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Why a runner’s high feels so good

What exactly is a runner’s high, and what brings on this warm fuzzy feeling? The chemistry of exercise-induced elation explained.

runners high tatoo

If you’re familiar with the euphoric feeling known as runner’s high, you know that running’s cloud nine can be as elusive as it is wonderful – and you’re hoping that I’m going to explain how you can improve your chances of experiencing it more frequently. If you haven’t experienced this warm fuzzy feeling, you’re probably wondering just how good can this natural high be?  The answer is very. Of all the things we can thank evolution for, this is the adaptation that endurance athletes are most grateful for – so grateful, in fact, that this blogger has written this article partially as an ode to the human limbic system. Without any further ado, here’s to mother nature and the best thing to happen to humans since opposable thumbs and the ability to walk upright.

What causes a runner’s high?

At some point in our evolutionary history, humans progressed from scavenging to hunting, and this involved a lot of running (even more than they would’ve done when fleeing animals higher up the food chain). In running down their dinner, early hunters had to push themselves to near exhaustion, and if it weren’t for the occasional second wind, many prey would have escaped – to be eaten by something faster. Indeed, it seems that nature has equipped humans with a mechanism that allows them to run through the pain when they would normally give up. 

Anandamide chemical structure

The natural painkillers that helped put Bambi’s ancestor on a primitive BBQ spit – and not in the jaws of a saber-toothed cat – still flow through the veins of runners today. They are endorphins and endocannabinoids. You’ve probably already heard of endorphins since these naturally occurring opiates were previously thought to be responsible for the feelings of elation experienced during a runner's high. We now know that they’re not. Endorphins contribute to your natural high not by activating your brain’s pleasure sensors but by masking the pain you’d normally feel during a long, strenuous run.

Endocannabinoids, on the other hand, have only recently been connected to the phenomenon now known as runner’s high. A naturally synthesized version of THC, this chemical creates a feeling of calmness, and, unlike endorphins, it’s produced by a type of neuron found throughout the human body. Given the ubiquity of its factory cells, this chemical has the potential to play an even bigger part in your good feels. And because it’s produced in response to stress (indistinguishable from discomfort) the stimulus is the same as that for the release of endorphins.

How do you bring on a runner’s high?

Firstly, you have to be fit. A runner’s high is only produced during longer runs – two hours seems to be a sweet spot – and if you can’t keep up a pace for at least an hour and a half, you’re unlikely to get your buzz on. It’s believed that glycogen stores have to be close to depleted before the pituitary gland and hypothalamus produce endorphins. But, for now, all you need to know is that father is better. Some lucky souls might experience a runner’s high after only 45 minutes, but if you’re only capable of an hour-long jog and haven’t experienced a runner’s high yet, it’s probably because you need to run for longer.

Secondly, you have to push yourself (but not too hard). Endorphins and cannabinoids are only produced when you’re under physical stress. However, if you push yourself to the limit, your brain’s self-preservation mechanism will direct all resources to the parts of your body where it’s really needed – and not that little fun factory, the hypothalamus. Think 8/10 in terms of intensity. The pace should be challenging but not gut-busting. For most seasoned runners that is somewhere between eight minutes per kilometer (twelve minutes per mile), or around 152 beats per minute if you are 30 years old (80% of your max heart rate).

Thirdly, you can leverage the power of sleep, music, and other people. Cecilia J. Hillard, Ph.D., director of the Neuroscience Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has found that people need eight hours of sleep a night for optimal endocannabinoid production, although this might not come as a surprise given the established connection between sleep, health and athletic performance. What is surprising though is that research also suggests that music and exercising with others also may spike endorphins. It’s safe to assume that wearing headphones while running with friends is going to negate any positive effects of running in a group (and could even make you an outcast).

Get out there and run

Even if you follow the above advice to the T, you still won’t experience a runner’s high on every run. You will, however, be able to get your buzz on more regularly. And if you’re prepared to keep a run log while experimenting with distance and level of exertion, you might find a pattern that allows you to bring on the good vibes semi-consistently. But also remember that there’s more to running than just a natural high. Trail running, by its very nature, involves communing with nature, and there’s much to be gained by directing your attention outwards. There’s adventure waiting for you in those hills, and it only takes a keen eye and open mind to spot the many opportunities for exploration and discovery.