Monday, October 05, 2009

Why are races so fun?

On the latest episode of my favourite science podcast, Quirks & Quarks, host Bob McDonald interviewed researcher Emma Cohen, who recently published a paper about pain threshold when exercising solo and exercising in a group.

If you don't want to click through, the gist of the research is that people who exercise in groups experience lower pain thresholds than those exercising alone. Cohen theorized that there's something about the social experience of exercising together that boosts endorphin output and, hence, lowers pain threshold.

This story was kind of an "ah hah" moment for me. I vividly remember my very first running race. It was the Park Lafontaine Classic 10k race two years ago. I ran well and was pleased with my time, but what struck me most was the special feeling I had being with all those other runners. There was something euphoric about being with so many other people working toward a similar goal. It made me happy, pure and simple. And I've since noticed a similar effect at other races; there's an infectious spirit you can't help but get caught up in.

And just about any recreational runner will tell you about what I like to call the "race effect," which somehow pushes you to a better result than you ever managed in training. While some of this can be attributed to the competitive jolt of the race context, I could definitely see how some of it also comes from the extra endorphins produced by being around so many people.

This year's Park Lafontaine Classic will be my third in a row and will have to stand in for my marathon goal. Whatever happens, I'm sure it will be a blast.

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