It’s what keeps you hooked on running. Or you think it does anyway.
But what exactly is runner’s high? And what could possibly cause it?
And hell — is it even real?
The Happy Chemical
Runner’s high is often contributed to a rise in your endorphins, which are the ‘happy’ chemicals naturally produced by the body that can induce feelings of pleasure and pain relief. In truth, though, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated.
The theory that increased endorphin levels are the cause for that happy feeling that comes after a workout was born from research conducted in the 1980s that showed that, following prolonged periods of exercise, levels of endorphins in the blood spiked. Some researchers assumed that this spike must be responsible for that sense of euphoria following a workout.
And so it is still commonly thought.
But more recent studies that have been conducted using mice suggest that those endorphins may not have anything at all to do with the so-called runner’s high. The issue with the explanation involving endorphins is that endorphins are molecules that are actually quite large – in fact, they are too large to move from your blood into your brain.
Indeed, the barrier between the blood and the brain is critical in keeping your brain safe because that barrier prevents certain molecules and pathogens from passing from your blood into your brain. Because the endorphins aren’t able to get through, it makes it unlikely that they are the chemical–or the only chemical–that’s responsible for those good feelings that are involved with exercise.
As an alternative, scientists have hypothesized that this effect can actually be contributed to a few other chemicals that are also found or formed naturally in the body and that produce similar happy and pain-relieving feelings in other circumstances. Chemicals called endocannabinoids.
When you exercise, your levels of anandamide also rise. This was found in a study on mice done in 2015, as well as in one on people that was conducted in 2004. This particular chemical is a sort of endocannabinoid — or in layman’s terms, a chemical that helps moderate that psychoactive, good feeling that comes from smoking marijuana. Unlike those large endorphins, this chemical can easily go from your blood into your brain.
In the first study, conducted in 2015, researchers from the Central Institute of Mental Health compared the effects of both the endocannabinoids and endorphins on mice while they were running on exercise wheels.
They discovered that along with feeling calmer and less sensitive to any sort of pain following running, the test mice also had increased levels of both endocannabinoids and endorphins. Those mice also spent more of their time in the areas of their cages that were better lit, which is something that mice that are less anxious and more calm tend to do. They also happened to be a bit more tolerant of pain following their runtime on the exercise wheels.
In order to measure the effects of each individual chemical, the researchers gave the test mice drugs that would block the effects of each of them. When the endorphins were blocked, nothing at all happened. The mice remained more tolerant of pain and relaxed. However, when they blocked the effects from the endocannabinoids, the symptoms of a runner’s high in the mice were non-existent.
Their findings suggest that the elevated levels of endorphins in the mice didn’t have too much–if anything at all!–to do with their ‘runner’s high’.
That being said, this research did have a major caveat – and that is that mice are not humans. This study also found that you would more than likely need to run a fairly long distance before you would experience a runner’s high. The test mice averaged about 3 miles each day – which is quite a long stretch for mice.
There have been other studies conducted that suggest that neither endocannabinoids nor endorphins are the reason for a runner’s high. One study, conducted in 2015, found that mice who had a low level of the hormone, leptin, had a tendency to run farther than the mice who had normal leptin levels.
Leptin is also called the satiety hormone, and it works to inhibit the feelings of hunger so that our energy levels can be regulated. The idea is that the hungrier you feel, the more motivated you will be to continue running. That additional motivation might just make it a bit easier to obtain a runner’s high.
In the end, leptin sends a clear message to the brain that when food isn’t plentiful, it is good to run in order to chase it down.
Then again, although these results have been shown in mice, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the same effects will be had on humans. There may also actually be a combination of different factors at work; and because of this, definitive evidence of the exact cause for a runner’s high may continue to be elusive to researchers.
Runner’s High and How to Achieve It
Whatever you believe about this phenomenon, it is undeniable that runners seem to enjoy running and they at least think it makes them feel good, if not high, when they do. Runners who are experienced achieve a sense of elation that will happen after only a few miles. However, many newbies and even some of the more experienced runners struggle to achieve that elusive euphoric moment.
The reason for this is that it isn’t an easy feeling to obtain. The actual cause for it still remains unknown, even though, as we’ve seen, researchers do know that it has something to do with how your brain and your body change when you exercise.
It makes evolutionary sense though if you think about it. Really, just think about it: whatever chemical is responsible for runner’s high–or whatever you want to call it at this point–is released by our bodies so as to signal to our bodies that grueling physical activity is a good thing, a desirable thing. Maybe that’s even why we’re here, in some small part. Maybe our ancestors actually enjoyed running from predators into safety.
A Moderately Intense, Long Workout is Critical for Triggering It
Again, what research has shown us about runner’s high is that we’re more likely to experience it if we have a long and continuous session of exercise, especially one that has a rhythm. This is according to Paul J. Arciero, a professor in health and sciences at Skidmore College. He also says that the activity being performed must be non-stop and that the sweet spot for a runner’s high is at about 2 hours. This means that the longer your workout is, the better your chances of experiencing it.
