Long time runners often explain that part of what keeps them coming back mile after mile is the runner’s high, which elicits a lot of weird faces from new or non-runners who can only imagine their tomato face and grunts to just make it through a mile.
This elusive high can be tough to come by, but when it does hit, it leaves you feeling like you could run forever.
What exactly causes runner’s high and how can we increase the likelihood of achieving a runner’s high more often?!
The answer isn’t so simple, as the runner’s high still remains a little bit of a mystery. Researchers have determined that it has to do with chemical reactions occurring in the body and brain under exercise-induced stress.
What is the Runner’s High?
a state of euphoria experienced during prolonged running or other forms of aerobic, sustained exercise, attributed to an increase of endorphins in the blood. – dictionary.com and basically everyone else…and should also include that it leads to a reduction in anxiety and feelings of calm.
Historically, runner’s high is associated with a spike in endorphin levels, this theory dates back to the 1980s when researchers found increased blood levels of endorphins after such activity.
Endorphins: The Happy Hormone
Endorphins are the body’s home-grown opiates that act like a natural morphine. And it’s sometimes what we point to as a the reason we keep showing up run, after run even when it’s freaking hard; our brain gets a reward.
The problem with the theory from the 80s is that endorphins are fairly large molecules that are not able to pass through the blood to the brain, which a scientific way of saying they might be released during the run, but aren’t making their way up to the brain so quickly as to create our joyous feelings.
Because of that many people started to believe they COULD NOT be the cause of the runner’s high…but I say look at a lot of these attributes.
I absolutely believe that the feeling of having a achieved the task of doing your run, maybe with a group, definitely sharing it on social media and feeling the earned respect are going to create some dang good feelings!Source
But, if we’re sticking with the science and the endorphins alone can’t explain things, it means some other factor at play.
Endocannabinoid System and the Runner’s High
Buckle up because this is going to get deep, but worth understanding for your next long run discussion!
In 2015, German researchers from the University of Heidelberg conducted a study on a group of mice suggesting that endocannabinoid receptors may serve a role in the post-run feel good sensation.
Endocannabinoids produce naturally-occurring THC in the body, which just so happens to be the same chemical responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana. Boom, mike drop!! Proving even more why the body works with CBD for runners so well, it’s already designed for it.
To test the theory, the researchers conducted two different tests to determine whether endocannabinoids might produce the post-run high. They split up a group of mice accustomed to running regularly on an exercise wheel into two groups: one that ran for five hours and another that remained sedentary.
The running group showed signs of calm behavior and more tolerance to pain than the sedentary group.
In a second test, the scientists gave the mice endocannabinoid and endorphin molecules that block receptors in the brain. Those with the endorphin blockers showed little change in behavior, however the mice with the endocannabinoid antagonists appeared anxious and pain intolerant, despite several hours of running.
What Causes the Release of Chemicals When We Run?
Endorphins and endocannabinoids react when the body is under stress. Different from the sort of stress we feel with a big job interview, physical stress on the body from running or other exercise causes the production of these natural pain-relievers.
Researchers believe that the reason we feel a high after a long run can be attributed to the old days of chasing down our food. In order to eat, our ancestors had to run down large animals for hours, or even days.
The runner’s high is the likely reason that humans could run for as far and fast as they did, thanks to the natural pain-killing properties released to the brain.
A Long, Moderately Challenging Workout is Key to Getting Runner’s High
The recipe for runner’s high generally requires a few important elements, however it’s not guaranteed to happen every time.
- A challenging, but not all out run, like a tempo workout
- Two or more hours of continuous exercise, like the long run
- Running at 70-80 percent of your maximum heart rate (aka running easy)
- Getting enough sleep
Other factors that can help increase the chance of runner’s high include:
- Running with friends
- Listening to music
- Going for a run first thing in the morning
- Running outside vs on the treadmill
- Signing up for a new race distance or trail race
Can New Runners Experience Runner’s High?
Since novice runners are working to build distance and endurance, it’s often thought unlikely that they’ll experience a runner’s high. However, as they build up to longer, more intense runs, the chance of getting that anticipated high increases.
Experience plays a role because most new runners:
- Are not running for longer than 2 hours in the beginning
- May still be in the why-am-I-doing-this stage
- Are still working out the kinks in form and technique
- Haven’t yet found routes they love
I will say the longer I’ve been runner, I can often get that great feeling on a short run, which is probably more due to experience and expectation! Other days, it’s just a bad run from start to finish even if I’ve hit all the things that should theoretically lead to the high.
And this all circles back to my fight for the endorphins because I think those mental rewards of achievement, pride and doing the hard thing can lead to some pretty incredible feelings! It might not be the exact runner’s high, but it’s pretty great.
What circumstances do you need to experience runner’s high?
Do you remember that first runner’s high?
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