Whether you’re an experienced runner or you’re just getting started, you may have heard of the term ‘runner’s high’, but don’t really know what it’s all about. How could the simple act of running be likened to the effects of a drug, but without all the side effects? Equally, you may have even experienced this phenomenon occasionally, but seemingly randomly and not as frequently as you’d like (or even without knowing). This article looks at some of the reasoning behind runner’s high, and some of the ways you can potentially achieve its beneficial effects more often.
Runner’s High Definition
Runner’s high is hard to explain, but put simply it involves feelings of euphoria and well-being, a reduced sense of pain and discomfort, and the general sense that running is less of a chore and more of a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Away from the road or the trail, many runners also experience reduced feelings of anxiety or depression well after they’ve finished their run. Long-distance runners especially are more likely to have felt this phenomenon, harking back to the days when a tactic of our ancestors was to outrun prey. Reduced pain and discomfort would have been a great survival trait and enabled hunters to be more successful.
What Causes Runner’s High?
Experts are somewhat at odds when it comes to the causes of runner’s high, but generally agree that it is down to certain feel-good chemicals produced by the brain and circulated around the body. Which chemicals these are, however, is still up for debate. Here are some of the main theories put forward:
- Endorphins – one popular theory is that endorphins are responsible. Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals produced by the pituitary gland in the brain, which help to relieve pain and induce feelings of euphoria and well-being. The body produces endorphins as a response to strenuous exercise, such as running. This was long thought to be the cause, at least anecdotally, but a 2008 study also noticed a correlation between endorphin levels and improved mood in runners. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, plays devil’s advocate though; saying that other studies showed “when the effects of endorphins have been blocked chemically, people have still experienced this high.”
- Endocannabinoids – as the name suggests, endocannabinoids mimic the effects of cannabis, such as pain relief, stress and anxiety reduction and feelings of relaxation. These chemicals are naturally produced in the brain (and more easily measurable than endorphins), and studies have shown an increased amount of these compounds in the body following exercise.
- Neurotransmitters – neurotransmitters are chemical substances which travel around the body via nerve fibers. Examples include dopamine and serotonin – and these compounds have also been proven to combat depression. Since exercise has been linked to increased production of these neurotransmitters, they are another possible cause of runner’s high.
Overall, the old hypothesis that endorphins were the main cause of runner’s high seems a bit outdated. The more likely explanation is that it’s down to a combination of many different chemicals.
It seems likely that runner’s high is a complex combination of chemicals produced by the brain, but the more important thing to you is most likely how to ensure you achieve it every time. While there’s no guarantee, the best advice is to always push yourself. Short, easy runs are unlikely to stimulate your body and brain enough to produce these chemical compounds, so try and keep your intensity up, but not so much that you’re overdoing it and going at maximum effort. In short, you should try and push yourself, but be aware of your limits – overextending yourself will be too taxing for you to see any mental benefits.
Are There Any Negatives?
Many people have likened running to an addiction, and a big part of this is likely because of these feelings of euphoria caused by intense exercise. It is doubtful that being addicted to something as beneficial to your health and fitness as running is a bad thing. On the other hand, there are times when you should take care not to push yourself too hard. If you’re constantly seeking a runner’s high, you may even experience withdrawal symptoms in the event of injury, and return to running prematurely. In cases such as this, it’s wise to try and stay active in any way possible. Perhaps try swimming or cycling for a less high-impact alternative that won’t risk your body’s health, until you’re ready to return to running.
Find the Ideal Training Methods
Now you know a bit more about runner’s high, you’re probably raring to go. Overall, there’s no guarantee you’ll experience it, and everyone is different. If you want to maximize your chances, experiment with your training and see what works for you. Maybe sign up for a race, run with others, or take in some new scenery on a run – all of these things can help you feel good about yourself. If you don’t experience it, don’t worry. You can always chase that high the next day.