasm, I drank large amounts of milk. (I had a physically demanding job, so weight-gain wasn’t a problem.)

I recall drinking a quart of whole milk 90 minutes before the start of the 1971 Bay to Breakers. I believed that milk boosted my mood and energy. Nowadays, I would have eggs the night before, because research has shown that whey isn’t the best protein to take before and during races, as its metabolism produces ammonia, a primary cause of muscle fatigue. A better protein source for events that last longer than 90 minutes is soy protein. (For more information, see “The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Success” from Hammer Nutrition [PDF].)

Many of the talented athletes I’ve met were buoyant personalities, full of energy and good cheer. An excellent example is Gary Fanelli, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere. In the 1970s, Gary would show up at races dressed in Blues Brothers regalia – coat, tie, porkpie hat and shades, plus shorts and racing shoes. When sports psychologists tested the top runners after a major race in the Midwest, Gary posted the highest scores for positive attitude they’d ever seen. Several years ago, Gary told me he was still running 10 miles in around 55 minutes, at age 50-plus.

Gary probably has high levels of serotonin. And I doubt that it’s only because of what he eats. In the long term, I suspect our bodies respond to the kinds of thoughts, feelings, and energy that we habitually cultivate. Our character, feelings, and  aspirations mold our bodies, long-term. Consciousness is primary; it acts on the body through the medium of energy.

In any case, positive feelings seem to be inseparable from success in sports. If you don’t love running, you might succeed for a time, but it’s doubtful that you’ll enjoy a long career. U.S. 5,000 and 10,000-meter star Kara Goucher says, “Aside from my husband, my family and my friends, running has been the greatest passion of my life. Seriously, I love running. I love competing.”

What secret factor enables great athletes to train hard and run high mileage, year after year? Beyond their natural gifts, surely, one important factor is motivation. The great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, defined will power as: “An increasingly smooth flow of energy and attention, directed toward a desired end.” Without desire, nothing much can happen. Whether from Prozac, food, or deliberate effort, positive feelings play a key role in success.

As you know if you’ve spent time on this site, I’m a big fan of feeling-based training. I believe all of the rewards of running are experienced inside. And I don’t believe it’s possible to keep our training on course without feedback from intuitive feeling. Reason and logic simply aren’t enough; they’re too rigid, incapable of adapting quickly to the countless unexpected turns in the road.

In today’s edition of Runner’s World Daily, 1983 New York Marathon winner Rod Dixon expressed similar sentiments. Here’s a quote from the article – I’ll paste a long version here, because I think his thoughts on training are interesting; the remarks on feeling-based training are in paragraph two:

In my training, I always built from a base of aerobic fitness and did my long run once a week. I used hills even in my base training, but kept them aerobic with a focus on efficiency, a good lean and good arm pumping. When I moved into the serious hill phase, I often ran a stairway of 289 steps up from the beach. I would do this ten times. Or sometimes a ten-mile hill run that climbed 3000 meters. This was followed by a very short anaerobic sharpening phase, only about two weeks. When I was first on the European circuit, I would sometimes get burned out from over-racing. That was when I learned I had to back off the racing and track training, and get out for several long, easy runs in the forests. This always worked.

That’s why I believe so much that recovery is the key to successful training. Runners have to be careful not to do too much anaerobic work. I think you have to learn to run by your own instincts. That’s something that might be missing nowadays when athletes are surrounded by coaches and exercise physiologists and heart-rate monitors.  You can lose the ability to be in touch with your own instincts, and to trust them. Sure, you’ll make some mistakes, but that’s what we do. And you learn as much or more from your mistakes as you do from winning.

Followup (a week later): I dutifully ate my omelet and took an Rx Nighttime the evening before my long run.

The run was difficult – I had to push to complete two hours: one hour at 65-67% max HR, a half-hour at 70-75%, and finally 20 minutes at 91-92%. My mood and energy were blah, though my body seemed able to handle the running.

I suspect it was the peanuts. Karl King, a Univ. of Minnesota chemical engineering professor and ultramarathon runner, warned me about peanuts years ago – he said they’re lousy for recovery, as they contain substances that increase inflammation in the muscles. I’ve noticed that peanuts don’t do much good when I eat them before running. But, one does forget. The several handfuls I ate the night before the run left me slow, sluggish, and worn at the edges.

Moral of the story? Like Rod Dixon, I make mistakes, because that’s what I do, and I learn as much on the bad days as the good. So, really, where’s the loss?

1 thought on “Runner Meds”

  1. As usual, great stuff. Very timely for me because I have been thinking a lot about sleep quality lately. I have been having really great sleep, way better than I have previously considered “normal”, and I think it may be attributable to using Hammer’s Anti-Fatigue caps, in conjunction with eating eggs and meat from chickens that I personally raise.

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