Our DOSE of Goodness: The Final Ingredient
Over the last three weeks, we've been looking at the role that CrossFit plays in stimulating different chemicals produced by our bodies and brains:
- The practice of keeping records of every WOD means we can set and achieve goals, which promote the production of dopamine;
- The shared experience of CrossFitters creates deep bonds which promotes oxytocin; and
- The support, inclusion and social validation offered by the CrossFit community stimulates serotonin.
These three speak to the value of the community, its rules and its values, but we haven't actually looked at the nature of CrossFit workouts themselves. Regardless of what you think about their effectiveness (for a single article that contains a lot of pros and cons, click here), there are two things that pretty much everyone can agree on:
- The workouts are intense, often painful, and sometimes downright cruel.
- A ridiculous amount of people keep coming back.
This week's article asks why people keep coming back. That's right, we're looking at endorphins.
Why Does It Have To Hurt So Much?
If you want to understand how endorphins work and why they're important, you need to understand three things about acute pain.
1. Pain is a message. You step on a Lego, and your foot sends a message to your brain saying, "OW!" Your brain can then take the message and think its thoughts, which might be:
- "I want to find and punish the idiot that left a Lego there!"
- "I need to put the Lego away so this doesn't happen again!"
- "I want some support or attention so I'm going to cry and yell about this, and if nobody's around I'm putting it on Instagram!"
Notice that all of these thoughts are about how to avoid pain, either by finding ways to prevent it from happening again, or by replacing the pain with other experiences, like attention or soothing. So pain is supposed to be avoided.
2. The message is just a response to damage. Your foot hurts because some tissues were damaged by the Lego, and your nerves noticed. In this way, your nerves are going to notice the damage occurring to your muscles when exercising.
Exercise, especially intense cardio and lifting weights, places a lot of stress on your body. That's the point: you're forcing an adaptive response so that you're more capable of handling those stressors in the future, and the pain tells you that your exercise routine is working.
As long as you can recover from the stress of exercise, you're going to get fitter. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
3. Sometimes you have to ignore the message. The "burn" you feel in a workout is the kind of pain that our ancestors had to ignore. To be able to track a delicious deer that could feed a tribe over miles and miles requires a lot of endurance, and a stubbornness in the face of pain.
It would be foolish to ignore your sore foot and leave the Lego where it is. But a fitter, healthier body requires exercise, and there are times when you need to be able to ignore the burn and keep moving to get the most reward out of your routine. Fortunately, your brain can help.
Endorphins: Natural Painkillers
This is where your endorphins come in. Endorphins are a neat little family of peptides that are created in your nervous system, and also in your pituitary gland (which is also where oxytocin comes from!) The word is a portmanteau of "endogenous" and "morphine", so think of endorphins as morphine-like substances that your body can make on its own.
Why would your body make this stuff? Three reasons:
- Endorphins make it easier for you to deal with pain.
- Endorphins help regulate your everyday metabolic functions.
- Endorphins feel pretty damn good.
That last one is important. Anybody who's been asked to run for miles is probably going to want to stop at several points (especially the person you ask is me). But runner's high is a thing because of our endorphins. They made our ancestors willing to track prey for long distance not just because of the promise of food (that's dopamine talking), but because the behaviour of running for miles felt good.
So when we bring this into the world of CrossFit, and it's pretty clear that the pain we experience in our workouts is going to make us fitter. But those that seem to enjoy the sucky nature of every workout are likely getting high from it. That's where all those post-WOD smiles and giggles come from - at that point, you're high-fiving a bunch of junkies.
Note to CrossFit coaches: Helping people get fitter means having the guts to hold them back when they're going to seriously hurt themselves, either through workout design, scaling, or substitution.
Note to CrossFit athletes: The person with the lowest heart rate usually has the clearest head. Listen to your coach when they suggest scaling or substitution; they are paid to help you get fitter, not to help you hurt yourself.
Real-World Application: Learning From Pain
Firstly, don't deliberately inflict pain on yourself just to feel high, and if you are doing that, go and ask for help to manage the underlying causes in a healthy way.
What is far more helpful is to recognise that pain is just a message. In whatever form it arises, be it physical pain, grief, angst or anguish, it is your responsibility to decide what to do with pain, just as you decide what to do with all the other signals you receive from your senses.
For this purpose, meditation is a valuable tool. Meditation has taught me to listen to my body and make meaning from its signals. Emotions have a physiological basis; if I'm feeling stress, anxiety, sadness, joy, guilt, depression or euphoria, I can sit with it, notice it, and make a clear decision on what to do with that message.
I can't count how many times my mindfulness in painful moments has helped me have difficult conversations, push through pain barriers, focus my attention or simply not take myself too seriously. I wouldn't trade that awareness for anything.
Finally, as with the other articles in this series, I encourage you to look at your environment - the people, activities and rhythms in your life - and own them. Design them in such a way that you can talk about your feelings and experiences with others, and remember that you can contribute to others' wellbeing as much as they can contribute to yours.
Writing this series has been a great experience, and I look forward to doing something like this again in the future. If you have suggestions or requests, write them in the comments, and share this post and the series with people you think could benefit from it!