The intensity of your workout is also critical. A moderate intensity seems to be best. It appears to trigger the ideal environment in your brain where your blood flow is maximized and your endocannabinoid receptors appear to be at their most stimulated. If the workout is overly intense, the self-protecting mechanism in your brain can switch on and reduce both blood flow and stimulation. If it is too low, it will not be enough to stimulate your endocannabinoid receptors.
If you really want to set yourself up to experience this high, you should focus on something known as steady-state cardio. This is where your heart rate will be sustainable but elevated. To accomplish this, you need to be exerting yourself to about a level 7 or 8.5 if you rate your activity on a scale of 1 – 10.
More Experienced People are More Likely to Feel It
This isn’t great news for those new to running. Because it means that you won’t have that runner’s high to assist you in getting through those beginning stages where you’re running only a mile or three a day. The silver lining is that it is fantastic motivation to keep going. Meaning, if you try hard enough, and run long enough, you may actually acheive it.
A runner’s high is difficult to achieve when you’re just beginning a new program, according to Dr. Timothy Miller, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University. That might be why so many beginner runners have a hard time keeping at it. But the promise is always there: after a couple of months of running and continuing to build your endurance, when you aren’t slogging through the run and counting each second until it’s finished, that’s when you might first experience it.
Professor Arciero explains this could be due to a combination of factors. One of them is that those who are new to running aren’t likely to be running non-stop for a couple of hours. Another is that when you’re just getting started with running, your body is utilizing most of its energy to remain efficiently moving, regardless of any lapses in technique and form. It isn’t clear if this leads to the release of less feel-good chemicals, or if instead these chemicals are actually being released but aren’t getting noticed because of your brain being occupied with keeping you efficient. Either way though, something is happening that keeps you from getting that runner’s high–that much is certain.
Feeling It Can Give You the Additional Boost You Need to Inspire You to Keep Running
People who run marathons might not feel satisfied by workouts or runs that are shorter. Your mind and body will want to do more. Part of the reason for this is that the brain is seeking for the low-level high that it has gotten used to feeling.
That being said, just because you have gotten that high once, it doesn’t mean that you will get it every single time you run. It will likely happen about once every few runs due to the fact that there are quite a few factors that need to line up perfectly – such as your general level of stress, the weather, and the intensity of your workout. Unfortunately, even if you feel it on a regular basis, there isn’t any way to ensure that it will happen. At least, there isn’t any known way.
You Might Not Even Need to Run for It
You can get the so-called runner’s high from any sort of workout routine… even biking or swimming. The key, again, is the controlling the intensity, the continuity, the rhythm, and the length of your workout.
In other words, it can occur during any sort of training provided that you do it for a long enough period of time and with the proper form. Even though it’s called a runner’s high, it really is just a fitness high. If you aren’t the type to be into running, you can find another sort of cardio workout that you enjoy and that makes you both confident and happy. You will feel great each time you work out regardless of whether you get the high or not.
So How Real is It?
Is that feeling of euphoria for real? More critically, will it be enough for you to get across that finish line?
When you run a marathon, regardless of where it is, you will need to use every single trick in the book in order to get through both the grueling training and the race itself.
Runners often experience a sort of euphoria, which can present as a sense of being invincible, accompanied by a reduced amount of pain or discomfort, and a sense of a loss of time while they run. This is according to Jesse Pittsley Ph.D., the president of the American Society for Exercise Physiologists.
What is it that makes runners push themselves for a whopping 26.2 miles? Is it necessary to run in order to get that same euphoric feeling? Is it possible to find those same emotions even with other types of exercises?
We know now that endorphins aren’t the end-all, be-all of runner’s high. As we saw earlier, they may not even have anything to do with it at all. The fact is that it’s still unknown; it may even be a case of a placebo effect!
Researchers have also examined other sorts of neurotransmitters that could possibly play a role.
Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and the secretion of norepinephrine have all been proven to assist in the reduction of depression. Additionally, these neurotransmitters are released and even produced in higher concentrations while people exercise, and this led researchers to believe that it might be some of these substances that are responsible for runner’s high.
Yet another theory postulated is that body temperature has something to do with it too. This theory states that the change in the body temperature might affect your mood indirectly.
Less Low, More High
Runner’s high might be a short-term thing, but it’s well-known that exercising regularly offers other benefits for both the body and the mind that are long-term.
Typically, we tend to see those people who are habitual exercisers or runners as having moods that are better, suffering less from anxiety and depression. People who are regularly physically active perform what’s known as active relaxation. By moving your body and being focused on the sensation of your moving body and by getting into the rhythmic motion and activity, you trigger the response for relaxation and that significantly contributes to those feelings of well-being.
Running marathons can take a toll on the body, but it also offers significant benefits.
When it comes to running at this level, there are clearly many health benefits. Intelligent marathon runners who have put in quite a few hours of training over the weeks and months before the marathon, and the health benefits that are sustained during aerobic exercise have been well documented. They include things like better self-esteem, lowered blood cholesterol, reduced body fat, and improved circulation, among others.
