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Is Runner’s High Real? What It Feels Like + How Long It Lasts

Another benefit of pounding the pavement!

If you are a runner, you may have experienced a runner’s high either during or after your runs. A runner’s high can give you an overwhelming feeling of happiness, energy, euphoria, or even pleasant relaxation.

The intense euphoric state that occurs during a runner’s high can be difficult to explain and sometimes tough to achieve.

Recent studies1Siebers, M., Biedermann, S. V., & Fuss, J. (2022). Do Endocannabinoids Cause the Runner’s High? Evidence and Open Questions. The Neuroscientist, 107385842110699. https://doi.org/10.1177/10738584211069981 suggest that a runner’s high may depend on the release of endocannabinoids during exercise. The levels of endocannabinoids in the body increase after physical activity, provoking this euphoric feeling.

However, scientists continue to explore the causes of this phenomenon in distance runners.

In this article, we will aim to answer the question, “Is runner’s high real?” and describe what a runner’s high feels like and how long it lasts.

A runner smiling.

What is A Runner’s High? 

While there is no official definition of a runner’s high, many people describe it as a feeling of “inner harmony” or “boundless energy.” Some runners have even compared this sensation to a druglike experience, claiming it can be mood-altering. 

Though the experience can vary a lot from one individual to the next, it is described as a pleasant experience by all.

Due to the inconsistency of one’s ability to experience this euphoric state, it has been challenging for scientists to narrow the experience to any specific theory. 

Various scientists have done their best to understand what happens in the brain that causes this experience for runners. While some good theories have evidence-based reasoning behind them, it is hard to come up with a definite answer for why this happens. 

Let’s take a look at some of the hypotheses out there:

Two runners smiling.

#1: Endorphins and Other Neurotransmitters

The endorphin hypothesis2Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine. (n.d.). Journals.lww.com. https://journals.lww.com/sjsm/pages/default.aspx has commonly been used to explain runner’s high. This hypothesis refers to something that happens within the opioidergic mechanism of the brain. When you engage in intense physical activity, endorphins are released. 

These endorphins act as natural painkillers and can be known to mimic the effects of morphine. When endorphins are released in high amounts, any pain you are experiencing may be masked. This may give a runner a sense of euphoria and the ability to feel at peace. 

#2: Similarities to Drug-Induced Euphoria

Another hypothesis, known as the opioid hypothesis, has also been used in an attempt to explain why “runner’s high” occurs.

When scientists used a specific type of scan to see what changes occurred in runners’ brains, they found that opioid-binding changes did occur within specific brain regions involved in emotions. 

This finding reinforced the idea that endogenous opioids released during exercise can occupy the available opioid receptors in those regions. This same psychoactive experience occurs when someone takes actual opiates to block pain, and like the drugs, the feeling may become addictive.

Psychoneuroendocrinology (the study of the interactions between psychological processes, the nervous system (neuroscience), and hormones) scientists also found that the post-exercise euphoria ratings of runners that experience these brain changes were much higher than pre-exercise ratings. 

A group of happy people running.

What Does a Runner’s High Feel Like? 

When you experience runner’s high, it can be different from one to the next, and your experience may differ from fellow runners. Most runners report feeling like they are floating through space, and their body feels weightless. 

While running can be a physically demanding activity, when you experience a runner’s high, you will likely forget about the demand the activity puts on your body. Instead, you will feel a sense of flow and feel like you could carry on for hours without getting tired or injured. 

Personal Experience

As a runner myself, I have had a few runs where I felt I was experiencing a runner’s high. If you are lucky, this will happen for you during an important race, as it did for me. During a half-marathon distance trail running race, with just a few miles to go, something clicked. 

As I carried on down the switchbacks of a Utah ski resort, I suddenly felt weightless. I easily coasted down the mountainside, smiling as I bounded over rocks in the trail, and felt like I could simply leap and fly.

Although the race took place on a very hot day and was full of steep climbs and rocky descents, the end of the race felt even better than the beginning, and to date, that is one of the best feelings I have ever experienced while running.

Nothing hurt; I just felt happy and free all the way to the finish line. 

A runner smiling.

