What Is a Runner's High?
As kids, we were told that exercise was basically the best thing ever and getting high was just about the worst.
For many of us, growing up meant realizing that exercise isn’t always so great but getting high definitely is (I’ve heard).
The good news is that there may be a happy medium for those of us who enjoy working out but also wouldn’t mind a mild buzz every now and then.
It’s called a runner’s high.
What Does “Runner’s High” Mean?
Alright, I got the requisite jokes out of the way in the introduction, so from here on out, I’m just going to give you the straight dope (that was the last one) on this athletic phenomenon.
First, let’s cover what it is and then we’ll look at what science has to say about it.
While the experience seems to be unique to the person, a runner’s high is generally said to feel like euphoria. Runners have reported that they didn’t have a worry in the world. Even nagging pains seems to disappear when the runner’s high takes hold. No matter how long they’ve been running, the high makes runners want to continue almost indefinitely.
That being said, reports of the experience are relatively new.
Running is a sport with roots that precede recorded history.
And yet the concept of a “runner’s high” only goes back to the 70s when the sport saw a sudden reemergence with plenty of researchers interested in studying its participants.
Is Runner’s High Real? Here’s What the Science Says
Before you put down your bong and pick up your running shoes (kidding), let’s look at what the actual science says about whether or not the runner’s high is real.
In short, it does appear to be legitimate.
That said, scientists aren’t 100% certain why it happens.
Studies on the topic have been published since the early 80s and, until recently, the source of the high seemed to be endorphins in the bloodstream. Specifically, it was believed that β-endorphins were responsible for elevating the runner’s mood.
To some degree, this is probably true. We know that exercise triggers the release of endorphins in the body, which, “…interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.”
They also work as sedatives. In fact, endorphins “trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.”
And who doesn’t absolutely love morphine?
Even better, endorphins don’t have the same addictive side-effects. All you need to do is have a challenging workout to enjoy them.
Okay, so a runner’s high is really just the body releasing endorphins into the bloodstream?
Runner’s High May Actually Be Similar to the Real Thing
Endorphins would explain why runners can push through the pain once their high sets in.
But they are too large to make it past the blood-brain barrier, so they can’t trigger the “high” runners claim to experience.
At least not by themselves.
Recent research into the runner’s high suggests that another all-natural molecule your body creates, endocannabinoids, may play a very important role in this process.
As the name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can produce feel-good effects that are similar to those of cannabis. In fact, if you smoke marijuana, you have the endocannabinoid system to thank for those enjoyable sensations, which it creates after interacting with Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
It turns out that intense exercise (like long runs) is a relatively reliable way to get the endocannabinoid system to produce its highly-enjoyable molecules. Still, scientists didn’t associate these molecules with the runner’s high until 2003.
This connection didn’t seem to get a lot of attention until 2015, when another study backed up that the production of endocannabinoids increased in mice after they completed an aerobic activity (i.e., running on exercise wheels).
A specific lipid-soluble endocannabinoid known as anandamide seems to be responsible. Researchers find it in high amounts in the blood of people who have just completed running. Anandamide can also cross the blood-brain barrier without issue. Once it does, this endocannabinoid triggers many aspects of the runners high, like pain-relief and calm.
While there’s still a lot more research to be done on the topic, these initial findings are strong evidence for the fact that runner’s high is very, very real.
So, How Do You Get a Runner’s High?
Obviously, the first step is that you actually have to go for a run.
However, you’ll probably need to push yourself to run a bit longer than usual. If you want to get this all-natural high, the aforementioned research suggests that you’ll have to run for at least two hours.
Finally, many runners who claim to regularly hit the high say that it’s easier to achieve if you let yourself zone out.
So, try listening to music that will take your mind off this challenging run.
It’s Probably Tougher for Rookie Runners to Get “High”
I don’t want to dissuade you from starting a running practice, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re looking forward to a healthy buzz any time soon.
If you’re only able to run a couple miles at a time right now, you probably can’t reach the distances you need for your endocannabinoid system to reward you just yet.
For now, you’ll just have to put up with the common aches-and-pains that generally accompany the first few months or so while you get used to this new exercise routine.
The good news is that, if you keep pushing yourself past the pain, you might find that your runs suddenly become a lot more enjoyable.