What is a Runner’s High?
When we exercise, we expect to feel better as a result. We achieve a fitness or time goal and are fired up by the accomplishment. We lose weight and like the result in the mirror. Maybe, we just do something we have never done before and appreciate the new mental or physical dimension in our lives. Some athletes, however, claim to feel better after exercise because the exercise itself makes them feel better. Significantly. Commonly, this is called a “Runner’s High.”
This “high” has been explained through the years as a rush of endorphins, neurotransmitters secreted by our bodies during things like pain, excitement, and sex. Endorphins act a bit like morphine chemically, so the conventional wisdom has been that they feel like it as well.
On the other hand, Jude Dickson and her University of Edinburgh colleagues, in their paper Does Exercise Promote Good Health, propose three hypotheses about the Runner’s High: the distraction hypothesis (it takes our attention away from painful things at the time), the mastery hypothesis (we learn new things and achieve a goal), and the social interaction hypothesis (things are often more fun and seem easier in a group). So, is the Runner’s High a chemical reaction via endorphins, or a psychological reaction that is somewhat coincidental to running? Regardless, all runners have days where we feel better than others, but the feeling of euphoria associated with this phenomenon can be fleeting or nonexistent for some runners, and relied upon as a pick me up for others. But, can it be captured, quantified, and achieved systematically?
Although an internet search of “endorphins” and “runner’s high” yields 70,000 results, that close association has been only modestly borne out by research. For one thing, it is hard to quantify what exactly a “high” is, as the reflections of athletes differ widely as to how a Runner’s High actually makes them feel. Secondly, although endorphin levels seem to elevate after exercise (likely because of the stress or pain the body has undergone during the exercise), that elevation doesn’t seem to have a uniformly positive result on mood, according to Sarah Willett in an oft cited article from Lehigh University.
The strong association between endorphins and Runner’s High in the wider public view persists. However, despite a well respected 2008 study by German researchers which found a strong correlation between endorphin production and the bloodstream of runners during and after two hour runs, not all agree that the correlation equals causation for the elusive high, in part because the large size of endorphin molecules make them difficult to pass the blood – brain barrier. And, after all, if there was such a strong direct result, wouldn’t we all enjoy Runner’s Highs after / during every hard workout or run?
Other relatively recent studies have linked the same type of brain receptors that play well with marijuana use to a naturally occurring endocannabinoid, which appears to be produced in the bloodstream in large amounts during exercise. A 2003 study with Georgia Tech college students yielded this finding, as have several subsequent similar or related studies with mice both in the US and abroad. These molecules appear to be much smaller than endorphins. If they can pass the blood-brain barrier, does this mean that all the times we’ve joked that “running was our drug” we weren’t really too far off the mark?
Ultimately, questions remain to be answered about how a Runner’s High occurs, why, and frankly, what it is, exactly. Runners are like snowflakes. Each of us is at least slightly different from the rest both psychologically and physiologically, and it might not be unreasonable to think that the difficulties science has had in firmly establishing a cause and effect with this phenomenon lies is the infinite amounts of ways in which running can create a positive effect in our lives. While we wait to find out what the chemical cause is once and for all, we encourage you to enjoy your Runner’s High not because of why you have it, but for the fact you have it at all.