Going Beyond the High
When runners come down from their high, many of them might wonder why they bother. What is the point of running for X amount of miles at a time?
The thing is, the point is the accomplishment after all of those months of hard work and training that drives people to compete repetitively.
The events themselves aren’t always about competition. The marathon can be viewed as the reward for all of those months of training before it. You can’t build a house in a single day. You have to plan. You have to get up early each day and work extremely hard. This concept is what a marathon embodies for some runners.
And obviously, there’s more to it than just a runner’s high. There is also the finish line.
Runners say that there isn’t any better feeling than being able to raise your hands high when you cross the finish line of the marathon while listening to hundreds of onlookers cheering you on. The emotional high that comes with finishing a marathon can actually last for a few days.
How to Get that High
Science has revealed how to produce even more of those feel-good chemicals while you are running.
Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, but we always want that runner’s high – and more. When we are lucky enough to achieve it, our runs can be exhilarating, easy, and even euphoric. We aren’t always that lucky though.
More recently, there have been researchers who studied how our brains respond to the activity of running and they found that the actual ability to get that runner’s high while we are logging those miles might actually be hard-wired in our bodies.
Many years ago, the survival of our ancestors probably depended on being able to chase down their food. Their motivation was their desire to live and this meant that they needed to run. Those feel-good chemicals in the brain were released when they did have to run down their food, and this more than likely helped them when it came to achieving the distance and speeds that were necessary. That runner’s high might have served them – as it does us – as a natural sort of painkiller, which can mask things like blistered feet and tired legs.
Even though most of us no longer need to worry about chasing our dinner down, learning how these happy reactions in our brains get turned on can possibly help when it comes to achieving a runner’s high with more frequency.
Some More on Endorphins
Endorphins can be looked at as nature’s own home-brewed opiates. They are chemicals that tend to act a lot like morphine – which is their counterpart that has been medically engineered. Runners have been giving endorphins the credit for runner’s high for many decades. That being said, it wasn’t until a decade ago that German researchers utilized brain scans done on runners to determine the origin of the endorphins. Those researchers discovered that during runs that lasted 2 hours, the limbic and prefrontal regions are where the endorphins spewed from. These are also the areas that light up when responding to emotions such as love. The greater the surge of endorphins in these areas of the brain, the more euphoric feelings were reported.
To get this feeling, you will need to push yourself, just not too hard. Essentially, endorphins are a sort of painkiller that the body produces when it is in physical discomfort. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your runs have to be excruciating. Instead, you should find that sweet spot where you are comfortably challenged. For example, in the German study, the subjects were actually experienced runners. However, they weren’t so experienced that a run at a pace of 6 miles an hour for 2 hours was exactly easy, but it also wasn’t exceedingly much.
Runners tend to experience an increase in endorphins when their bodies aren’t expending the maximum effort but are pushing themselves moderately.
Runs that are short and casual will probably not produce enough of the discomfort that is necessary to trigger a rush of endorphins. Trying for a distance or pace that is overly aggressive will more than likely be overwhelming your body too much to produce them. Even as powerful as they can be, endorphins will not be able to override a lack of training or an injury.
Running with other people might also be helpful. A study done at Oxford University found that rowers who trained and worked out together had a significant increase in the release of endorphins when compared to those who didn’t work out or train together. If you have to work out on your own, think about wearing headphones. Research has found that a spike in endorphins might result from listening to your preferred music.
Some more on Endocannabinoids
These are essentially a naturally made type of THC, which is the chemical that is responsible for the mellow high produced by marijuana. Anandamide is the endocannabinoid in the body that has been examined the most, and this is what is thought to create that feeling of calmness. Endorphins are only produced by specialized neurons, while nearly any cell in your body has the ability to make endocannabinoids. This means that they are more likely to make a larger impact on the brain.
The production of endocannabinoids is believed to be more prolific when responding to stress than it is when compared to pain. With endorphins, pain is the strongest activator. Differentiating between discomfort and physical stress while running is almost impossible. This means that the same thing that triggers the release of endorphins might also trigger the release of endocannabinoids – a workout that is challenging.
As far as your heart rate goes, running at about 70-85% of the maximum is just right for producing the main stress hormone , cortisol, as well as for producing endocannabinoids.
Research suggests that when it’s in small doses, mental stress can also increase the production of endocannabinoids. This means that those pre-race jitters might actually be beneficial. That said, if stress is chronic, it can dull the effect.
In short, whether or not you are a runner, if you exercise with the right intensity and for the right amount of time, you too will be able to achieve a runner’s high, and this high is one that is beneficial to your entire body.
- Science Blogs, The Neurological Basis of the Runner’s High
- FitDay, The Benefits of Running: Experiencing a Natural High
- YouTube, How to Achieve Runner’s High
- Chemical & Engineering News, Exploring the Molecular Basis of “Runner’s High”
- Shape, The Truth About Runner’s High