What Exactly Is a Runner's High?

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The sport of running attracts a substantial amount of devoted disciples, but what exactly do dedicated runners gain from the experience?

Running can entail a psychosomatic response, according to fans of the sport. Reluctance to perform physically strenuous activity, when combined with a negative attitude, can lesson the benefits of the activity. In this way, running can become a daily chore that some would advocate against.

However, successfully overcoming this negative attitude can lead to a beneficial reward: the runner’s high.

According to a 2015 study conducted by a team of German researchers at the University of Oxford, the runner’s high comes about when the brain releases endorphins and endocannabinoids during times of high physical stress and activity.

Dr. Johannes Fuss, currently affiliated with the Institute for Sex Research and Forensic Psychiatry at the University Medical Center in Hamburg, was one of the scientists responsible for conducting this study.

According to Dr. Fuss, the team began studying endocannabinoids’ involvement in the runner’s high as a result of endorphin-based theories that were “not very convincing.”

“This endorphin theory was mainly based on the observation that endorphins are released to the blood during exercise,” says Dr. Fuss. “Blood levels of endorphins, however, do not tell us about what happens in the brain, because they can not cross the so-called blood-brain barrier.”

In contrast, he notes, endocannabinoids can cross this barrier.

Endocannabinoids were only initially described long after endorphins were first isolated, and already considered the cause of the runner’s high.

“We thought that it would be time to find out which substance is responsible, endorphins or endocannabinoids, and therefore performed our study,” Dr. Fuss explains.

Endocannabinoids bind to the same receptors as marijuana, which inhibits neural transmissions in the brain and allows for a state of euphoria in the subject.

The study found that these endocannabinoids, in conjunction with the endorphins already hypothesized to cause the runner’s high, play a vital role in the occurrence of this mental and physical state.

When the team blocked cannabinoid receptors in mice, they essentially inhibited anxiolysis and therefore observed that the mice experienced a less relaxed and euphoric state.

So, this physical activity doesn’t just release a rush of feel-good hormones, but actually mimics the effects of analgesia and sedation that occur during drug use.

The effect of an endogenous ‘high’ after running, according to Dr. Fuss, therefore “shares some similarities with an artificial stimulation of the receptors by drugs.”

The body does constantly release a level of endocannabinoids outside of exercise, however, which regulate appetite, mood, and cognition. In this case, the body releases a higher concentration at once.

A drug that constantly benefits, rather than harms, the body?

That’s enough motivation to begin running, from the perspective of many reluctant athletes.

“However,” says health and fitness writer K. Aleisha Fetters, “to reach the runner’s high you already need to be a pretty solid runner, which is why people either love or downright hate running.”

Fetters explains that practiced runners must reach 80 percent of their maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes in order to reach the point when a runner’s high becomes attainable.

While all athletes do experience a rush of endorphins during a workout, Fetters says, the endocannabinoids won’t “kick in” until the athletes begins to “really hit it hard.”

At that point, regardless of pain and flagging energy, the runner almost transcends their previous physical and mental limitations.

Fetters also believes that the runner’s high developed as a response to limitations rather than as a reward for determination, an evolutionary tool that allowed early humans the ability to “catch or escape wild animals.”

“It’s not so much about motivating us to run,” says Fetters, “but about giving us the ability to stick with severe paces, and at high intensities, for longer than we might otherwise.”

Fetters explains the evolutionary advantage of this release of helpful hormones and chemicals, which allows modern humans the ability to tap into a bodily function that may date back to the earliest days of hunter-gatherers.

Dr. Fuss shares in this interest regarding the evolutionary foundations of the runner’s high.

“During evolution,” he says, “the ability to perform endurance running may have become a survival method when humans began chasing animals for many hours until they collapsed in the heat, and were suddenly easy hunting targets.

“In performing such feats of endurance,” he continues, “the assumption that running allowed access to a biological mechanism that reduces pain and anxiety, initiating euphoric feelings, does seem very reasonable.”

These days, however, the runner’s high mainly incentivizes athletic participation by rewarding those who push beyond their body’s resistance.

“Many people fall into this pattern of thinking, wherein the runner’s high becomes the key [motivation in] forming a running habit,” says Fetters. “But a person must really commit to running, and become pretty darn good at it, to achieve a runner’s high.”

When a runner fully commits to the sport with a positive attitude, they’ll gain what Fetters calls a “mental bump,” which can “decrease and manage chronic stress, fend off depression, and increase energy.”

All of these factors, by way of the runner’s high, assist athletes in boosting their day-to-day productivity, positivity, and overall performance in and outside the athletic world.