Fact or Fiction: The Truth About Runner's High | Rockay

The Truth About Runner's High and Everything You Need to Know

Running can be painful. Muscles need to be pushed to their limits, endurance needs to be tested, the body needs to know it’s gone to work. Go through the pain often enough, and running produces a number of benefits: increased speed, weight loss, better health to name a few. What a lot of people joke about, however, is a fringe benefit: the runner’s high. It’s an exercise-induced, short-term state of euphoria.

The runner’s high doesn’t receive much attention, possibly because of the complicated explanation of all the brain chemistry involved. Few runners know all that much about the runner’s high, what triggers it, and why the body reacts this way. It’s to the point where some believe it’s just a myth, which is completely untrue.

We’re going to dispel the rumors and explain how this all works, but first, just to confirm: yes, the runner’s high is real, and it’s spectacular.

Experiencing the Runner’s High

It is widely accepted that the runner’s high is comparable to a feeling of euphoria. Some even compare it to a morphine drip. The high, however it is achieved, is the body’s reaction to heavy exertion. It acts as a natural painkiller. Runners are notorious for pushing themselves and in particularly long runs, deep muscle aches, blisters, and general fatigue will set in. A primal part of the body reacts to this like a sort of danger. It reacts by releasing chemicals to mask the pain and produce a sense of well-being to distract from the stress of the situation. This allows runners to run farther and faster.

The reasoning behind the body’s ability to do this largely stems from our past. Anthropologists and researchers believe that the runner’s high was born out of necessity. It used to be that we would have to hunt our own food in vast forests and vistas. We would chase food down and needed the ability to overcome exertion to catch possibly faster prey. The opposite was also true too. We were prey to greater predators and needed to run from them as much as we needed to chase down others.

Oddly enough, the body’s reaction to our physical distress is to provide a feeling comparable to morphine. It’s one of those things that doesn’t need any explanation. Let’s just be glad it happens.

How the Runner’s High Works

There’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the runner’s high before. Even non-runners could tell you something about it.

Admittedly, it’s unclear what exactly causes the runner’s high, but there are some leading theories.

Many believe the high is caused by a flood of endorphins released into the bloodstream. However, in modern testing, with endorphin effects properly blocked, some runners still felt an overall sense of well-being. Then again, other tests have also found that around the 2-hour mark of a run, there is a massive release of endorphins from the limbic system. The reaction is similar to the feeling we feel when we’re in love.

The first theory is that other mood-affecting neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin cause the high. These chemicals are known to fight depression and are released in large quantities while exercising.

The second possibility involves body temperature. The hypothalamus is responsible for body temperature. Longer and more intense exercises elevate body temperature and might indirectly affect a person’s mood.

The third and most fun potential explanation comes from endocannabinoid production. Most of you can probably tell where this is going just from the name. Yes, endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that produce a natural version of the calm found in marijuana (with none of the paranoia!). This calming feeling is produced when under physical (during long, exertive runs) and mental stress (pre-race jitters, for instance). The latter isn’t an exact science, of course. Too much stress might indeed trigger an endocannabinoid release, but it may not be enough to instill calm. Try Prozac.  

Obtaining the Runner’s High

Running is a real balancing act. You want to push your body to make gains, meaning you have to endure, ignore and prevail over aches and pains that tell you to stop. Of course, you do need to know when to actually stop so you do not injure yourself. Running to experience the runner’s high is a similar tightrope.

Indeed, endurance runners are most likely to feel a runner’s high due to the long-term stress placed on the body. It’s different for everyone, of course, but it does seem likely that the high will kick in at around the 2-hour mark.

Here’s where the balancing act comes in.

You have to be running fast enough so that the body feels the exertion but not so fast that it cannot produce enough of the neurotransmitters to treat it. Obviously, pushing too hard would not only nullify the high but also put you at greater risk of injury.

As we said, it’s a tightrope.

In general, we would suggest a pace of roughly 6 or 7 miles an hour during your run. After around 2 hours, the exertion should trigger an endorphin release indicative of the runner’s high. Of course, this sweet spot speed is difficult to regulate on your own. Smartwatches like Android Wear and Apple Watch or phone apps like Runkeeper and Strava Running and Cycling will measure your speed for you, so you can focus on the task at hand.

Running for an endocannabinoid release is different. An endorphin release is about pain management; an endocannabinoid release is about stress management. However, the body cannot necessarily differentiate between the two. You may go searching for one runner’s high and achieve another. Those looking for the endocannabinoid release might look to run at 70% to 85% of their maximum heart rate (when adjusted for age) should trigger a stress reaction, leading to endocannabinoid release. Then again, it might be enough to trigger the endorphins.

The point is, the body has mechanisms to aid you, but it’s not like pressing a button for a morphine drip.

Again, time is just as relevant as pace. Short runs won’t cut it; endurance runs will.

The fact of the matter is that success in running is like success in any type of exercise: it takes time. New runners and even established non-endurance runners will likely not feel the effect of the runner’s high. New runners don’t have the experience and capability to run the distance (and indeed, new runners who attempt the long distance to achieve a runner’s high end up with nothing but failure and injuries). Speedrunners tend to run either too short a time or run too hard for the neurotransmitter release to be felt, let alone effective.

Running the Distance

Due to the strenuous pace over a long period of time, it’s usually marathon runners who most often experience the high. Marathon runners are, by extension, endurance runners. Building up endurance so that you might be able to run a marathon (which are roughly 26 miles) or feel a runner’s high which would involve keeping a strenuous pace for over 2 hours isn’t easy. In fact, it looks like an unclimbable mountain, especially for those with no running experience. It can be done but it will take time.

