Running can give some runners a kind of euphoria and a reduced sensitivity to pain. In some cases, it can even help them to forget about time. Some runners describe it as an intense, blissful and emotional experience similar to an orgasm. For some, it is peaceful while others feel a burst of energy. Still others have never experienced the phenomenon of a runner’s high.
This feeling is associated with rhythmic exercises that last for long periods. Running marathons is one form of exercise that falls into this category. However, scientists are not exactly certain what physiological phenomena are responsible for the feeling. You may be wondering if this high is limited to running or if it can be produced by engaging in other forms of exercise; if you are, consider the following available research.
Possible Reasons for the Runner’s High
David A. Raichlen, PhD, is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. He surmises that the runner’s high may be left over from a time when humans had to chase down their food. Survival depended on the motivation to run and the brain chemicals that were released when our ancestors ran helped them to cover vast distances at great speeds. The runner’s high may have provided a pain-killing effect that helped them to deal with the pain that came from their legs being tired and their feet getting blistered.
The Role of Endorphins
Endorphin production is one of the ways that your body responds to physical discomfort. This fact does not mean that running has to be painful for endorphins to be produced, but it should be challenging.
A study carried out by Dr. Henning Boecker from the University of Bonn showed that endorphins are produced during running and do attach themselves to the areas of the brain that govern emotions. Those areas include the limbic and prefrontal areas. According to this study, the degree of euphoria felt by the runners was in proportion to the amount of endorphins in their brain.
The notion that the runner’s high comes from endorphins is widespread but not universal. Some scientists do not believe that endorphins are able to affect a person’s psychology directly. It is widely theorised that another set of brain chemicals called endocannabinoids play a role in the runner’s high.
While endorphins are considered the most likely source of a runner’s high, it should be noted that the body also produces endocannabinoids. Anandamide is an example of an endocannabinoid that is synthesised in the body and that is thought to cause a feeling of calmness. While endorphins are produced only by specialised neurons, endocannabinoids can be produced by any cell in your body, and so can have an even greater effect on the brain.
The body’s production of endocannabinoids is believed to be more of a reaction to stress than to pain (pain has a greater effect on endorphin production). It is virtually impossible to differentiate between pain and physical stress while running. This means that the same mechanism that causes endorphin production may also cause endocannabinoid production. Raichlen states that runners should run at around 70 percent of their maximum heart rate, as this range is optimal for causing a spike in cortisol production. Cortisol is the stress hormone that causes the production of endocannabinoids.
Who Can Get a Runner’s High?
Since all humans have the same brain chemicals, anyone can get a runner’s high; however, you may not feel it immediately. Researchers say that the point at which that high is felt has mainly to do with the intensity of the exercise. According to Raichlen, inactive people may not possess the level of fitness needed to achieve the exercise intensity that produces the high. He suggests that those who are inactive should build their tolerance for exercise until they get to the point where the runner’s high can motivate them to exercise.
Is it Possible to Experience a Runner’s High Without Running?
For many of us, running 42km is simply unfeasible. Does this mean that we can never experience a runner’s high? Maybe not. Cedric Bryant, PhD, is the chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise and he says that many other exercises can produce the same effect. What the exercises have in common is that they are all repetitive and can be performed in a rhythmic manner.
Increasing Endocannabinoid Production
Matthew Hill, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute. His research indicates that while minor mental stress can trigger an increase in endocannabinoid production, chronic stress can dull the effect.
Cecilia J. Hillard, PhD, is the director of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Neuroscience Research Center. Her research shows that in order to have optimal endocannabinoid production, it is necessary for you to have eight hours of sleep. She also found that the levels of endocannabinoids are three times greater when you wake up compared to when you go to sleep.
Solving the Runner’s High Mystery
Scientists are still seeking the source of the runner’s high, but the evidence that is presently available appears to indicate a combination of endorphin and endocannabinoid release. Of course, the full answer is likely to be more complicated and may involve other brain chemicals. What is your opinion on the runner’s high? Have you experienced it? If so, tell us about it by commenting below.