The Role Adrenaline Plays in Road Races

At any given 5K, 10K, half marathon or even marathon distance race, there is one thing that you are likely to find at the start line: Noise and lots of it. From loud music to DJ’s and MC’s making commentary, the start lines are basically a dance party setting minus the disco ball.

The reason for all the noise is because it builds adrenaline to help you get pumped up and ready to go fast. This surge of adrenaline helps to put your autonomic nervous system in that all-important fight or flight mode to get your engine revving so when that gun goes off, so do you. And for many of these races, the music, cheers and overall party atmosphere could continue for several more miles, or even the entire way.

Take the Boston Marathon for example. For nearly the entirety of the race, the streets are lined with people cheering, holding up signs, playing music and ringing bells — all in an effort to keep that heart pumping and your body fighting hard to the very end.

In fact, the Boston Marathon website has a section just for spectator information, stating, “Competing in the Boston Marathon wouldn’t be complete without the endless support of friends and family in the lead up to the Boston Marathon. … There is ample space every mile from Hopkinton to Boston for fans to gather and cheer on your journey to Boylston Street.”

Fans can even sign up for a mobile alert that lets you know when the runners you are cheering for are nearby,  just so you are ready to cheer loudly when they come by. The Boston Marathon Guide outlines actual milestones in the race to look forward to in order to have the best experience while running. This guide states that mile 21 at Boston College, “The coeds that station themselves at the top of Heartbreak Hill know their beer-soaked enthusiasm gives runners a much-needed spike in adrenaline as they hit the Heights.”

“A much-needed spike on adrenaline.”

There’s that word again. “Adrenaline.” 

What is adrenaline, and how does it play into racing — scientifically speaking?

As it turns out, while the efforts of race directors and spectators to keep your blood pumping may be entirely based on wanting to help you run fast and strong, there is actual science behind it.

Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. These glands are located on the top of each of your kidneys, and when epinephrine/adrenaline is released, it causes many things to happen. Things like an increase in your heart rate and heart contractility (how hard the heart squeezes). It increases blood sugar levels, and causes a relaxation of the smooth muscle in the airways to improve breathing. As a result, your body feels a surge of energy that is commonly known as an adrenaline rush.(1)

Now, there are many ways that epinephrine/adrenaline is produced. For instance, emotional stress or a dangerous situation like being chased. In either case, your body prepares itself to act quickly by triggering your “fight-or-flight” response. This is essentially an alarm that causes an increased and rapid production of adrenaline.

And while running a race may not be the same as being chased by something scary or life threatening, your brain doesn’t know the difference.

What about music, loud cheers and the whole race experience? How does that produce more adrenaline?

If you were to hear a bear growl, a baby cry for help, or a fire alarm sound in the middle of the night, your brain would immediately perk right up having been alerted by the autonomic nervous system letting you know danger is near. Abrupt sounds like these trigger the fight or flight response as a natural reflex that is a basic human function designed to respond to danger.

And just like the nerves that come about when you’re about to run a race, causing you to essentially run for your life, the same is true for loud noises like the “Rocky Theme Song” or even a loud cowbell near the finish line.

Former rock musician and studio producer Daniel Levitin — who just so happens to be a PhD, Neuropsychologist who studies the neuroscience of music and how music affects our mental and physical health — told the American Psychological Association in an interview that fast stimulating music stimulates the production of adrenaline.(2)

There’s that word again: Adrenaline.

Now that you know what adrenaline is, and that it may have a positive effect on how you race, are there ways you can create your own surge of adrenaline?

While the Boston Marathon is most definitely a course filled with adrenaline from start to finish, not all races are like that. Most get you pumped up at the start and finish, but what about all those miles in between? How can you create your own adrenaline surge?

1. Bring music with you: Many runners create playlists to either deliver a constant stream of upbeat music, or strategically placed songs to help deliver that adrenaline rush when needed. You know what songs get your blood flowing, so find the ones that work for you.

2. Do a surge: While running, even in a race setting, you will likely find that your body sets into auto-pilot. And without something or someone to be there to either cheer you on or push the pace, you may find that you remain in that funk. When this happens, a great way to put a surge of energy in your step is to pick up the pace. It may be easier said than done, but by making a conscious effort to go fast even for just a few strides will wake up your mind and get some adrenaline running through your body.

3. Make a noise: If nobody is there to cheer you on, do it yourself. Yell out a Wahoo!” or a “You got this!” Chances are, the other runners will think you’re cheering them on, and you will end up creating a surge of energy for several others.

4. Encourage others around you: While unintentionally cheering others on, you may find that you like helping others do better. Positivity that is directed toward others can actually help you forget the pain you are in, and give you that adrenaline rush you need to get through a rough patch.

Are there ways can you track your adrenaline rush? Perhaps with biometrics?

Many runners these days use wearable tech bands that tell your active heart rate. If you are one of them, you may just see that when you hear the music at the start line, the cheers along the course, or even when you encourage another, that the numbers on your monitor increase, letting you know that you are experiencing a rush of adrenaline. And that adrenaline may very well get you through the race — perhaps faster than ever before.




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