Most people have heard the term “runner’s high” — the euphoric state a long-distance runner experiences during a long run — but many don’t really know very much about it. What is it exactly? What happens during the “high?” Do only runners get to enjoy it? Is there a way to trigger it automatically?
And, maybe most important of all, how can this unique feeling be used to get into even better shape?
Here are some frequently asked questions and their answers…
Where Does the Term Come From?
It was during the original 1970’s “running boom” that the term “runner’s high” became popular. It was even mentioned in the 1st bible of running: The Complete Book on Running, by Jim Fixx. In those early days, many hard-core distance runners became well-known for acting like “junkies” who were always chasing their next “high”… in other words, their next hard workout or race!
(Interestingly — and probably not coincidentally — the term “fitness nut” became popular around the same time. 🙂 )
What Causes It?
Medical studies have shown that, in most people, continuous vigorous exercise stimulates the production of multiple drug-like chemicals in the body. These “endogenous euphoriants” include β-endorphin (an opioid), phenethylamine (a stimulant), anandamide (a cannabinoid)… basically, natural forms of morphine, amphetamine, and cannabis!
What Does It Feel Like?
Runner’s high is a short-term euphoria that is often described as “floating” through intense exercise. Pain leaves the body and is replaced by strong feelings of well-being and elation. Perceived energy levels often increase significantly. Some people describe it as an “orgasmic” feeling. Others compare it to smoking high-quality marijuana or taking large amounts of caffeine/stimulants.
Many athletes say that, once they reach the “high,” they begin to feel happy, invincible, and capable of reaching a higher level of athletic performance. Some consider it to be an integral part of getting into, and staying in, The Zone (aka “Flow”) — an extremely high-level of focused, effortless, better-than-normal performance.
Do Only Runners Experience It?
No. Definitely not. Since the 70’s research has shown that the phenomenon isn’t unique to runners at all. In fact, most endurance athletes experience the high — including swimmers, cyclists, skiers, and rowers. Even soccer players, football players, and surfers often experience short bursts of exercise-induced euphoria.
The Magical Effect of Endorphins
An athlete experiencing runner’s high is in the midst of a powerful mind-body reaction. After having worked the muscles and organs for a significant period of time the body is pushed to its limit. Pain from lactic acid build-up and muscular “microdamage” forces the brain to compensate by producing endorphins — powerful morphine-like biochemicals that quickly lower perceived pain and exertion.
Apart from killing pain, these natural opiates — along with their endocannabinoid cousins — induce feelings of euphoria and allow the athlete to push even harder. Over time, some people become addicted to this feeling in the same way a drug addict becomes addicted to heroin. They must push themselves harder and harder to achieve the same level of euphoria. (This can be good in the short and medium term but dangerous in the long term.)
Obviously every human being is unique, with unique body chemistry. Therefore endorphins have varying effects from person to person, which is why not everyone experiences the same level of euphoria. Some people may not be able to experience it at all.
Endorphins tend to have varying effects from person to person. The way an individual responds to these substances may be unique to that individual. Personal responses can also be affected by outside stimuli, such as one’s environmental surroundings or one’s emotional and/or physical state during a workout. Because there is no set standard by which to define a runner’s high, debate continues about whether such a condition even exists.
Using Runner’s High as a Fitness Tool
Decades of research and centuries of anecdotal evidence show that the feel-good “runner’s high effect” may have some major benefits. These include significant stress reduction and relief from depression. Also, the ability to do larger volumes of exercise than normal — potentially leading to greater fitness benefits in less time — is an obvious benefit.
The biggest benefit may be the motivational factor. Someone who experiences runner’s high on a regular basis is almost definitely more likely to keep up with an intense exercise routine over time. If you’re healthy and able to participate in long workouts, “chasing the high” can be a great way to reach higher levels of fitness over time… just don’t overdo it!
Image source: flickr