The Runner’s High: What It Is, How To Achieve It

The runner’s high is real – that exhilarating, if not euphoric state which you can reach simply through running is not something your trainer made up to convince you to keep running.

Everyone has heard of the runner’s high, but it’s often treated as a myth – something intangible and unproven. However, in recent years several studies have confirmed the existence of the high and identified the conditions which stimulate those feel-good brain chemicals.

By now you’re wondering what causes runner’s high?

Or why does it exist in the first place?

Maybe you’re looking for guidelines on how to experience it for yourself.

We’ll cover all those questions and more in this article.

the runners high

What Is The Runner’s High?

The Runner’s High is a feeling of elation brought on by continuous exercise.

It can vary in its intensity and effects, but a typical runner’s high includes:

  • Feelings of elation, exhilaration, calm, and positive vibes
  • Reduced levels of stress
  • Less awareness of pain or discomfort.

The runner’s high isn’t actually exclusive to running but can be attained through different forms of continuous strenuous exercise.

It’s most commonly associated with running, as the conditions of going for a run well suit the required state to induce a runner’s high.

The runner’s high is one of many neurobiological effects of physical exercise (i.e. how exercise can change your brain state), and is relatively short-term – it will typically wear off a few hours after you finish your run.

What Causes A Runner’s High?

The runner’s high takes place completely inside your brain.

It’s triggered by a flood of endorphins – those feel-good brain chemicals – which kick in after a bout of physical exercise.

What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are your body’s own home-made opiates, which actually act in a similar way to morphine (the engineered version of an opiate).

These chemicals originate in the central nervous system and pituitary gland, and are ultimately sensed by the brain’s prefrontal and limbic regions – the same area that responds to other strong emotions, like love.

When the area gets more endorphins, the euphoric feeling gets stronger. The more you push yourself in running (especially distance running), the more endorphins rush the brain, fueling the high.

Endorphins are released as a reaction to pain and discomfort, in order to numb those effects and allow the body to keep functioning.

More recent research found that endorphins can’t do the job on their own, however. Endorphins are large molecules (you’ll still have to look at them through a microscope, but they’re much larger than many other molecules) that can’t get through the blood-brain barrier on their own.

So they need endocannabinoids to help the process along.

What Are Endocannabinoids?

Endocannabinoids are our own natural version of THC (yes, the same thing found in marijuana) and are pumped out and affect the entire body.

Endocannabinoids help create a sensation of calm and tranquility, which not only relax your mind but can relax unnecessary tension in your muscles.

The most researched endocannabinoid is called anandamide, which reacts to cannabinoid receptors in your central nervous system.

Stress induces cannabinoids, which causes the ‘high’ feeling. In turn, the process modulates the pain neurons in your spine and increases your tolerance threshold.

runners high

Why Does Runner’s High Exist?

The prevailing theory is that our bodies developed these abilities to allow us to push through pain and discomfort when necessary.

Our ancestors would have spent long days hunting; at times in extreme conditions like heat, cold, and humidity. They would have gone for prolonged periods without food, occasionally pick up injuries, and get fatigued.

The runner’s high may have developed in order to improve our performance during these long periods of running and hunting.

It’s mother nature’s way of taking care of us when we’re under physical stress.

The endorphins would have made us feel better, and tune out of pain and discomfort so we could focus on survival.

What Are the Benefits of the Runner’s High?

Beyond just feeling good while it’s happening, the runner’s high can benefit your health long term.

  • It decreases the symptoms of anxiety – The runner’s high can temporarily banish that sense of anxiety you may have. As you run more regularly and experience the runner’s high repeatedly, the effects can diminish the symptoms of anxiety.

    Of course, there is no cure for anxiety, but consistently experiencing a runner’s high is one of the best natural resources for that.
  • Increased memory and focus – Running increases connection and communication in your brain’s neurons, which plays a big part in developing and consolidating memory traces inside your brain.
  • More consistent exercise – When you get the runner’s high, you’ll want to keep getting the runner’s high. Most beginner runners have a hard time staying consistent long enough to reach that point, which often ends in giving up.

    But those who frequently enjoy the runner’s gain a new perspective on running – they don’t want to quit!
runners high

Are There Negative Effects of the Runner’s High?

Many debates exist over the health benefits and risks of plant-based highs like marijuana. The only natural questions to follow is, is the runner’s high bad for you?