For inexperienced runners looking to build endurance, a sample endurance-focused workout schedule might look like this:

 

SUNDAY: OFF

MONDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, run for 30 minutes

TUESDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, walk or jog for 30 minutes

WEDNESDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, run for 35 minutes or 1 extra mile

THURSDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, walk or jog for 30 minutes

FRIDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, run for 40 minutes or 2 extra miles

SATURDAY: After a 5-minute warm-up, walk or jog for 30 minutes

As time goes on, you would continue to add duration as your body becomes accustomed to its new limits. However, for a more in-depth and comprehensive system, you might consider downloading the Couch to 10k mobile app.

Couch to 10k

Couch to 10k is not, sadly, an app that gives you $10,000 for getting off your couch. Instead, it’s an app that will literally take you from a couch-sitting non-runner to an endurance runner capable of running a 10k half-marathon over the course of 16 weeks. This sounds drastic and potentially dangerous, but Couch to 10k has the backing of several physicians and takes care not to overwork the user. In fact, the regimen will have you running only 3 days a week to start.  

The app provides clear scheduling and specific information. It is also free. There is, naturally, a paid version that comes with extra features, but you can easily get by on the free version.

Once you’ve reached your 10k goal, you’re that much closer to a marathon. Hell, you might even get a bit of a high from the 10k itself.

While the Couch to 10k will generally keep you to a single run per day, running comes with many options. We would be remiss not to mention the possibility of doing multiple runs a day. Hell, you can even make personal changes to the program to reflect your own unique circumstance. Check out this YouTuber’s tips on how to do this below: 

Endurance Run Schedule (multiple runs a day)

There’s an accidental theme in this article about the difficult balancing act of exerting yourself to make gains while not endangering your health. Most people tend to stick to a single run a day and at least one full day of rest a week. However, endurance runners, well, need to build endurance. In order to keep from plateauing, some decide to alter their schedule to allow for a second run a day.

The thought behind the second run is to have enough time to allow your muscles to recover and engage them again while they are still limber and malleable. The potential gains are indeed great, but there is an added risk of injury. That is why a great deal of consideration is taken before engaging in multiple runs a day. It’s also why, as you’ll see below, that these runs are incrementally added over the course of a month.

Please keep in mind that adding a second run is suggested only for well-experienced runners. Even then, there are plenty who prefer to stick to a single run a day.

 

Week 1

SUNDAY: OFF

MONDAY: After your warm-up, run for your average time (30 minutes minimum for progress to be made)

TUESDAY: After your warm-up, run for your average time

WEDNESDAY: After your warm-up, run for your average time

THURSDAY: After your warm-up, run for your average time

FRIDAY: After your warm-up, run for your average time

SATURDAY: Double run; morning, night and 6 hours in between (don’t forget your warm-ups)

 

Week 2

SUNDAY: OFF

MONDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

TUESDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

WEDNESDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

THURSDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

FRIDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

SATURDAY: Double run; morning, night and 6 hours in between

 

Week 3

SUNDAY: OFF

MONDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

TUESDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

WEDNESDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

THURSDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

FRIDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

SATURDAY: Double run; morning, night and 6 hours in between

 

Week 4

SUNDAY: OFF

MONDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

TUESDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

WEDNESDAY: Double run; morning, night and 6 hours in between

THURSDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

FRIDAY: Warm-up, then run for your average time

SATURDAY: Double run; morning, night and 6 hours in between

 

Tempo Runs

Tempo runs are new to the game. They were first developed by Dr. Jack Daniels in his 2013 book Daniels’ Running Formula. The formula wasn’t what I was expecting, nor was it what I had been drinking for the last 15 years. For that matter, tempo runs did not involve running a pace keyed to music.

Like running twice a day, tempo runs (perhaps better known as Threshold Runs) are for experienced runners looking to boost both their speed and endurance. Marathon runners often employ tempo runs to improve their conditioning. Of course, you can’t stave off the runner’s high forever. These runs help in making the body capable of reaching that point.

Tempo runs are meant to be “comfortably hard.” You run them at a pace and for a time that might engage the neurotransmitters enough for them to activate. Runners would run hard enough for their bodies to fatigue, but not enough to endanger themselves.

There are several types of tempo runs, but distance and endurance runners should specifically consider the Anaerobic Threshold variation.

Anaerobic Threshold

Yes, this sounds scary. I’ll break it down. An Anaerobic Threshold is an exercise that has lactic acid build up in the body faster than the bloodstream can clear it out. This creates a burning sensation in the legs, alerting the runner that they’re at their anaerobic threshold. Okay, again, that sounds scary. This is, again, why more experienced runners should be trying this.

Despite how it sounds, the threshold exercise is actually a helpful one (though admittedly dangerous if not done exactly as directed). The anaerobic threshold exercise will allow you to run faster for longer, which is what you’ll need to do if you want to achieve that runner’s high.

This tempo run’s speed is generally set to 30 seconds behind your top 5k speed. Another rule of thumb to go by is running at a pace you could keep for 60 full minutes. However, in a tempo run, you would only be running for 20 to 40 minutes. You should follow the instructions of a tempo run to the letter. Do not push your limits with them. It will lead to injury.

Limit tempo runs to once a week.

And there you have it. The runner’s high does exist, but it’s elusive and difficult to work for, and even harder to predict. In other words, it’s the perfect chase for a devoted runner. What are your experiences, if any, with the runner’s high? Let us know in the comments.

Sources

  1. Runners World, What is a Tempo Run
  2. Runners Connect, Training in the Right Zone
  3. Web MD, Runners High
  4. Runners World, How to Achieve a Runners High
  5. Scientific American, Brain Effects Behind Runners High

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