Harnessing Neurotransmitters for Performance Gain

Al Pacino, through his character Walter Abrams in the movie Two For The Money, encapsulates the thought process of people with an addictive personality when he states:

"You know the best part of the best drug in the world isn't the high. It's the moment just before you take it. The dice are dancing on the table. Between now and the time they stop, that's the greatest high in the world."

These words summarise the world of many endurance athletes. We are athletes who choose this sport to fill the void in our lives and hide behind our self diagnosed type A personality disorder to justify that what we do is actually good for us. Just like the alcoholic that only drinks ‘socially’ or the gambler who, when they lose, states that it's just their ‘entertainment’. Each of these addicts have one thing in common and that is the rush before the reality. Whether it be the seconds before the horse jumps with their fortune on its back or the smell of the whiskey as it’s brought up to their mouth.

In our case, it is the thrill of the unknown behind the start line. The moment when we hope against hope that we are going out to recapture our perfect race; that we can channel that sublime training session four weeks ago, when we were in the zone, running on clouds. We want to recreate that pang of unbridled joy when we first met our addiction. 

It seems that the mere suggestion of the word addiction incites negative connotation of the ‘down and outs’ and the ‘ne’er do well’ elements of our society. From the dispossessed unfortunate homeless man living on the street, through to the junkie turning tricks for the drug of their choice - addiction has garnered a bad name for itself. But can addiction be good? Can you turn this powerful personality trait, driven by chemical messengers in the brain, into a legal and formidable performance enhancing edge in training and racing?

The short answer is yes, but only if you holistically look at your addiction as another element in your training arsenal. Similar to using your ultra light racing shoes or aero racing wheels on race days, addiction can be a tool that can be controlled to be a powerful element to improve performance. If you use your racing wheels in training, you belie their performance edge on the day of the race. Similarly, if you use your powerful brain chemistry to motivate and drive your performance every day you will find that you will need to increase stimulus in order to prevent perceived resistance. 

The unfortunate nature of addiction is that it is a double-edged sword. This is the reason it has such a tarnished name. Addiction promises so much pleasure, but can deliver it at the cost of so much. The illicit addiction robs your wallet, strips your dignity and destroys your personality to the point where your family and loved ones don’t know you. The sports addiction, while not as severe and much more socially acceptable than its illicit cousins, can also bring about negative effects. From the financial cost of owning the latest and greatest gear, to over-training injuries resulting in depression as athletes try to push for the same sporting high and increase performance. In order to channel your addictive personality and harness its potential, you need to be able to understand each of the brain neurochemical messengers, what they do, how to trigger them and when and where you need them the most. 

Let's have a quick look at some key neurochemical messengers released by the brain and how you can harness them for your athletic improvement.


First is dopamine, termed the ‘feel good’ hormone. Dopamine allows you to stay motivated and enables you to enjoy the small and big things in your life. The bigger and newer the pleasurable experience, the more dopamine that is released. In terms of sport, dopamine is released when you achieve milestones like your first century ride. At a party that has athletes you will see and more likely hear the more confident ones talking about their races or training. Reliving the highs and the lows, analysing the what went right and what went wrong. The reason this person talks so much is because they are re-triggering the release of dopamine through the re-imagining of the event. 

The way to harness this powerful neurochemical messenger without talking about it (and boring everyone at parties) is to mix things up in your athletic training and simply run, ride and swim in different locations. Plan a training holiday with the family and friends or go on a ‘racecation’. While I have stated in an earlier blog that repetition is important to overcome the lazy caveman inside of you and get you training day after day, you also must be careful to avoid getting into a rut and pushing too hard in training to achieve a false high. A false high is a high generated from training which gives you a boost to neurochemical messengers, but detracts from your ultimate athletic goal. 

Oxytocin (2).jpg

Second is oxytocin, termed the ‘bonding’ hormone. Oxytocin enables you to create pair bonds with people around you. It is the neurochemical messenger that enables some birds to mate for life and is the reason behind those stories of dogs sitting at the grave site of their owners. This hormone sees us clustering around like-minded people at parties, all wearing matching finisher shirts. It gives us, as a species, a sense of belonging and gives purpose to our journey. It also provides safety in numbers and ensures survival of our species as a whole.

Strava, the popular social media program for athletes, has become the industry leaders in sports focused social media based on the powerful effects of oxytocin, evident with Kudos, KOM/QOM (King/Queen of the Mountain) and CR (Course Records). Strava has further utilised this sense of belonging by introducing club pages, where you can brag (and release dopamine) amongst like-minded people. Take advantage of the pleasurable effects of this neurotransmitter by joining your local triathlon or running club, training with like-minded people and sharing your progress on sports focused social media such as Strava.

Serotonin (1).jpg

Third is serotonin, termed the ‘feel special’ hormone. Serotonin plays a critical role in how you live and can be harnessed by celebrating the major athletic events in your life. A good way to unleash higher levels of serotonin is by having an ‘ego wall’, or a special place in your house where you can display your race bibs, finisher medals, towels and race shirts. When you start feeling down about where you are heading, have a look at where you have come from and what you have experienced along the way. Once you hold that crumpled race number from ‘that epic race last November’ you will find these memories flood your brain with high levels of serotonin and your ‘mojo’ will reappear.


Last is endorphin, termed the ‘euphoria’ hormone. This neurotransmitter is the most famous of them all and the reason we probably got hooked onto endurance sport in the first place. Endorphin is released when you engage in high levels of physical activity. Endorphin release varies among individuals. This means that two people who exercise at the same level or suffer the same degree of pain will not necessarily produce similar levels of endorphin. Endorphin inhibits the transmission of pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by other opioids.

The ‘runner's high’, where some have reported themselves blending into their own moment in space and time, is the work of endorphin. The downside is the addictive nature of the high. Although not a chemical addiction as in illicit drug addiction, there is a very real desire to push harder during your workouts to feel that same high that you experienced last time. The way around this is to factor in key higher intensity sessions during your weekly program and fill the rest of your week with maintenance sessions. A general rule of thumb should be worked around an 80/20 split - 80 percent maintenance, with 20 percent intense key workouts. This will serve the effect of metering out the endorphin and enabling you to look forward to sessions in your calendar.

As a final note, the effects of these neurotransmitters may lead to a perceived resistance. In athletes, a desire to get the same pleasurable experience from these powerful naturally produced chemicals can lead to overtraining, injury and depression if training is abruptly halted. Be wary to avoid overdoing it; you will likely never reach the exact same high as when you crossed the finish line of your first big race, but other highs are guaranteed. Learn to utilise these powerful chemicals aids to enhance your performance in training and racing.

By Sean Riley