In short, no.

The runner’s high has no known direct negative consequences for your brain or your body.

But if you want to lean on the careful side, keep in mind that too much running can have a few downsides.

  • Heightened response to insulin – those who are susceptible to Diabetes could be negatively impacted (hypoglycemia) by too much running.
  • Wear and tear on your joints – the knees are one of the most at-risk body parts during running. That’s why it’s essential to practice good running form and consult a doctor or physical therapist if you’re prone to knee injuries.

How To Achieve Runner’s High

Ok, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this thing.

You’ve read all about it, and now you want to experience it.

Let’s walk through some of the optimal conditions to stimulate a runner’s high.

runners high

Run For Over An Hour

The runner’s high typically kicks in after around 30 – 40 minutes of effortful running.

This varies depending on the individual and their running history: typically, experienced runners have to push longer and run farther before the high kicks in.

This reflects the fact that your body needs to be placed under continuous stress and discomfort before those feel-good chemicals get released.

This makes distance running easier, and the exhilaration experienced in a long, winding run can border on the transcendent.

The bad news is that rookie runners will struggle to keep going long enough to attain the runner’s high. Looking to increase your running ability? Grab a free training plan from us.

Push Your Body (But Not Too Hard)

As endorphins and endocannabinoids are released in response to stress and discomfort, it’s necessary that you push yourself hard enough to feel the strain.

An easy, slow jog isn’t going to induce that blissful state, I’m afraid.

Aim for a workout which is at a 5 or more out of 10 for Rate of Perceived Exertion.

If you push your body too hard, you’ll reach exhaustion quickly and the high discomfort you feel will be greater than the gentle rush of the endorphins.

runners high

Run Consistently

In order to attain the elevated effects of the high, you’ve got to be physically capable of running for an extended period under some strain.

This often means that beginners simply can’t reach the Runner’s High as they can’t keep running long enough.

Develop a good running habit and avoid injury to become a Runner’s High Practitioner.

Mix Up Your Training

Distance runners run the risk of getting into a comfortable groove, where they don’t push themselves hard enough to induce the High.

If this sounds like you, add in some fast intervals, fartleks, or hill runs to up the intensity of your workouts, add some physical stress, and reach that elevated state of mind!

runners high

Run With Other People

This study shows that rowers who row together experienced higher levels of endorphin surges than the ones who rowed alone. Since the high applies to all types of strenuous exercise, this principle applies to runners too.

Sergio Pedemonte, a certified personal trainer, running coach, and owner of Your House Fitness gives a practical example of how this works in a competitive sport like MMA.

“A great way to achieve the runner’s high is to do cardio that is engaging and does not let you slow down. Cardio like practicing MMA is a fun way to achieve the runner’s high. Due to the nature of the sport, slowing down and relaxing will allow your opponent or training partner to gain better positions or land more strikes.”

Listen to Music

A study from the McGill University in Canada has shown that listening to music while you run may contribute to the runner’s high.

Their PET scans of the participants showed an extra release of dopamine (another chemical that emits happy feelings) during the peak of emotional arousal during the music.

That means the participants would anticipate a part of the song they loved and then enjoy the part while it played – both experiences releasing a surge of dopamine.

runners high

Rest and Sleep

Your body is best primed for endorphin and endocannabinoid production when it’s rested and ready.

A good eight hours of sleep is necessary to maximise your potential endocannabinoid production, and that potential slowly decreases as each day wears on.

Training on tired legs (and a tired mind) makes it harder to attain and maintain the runner’s high.

runners high

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

2 thoughts on “The Runner’s High: What It Is, How To Achieve It”

  1. Thank you Thomas, really interesting article! I am just a beginner training for my first marathon, and I have a stupid question. The runner’s high is a state where the body react to long term discomfort, but long distance experienced runners push their limits and therefor get more and more used to discomfort, does it mean the more you train, the less are your chances to achieve runner’s high?

    Reply
    • Hey Jeremy,
      Thanks for the question!

      Correct that the more you train, the more your body is accustomed to running long distances.

      In order to attain the runner’s high, you need stress and discomfort.

      This means that experienced runners have to push themselves, just like intermediate runners.

      In other words experienced runners experience the high just like all others – they just have to push to a state of discomfort and stress.

      Thanks!
      Thomas

      Reply

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