The Elusive Runner’s High

As if non-runners didn't have enough reason to think we're all crazy, let's add the runner's high to the list. It is possible to experience a physical and mental "high" from running. But how and why does this happen, and how can you experience it?

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I’ve lost count of the number of times a non-runner has asked me why on earth I like to run. The question is usually accompanied by laughter, disbelief, and some sort of sarcastic comment like “I only run when being chased…by a bear.”

For me, there is no one reason why I run. In fact, you could ask 20 different runners why they run, and I’m sure you would get 20 different answers: to stay (or get) healthy, to lose weight, to check off items/races/distances on proverbial bucket lists, to add medals and belt buckles to our collections, to beat personal records, for mental health, and even simply for personal satisfaction.

Yes, believe it or not, some of us run just because we actually like to run. A crazy concept, I know.

But I’d be willing to bet that almost every single one of those runners, whether they realize it or not, also runs to experience the elusive runner’s high.

As if non-runners didn’t have enough reason to think we’re all crazy, let’s add the runner’s high to the list. It is absolutely possible to experience a physical and mental “high” from running. New running clients often ask me not only what the runner’s high is, but how long until they will get the opportunity to experience it (usually asked after a particularly uncomfortable beginner training run).

In my experience, a runner’s high goes a little something like this: Running feels nearly effortless. Like I’m a mighty gazelle, or cheetah, or some sort of stealth animal that was born to run. The weight of my problems–or the entire world’s problems, for that matter–leaves my shoulders. I am happy in a way that can only be described as euphoria. Not even an untied shoelace resulting in a face plant into a puddle of mud could bring me down. I feel like I could run forever.

Other people experience a powerful sense of peace and calm. Still euphoric, but perhaps not quite as peppy as my experiences.

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But what exactly causes this feeling of euphoria, and why doesn’t it happen with every single run?

Well, the scientific jury is still not 100 percent certain on that answer.

What is known is that during exercise, the body produces a number of different hormones and chemical secretions, such as endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids. Initially, endorphins (a molecule naturally produced by the body that inhibits the sensation of pain) were thought to be responsible for this high…which is also why runner’s high is often synonymous with endorphin high.

But research shows that there might be more to it than simply an endorphin rush.

Norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are all neurotransmitters that are released in higher quantities during exercise, and all of them have been shown to reduce depression. Further, our body produces its very own form of cannabinoids. Anandamide, which is found at high levels in people’s blood after running, can travel from the blood into the brain and trigger a high similar to that of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that causes a high from marijuana.

As you can see, the term “high” in runner’s high isn’t a far stretch.

But why does this happen? Again, the jury is out. One theory is that not too long ago in human history, we had to run down our food in order to survive. The euphoria, pain reduction, and “high” might have been a physiological reaction to ensure our survival (and ensure we ate that week). Other theories are that it may simply be a reaction to rising body temperature or perhaps even a part of our brain beginning to shut down as a reaction to exercise.

And of course there is the idea that often the “high” is simply a placebo effect of reaching your goals and participating in an activity that makes you feel good.

So how do you get a runner’s high? This is the million-dollar question. If I had the answer, I’d make it my life mission to get the entire world running (though I suppose that already is my mission). Like everything else in this article, there is no exact answer. But experts seem to agree that your best bet is to try to enjoy what you do. Make every aspect of your run as comfortable as possible: from clothing to gear, to ensuring you are sufficiently hydrated and fueled. Warm up properly, switch things up (try interval training, a new running trail, etc.), and avoid overtraining.

One thing I can assure you is that once you experience your first runner’s high, you will return to chase it time and time again. A good runner’s high is worth a hundred bad runs.

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