The Unexpected Science Behind A Runner’s High (And How To Feel It)

September 28, 2020

Let’s talk about the runner’s high. If all you’ve ever experienced while running is pain, you might think it’s a myth. Or, you might be intimately familiar with this delightful painkilling buzz. Running is one of those activities that almost anyone can do, but many either love it or hate it. 

No matter how you feel about running, understanding the science behind the runner’s high could change the way you approach a tough workout. Fall is all about #NewBeginnings, so let’s welcome a fresh perspective and get moving. Who knows, you may even experience a lovely euphoric feeling along the way.

It’s not just endorphins. A runner’s high is the body’s natural chemical cocktail. 

You are probably at least somewhat familiar with endorphins and their effects, but have you heard of endocannabinoids? Yes, it is what it sounds like. Endocannabinoids are a version of THC—the same chemical responsible for a marijuana high—that the body naturally produces during exercise. 

Studies suggest that the endocannabinoid called anandamide (say that five times fast) creates a calm feeling. Endocannabinoids can be produced by any cells in the body (endorphins are only released by special neurons), which means their effect is that much greater. Let it be known, endorphins aren’t the only ones responsible for that sweet, sweet runner’s high! 

Researchers believe that endocannabinoids respond to stress, while endorphins are usually produced as a pain response. This distinction isn’t super important for our purposes though, because who can decipher between physical stress and pain in the middle of a run? All we know for sure is that we’re feeling it—whatever it may be. But if you’re really looking for that endocannabinoid buzz specifically, running between 75-80% of your maximum heart rate (this is approximately 220 minus your age) is the sweet spot. This level of exertion is linked to a spike in cortisol production, our favorite stress hormone. 

How to get those good feelings flowing: 

Work hard, but don’t overexert yourself. The run most likely to stimulate a runner’s high is one that is challenging, but comfortable. You need to find a steady pace that isn’t easy, but is maintainable. 

Listen to music. This might seem like a no brainer, but studies show that listening to music during exercise can cause the brain to release more endorphins. Let the good vibes commence. 

Or, try running with friends. One study out of Oxford found that rowers who rowed together produced significantly more endorphins during their workout than those who rowed solo. 

Run for longer. A runner’s high takes time to kick in, and short runs just won’t generate the same effect as longer ones. This is precisely because those euphoric feelings are caused by pain and discomfort, and running for longer just hurts more. 

If at first you don’t feel the high, try and try again. Even though the biological purpose of the runner’s high is to mask discomfort, it won’t cover up the pain that results from a lack of training. If you’re just starting out, don’t expect to feel a runner’s high right away. Think of it as something to look forward to. Once you can run for longer at a steady pace, that’s when the magic happens. Like all good things, it just takes time. 

© Zeamo 2020