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We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high.”
Perhaps you would say you’ve experienced it. Or maybe you’re frustrated because you don’t.
Is it a fact or an urban myth?
What Is The Runner’s High?
The idea of the “runner’s high” is that during or after a prolonged period of running you reach this state of euphoria or bliss where running feels effortless.
One runner referred to this state as “floating” and “where every stride feels perfectly smooth.”
The “runner’s high” can also be a feel-good fix after you’ve finished running.
Another runner described their post-run mood as “a relaxed mental state and deep satisfaction.”
Many ultra-runners speak of the “runner’s high” experience.
A Scientific Explanation Of The Runner’s High
The scientific explanation of this state has to do with endorphins. Endorphins (“endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid neuropeptides. They are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland.
More than 40 years ago, researchers discovered that the brain produces its own mood-elevating chemicals. Because these chemicals act in a similar way that morphine does, they were tagged with the name endogenous morphines.
Today, these brain chemicals are called endorphins, which are created naturally within the body — producing short-term euphoria or feelings of profound contentment, elation, and well-being.
Continuous exercise can stimulate the release of endorphins in the bloodstream, leading to an effect commonly referred to as “runners high” in distance running.
Current medical reviews indicate that several endogenous euphoriants are responsible for producing exercise-related euphoria — specifically phenethylamine (a stimulant), endorphin (an opioid), and anandamide (a cannabinoid).
A piece in Scientific American focuses on the brain’s endocannabinoid system as the primary determinant in “runner’s high.”
So, yeah – there is a scientifically-based explanation for what is commonly referred to as the “runner’s high.”
Some Scientists Believe Runners High Is A Myth
But not so fast. Not all scientifically-minded folk buy into the idea of “runner’s high.”
Some say that the endorphin theory has several problems — the most serious being that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that border-patrols your gray matter.
Gina Kolata, an American Science Journalist for the New York Times, wrote
a book entitled Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health, in which she devotes 20 pages to discussing the “runner’s high.” In the end, she concludes it’s a myth.
She interviewed a number of leading experts, and none of them accept the runner’s high theory. “I believe this endorphin in runners is a total fantasy in the pop culture,” said psychobiologist Huda Akil, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan.
Psychological Benefits Of Exercising
Though there are different opinions, views, and conclusions about “runners high,” there is no debate that there are many psychological benefits to exercise — especially as it relates to depression, anxiety, stress, and mood.
Whatever the science may or may not behind it, many runners report that they experience elevated levels of contentment, well-being, satisfaction, and a pleasant state of effortless being during or after running. This experience has come to be known as “runner’s high.”
Whether fact or urban myth, there are a few things to keep in mind about the “runner’s high.”
The Word “High” May Be Misleading
Have you ever been on morphine? I was on morphine in the hospital with a serious injury following a car wreck. The “runner’s high” is not morphine.
Have you ever been on a drug “high”? The runner’s high is not a drug high – it cannot be likened to a drug-induced feeling of euphoria.
Have you ever reached a moment of transcendent or enlightened awareness? The “runner’s high” is not enlightenment.
Have you had sex? The “runner’s high” is not some sort of orgasmic bliss.
Have you smoked marijuana? The “runner’s high” does not produce a similar high to marijuana, but for some it does create a feeling of well-being or calmness after running.
The “runner’s high” is typically a post-run buzz – a relaxed mental state and deep satisfaction or contentment.
You’re not high (in the drug sense), but the post-run feeling is usually described as a feeling of being very enjoyable, mildly euphoric, and highly relaxed.
Not Every Runner Experiences A Runner’s High
Many runners claim that the “runners high” is simply an urban myth.
In my own conversations with other runners and from discussions on the topic that I have read, I would say that it’s about 50/50 – 50% of runners say they experience a “runner’s high” and 50% say they don’t.
Perhaps more importantly, those who do report experiencing what they would call a “runner’s high” don’t experience it all the time or even often.
I have talked with runners who said that over many years of long-distance running they have experienced what they would call the “runner’s high” only a few times.
In other words, you are not a failed runner if you don’t experience this state referred to as the “runner’s high.” There’s nothing wrong with you. Many runners report to have never experienced it, and others only on rare occasions. You are not a loser as a runner if you don’t experience the “runner’s high.”
Don’t Make Runner’s High A Goal
I was amazed by all the suggestions online for how to achieve a “runner’s high” — including a 7-step formula by wikiHow.
You could be headed toward a lot of frustration and disappointment if you set out to try to achieve “runner’s high.”
On the other hand and in relation to ultrarunning, it’s useful to settle into a relaxed space in your mind and find in your form a sense of gentle satisfaction and fluidity.
There are some transcendental dimensions to running worth exploring. You don’t want to be fighting your run mentally or physically. This is something to work on in your training – creating that sweet spot or zone where your mental focus and physical movement feels relaxed and effortless.
ChiRunning is one approach to a more relaxed and mindful way of running. ChiRunning uses the principles of tai chi to focus on alignment, relaxation, and proper form when running and walking. It emphasizes posture, core strength, relaxed legs, and mindfulness.
But can we be honest here? With all this talk of “runner’s high” and tai chi running, we also need to own up to the fact that running extreme distances can be hell.
Ultrarunning is also demanding, brutal, grinding, grueling, and punishing. It’s just part of it. For whatever reason, even runs that “should be easier” are not going to be so easy at times. It’s all of the above – runner’s high AND runner’s hell.
If you want to be a truly enlightened runner, don’t get too attached to the high and don’t resist the hell. Running is not a perpetual state of bliss. It’s the acceptance of its ups and downs without resistance or attachment.
I’m over 40 years old, but I don’t give up easily. It wasn’t too long ago that I was exploring the idea of doing my first triathlon. If I can do it, you can too! I'm proof that with a little determination and training, you can get a great deal of fulfillment participating in marathons, triathlons… even ultramarathons.