Sense of Euphoria and Reduced Pain

Most people have heard of endorphins, and the general public often talks about how exercise gives you endorphins, which make you feel good.

In fact, exercising is sometimes recommended by therapists and other mental health professionals as a way to help boost your mood. 

Endorphins are chemicals that have many functions and are naturally released in response to pain. They are able to transmit electrical impulses through your nervous system.

Endorphins’ primary function is inhibiting pain signals, and they can also induce a feeling of euphoria like taking an opioid can. 

When your brain is pumped full of endorphins, a sense of euphoria occurs, and you may experience enhanced pleasure and decreased levels of emotional and physical pain.

If you have low levels of endorphins, you may be more likely to have increased pain perception, which can negatively impact your performance. 

Interestingly enough, when your body experiences an injury, it naturally produces endorphins as a way to help you cope.

Endorphins can also be produced during things like vigorous aerobic exercise and laughter.

Specific endorphins known as β-endorphins are particularly effective in pain relief. The level of these pain-relieving endorphins you can produce varies due to genetic factors.

A runner smiling.

Is Runner’s High Real? Factors That Influence the Experience

Various factors are thought to influence a person’s ability to experience a runner’s high. While some people may report that they frequently experience a runner’s high, other dedicated runners have never experienced it or have only experienced it a handful of times. 

Duration and Intensity of Exercise

The duration and intensity of exercise are thought to be the most critical contributors to being able to achieve a runner’s high. When you exercise for long periods of time, this may increase your chances of experiencing a runner’s high. 

This is because it can take some time for the body to release significant amounts of endorphins and neurotransmitters to induce a state of euphoria.

When you do a short, easy workout, these chemicals will likely not have enough time to build up and reach the threshold necessary to produce a runner’s high.  

Although it may seem contradictory, doing high-intensity exercise (even shorted bouts) can also increase your likelihood of experiencing a runner’s high.

This is because when you engage in intense workouts, your body naturally releases a larger amount of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain, likely to help lessen the discomfort you experience when pushing your body to its limit.

Even if your workout is shorter, you may still experience a euphoric state. This can be achieved by increasing the speed, incline, and resistance during a workout. 

A runner smiling.

Other Factors

Your fitness level may impact your ability to experience a runner’s high.

This is because more physically fit individuals tend to have a higher tolerance for exercise and may need to engage in more intense or longer workouts. While less fit individuals may be able to find their threshold more easily since exercise may be newer to them.

As mentioned earlier, some genetic factors impact your ability to experience a runner’s high. Certain genetic variations may affect the production, release, or sensitivity to endorphins and other neurotransmitters, which play a crucial role in achieving a runner’s high. 

Your motivation and mindset during a run also play a role in achieving a runner’s high. You are more likely to experience a runner’s high when you have a more positive attitude toward the activity, appreciate the process, and challenge yourself.

Runners in a race smiling.

How Long Does a Runner’s High Last? 

The duration of a runner’s high can be different for everyone. Your fitness level, genetics, and individual sensitivity to the release of endorphins in your body greatly affect your ability to reach and maintain this state. 

When a runner’s high first sets in, the immediate euphoric sensation can last a few minutes up to about an hour.

You may feel an intense sense of well-being and an enhanced mood after the activity, which may last for several hours. This varies for each individual and can also vary with each personal experience. 

Reaching a runner’s high may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some runners, while it is a regular occurrence and one of the benefits of running for others.

While it may occur during a short, intense race, or a long-distance run, the key is never to attempt to make it happen. Instead, try to just settle into your runs and let your body and mind free flow through as you tick off the miles.

You will know the feeling the first time it occurs. 

If you want to switch up your training in hopes of eventually experiencing the euphoric feeling of a runner’s high, check out some of these intense workouts that will push your maximum heart rate:

Runners smiling showing that a runner's high is real.

References

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I am a UESCA-certified running coach, psychology PhD student, and competitive obstacle racer and trail runner. Once 100 pounds overweight I found fitness and fell in love with an active and competitive lifestyle. My passion for inspiring others and fitness come together seamlessly in the world of writing where I get to share the thing that changed my life. In my free time I enjoy spending time with my family, my dogs, as well as baking and cooking.

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