BACK IN THE '50s, when I was the only kid in my hometown who ran anywhere except on the high school track, I grew weary of neighbors shouting from porches, "Why are you running?"

Runners don't hear that question anymore - at least not in Washington, where lunch-hour joggers clog the sidewalks. By now the answer is obvious: running feels good and it's good for you. Just how good I hadn't realized until the recent outpouring of literature on running's emotional benefits.

What I had always viewed as a mildly pleasureable hobby, like birdwatching or collecting stamps, is now being touted as a ticket to altered states of consciousness and a cure for everything from impotency to schizophrenia.

"It's better than drugs, better than alcohol. Sometimes, I swear, it's better than sex," a rhapsodic Central Park runner told an interviewer for New Times magazine. Said another: "I go out there and my subconscious takes over and my mind seems to be in the clouds. It's a tremendously peaceful, refreshing feeling. You have a sensation of specialness. I almost want to spread my wings and fly."

In the same article, "Running: The New High," cardiologist George Sheehan speaks of a "third wind" that follows a half-hour or more of steady running. Sheehan finds there is a sudden release of creative energies and fantasies, a play-like state, possibly due to the opening up of the functions of the right side of the brain. On the same page, juxtaposed with ads for marijuana paraphernalia, a biologist speculates that metabolizing of neural transmitters in the brain during running may produce morphine derivatives that bring on such highs.

A San Diego psychiatrist, Thaddeus Kostrubala, has run with about 50 of his patients, both alone and in groups. He reports dramatic results, including relief from the symptoms of schizophrenia. He says he finds "sputtering low-grade depression" best handled this way - "running seems to have a very quick effect on lifting spirits."

Mike Spino, director of the Esalen Sports Center in San Francisco, is peddling a sorcerer's bag of running, meditation and Eastern religious mysticism called "mind running." In a recently published book, "Beyond Jogging: The Inner-Spaces of Running" (Celestial Arts Publishing Co., Millbrae, Cal.), Spino suggests mixing running and meditation like hot and cold baths, or imagining a giant hand pushing you as you run.

He also designs group interactions, such as "energy flow" transference from one runner to another, or chanting to create the effect of a "primordial band." ("George Allen would love it," commented a reviewer in Behavior Today magazine.)

Two phenomena seem to be at work here. On the one hand, lifelong runners are becoming more frank about their feelings as their sport gains popularity. At the same time, running is attracting a wide variety of converts, including refugees from the youth/drug counterculture of the '60s, for whom the activity offers a nontoxic "natural high." Each group reinforces the other's sense of delight and discovery.

To the uninitiated, running will always seem an unimaginative activity, but runners know better. Nearly everyone who has trained seriously for a marathon has found himself undergoing a profound change in lifestyle. The daily runs of an hour or so, which begin as a means to an end - completing the distance - quickly become valuable in their own right. Deprived of daily running by illness or injury, runners become moody, irritable and jumpy, like junkies in need of a fix.

"There is nothing that will relieve the agony of not running," one respondent told psychiatrist William Classer in answer to a questionaire.

Classer, who heads an Institute for Reality Therapy in Los Angeles, was exploring the notion that running might be truly addictive. In a book titled "Positive Addiction" (Harper & Row), he advanced the idea that it is possible to become habituated to character-strengthening behavior through running, transcendental meditation, chanting or even regularly hitting a baseball for a specified period each day. Such "positive addictions" can help overcome negative additions such as chronic smoking, alcoholism and drug abuse, Glasser claims.

He favors running "because it is our most ancient and still most effective survival mechanism. We are descended from those who ran to stay alive, and this need to run is programmed genetically into our brains. When we have gained the endurance to run long distances easily, then a good run activates the ancient neural program. If there is no attempt at competition and the runner runs alone in a pleasant natural setting, addiction should occur within a year."

Glasser is not himself a runner, but Kostrubala definitely is. In fact, Kostrubala is that most evangelistic of runners, a reformed fat man. In his new book, "The Joy of Running" (J.B. Lippincott), Kostrubala describes his progress from a 230-pound "high-risk normal" enrolled in a jogging program for recovered and potential coronary victims to a 175-pound runner capable of finishing a marathon.

Kostrubala applied the lessons of his own experience to his psychiatric practice.

"My overall concept of group therapy was that it was an indoor, essentially sedentary activity," he said. "I had never heard of a group process that involved running.In spite of my considerable professional knowledge of group therapy, I was at a loss as to what to do. But I also felt comfortable in the role of a group therapist and I did not feel that I would be harming my patients, so I proceeded to form a group . . .of mixed sexes and a wide variety of so-called problems including depression, addiction, schizophrenia, anxiety and anorexia nervosa."

Kostrubala's seven-member running group met three times weekly for an hour-long jog followed by conventional group therapy.

"To my own surprise and pleasure, the running therapy opened up a new therapeutic aspect," he said. "For as I ran along with my patients, my own unconscious was stimulated. And as we explored the meanings and stimuli for both the patient and therapist, it became quite evident that I could no longer adhere to any stereotyped rules as a therapist. I had to share my inner feelings or my reticence was immediately perceived by the other group members, and the entire process would break down."

Kostrubala has pronounced this now-disbanded running group a success except for one dropout who had undergone electroshock therapy some years before. He no longer accepts such patients for running therapy, theorizing that they are unable to handle powerful emotional experiences.

The others in the group experiences changes in life habits at different rates, he found: "Smoking decreased, then stopped for one. Drinking followed the same pattern. My obesity fell away. Depressions lifted. Destructive relationships were ended by improvement or separation. Excessively bizarre thought processes were eliminated without destroying the verve and spontaneity of that person."

Kostrubala speculates that running therapy will not eliminate mental illness but will achieve a place as "a distinct form of psychotherapy."

The danger in all this, of course, is that running once again may be oversold, just as jogging for fitness and appearance was oversold in the '60s. But sophisticates who may have scorned the activity for its emphasis on physical attractiveness are likely to give it a second look for the promised psychological benefits and euphoria.

Sheehan, the running cardiologist, offers the best perspective:

"The delights of running don't necessarily come easily," he told New Times magazine. "I don't think you can just get a pair of Adidas sneakers and go 10 miles and feel you're in a different world. It took me a number of years. But when you feel it, you find out who you are out on the road."