Sure, running does wonders for the body and mind. But many runners claim a sense of elation that could be considered an actual high. Does this mysterious sensation exist?
Run, Baby, Run! Why It Matters
The runner’s high phenomenon is fueled by reports of euphoria or elation experienced during or after running. From cardio to weightlifting, exercise causes the body to release energy and mood improving endorphinsBeta-endorphin response to exercise. Goldfarb, A., A Jamurtas. Exercise and Sport Science Department, University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Sports Medicine. 1997 Jul; 24(1): 8-16.. But can these endorphins actually create a “high”?
One group of researchers found an increase in pleasure receptor activity in the brain after two hours of jogging, which could start to explain the feelings of euphoria experienced by some avid long distance runnersThe Runner’s High: Opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spiker, M.E., et al. Nuklearmedizinische Klinik Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technische Universitat Munchen, Munich, Germany. Cereberal Cortex. 2008 Nov;18(11):2523-31.. Need a mood boost? Maybe it’s time to start training for that half-marathon.
Hit The Ground Running—The Answer/Debate
While some studies support the runner’s high, we don’t have all the answers just yet. In the previously mentioned study, the sample size was very small, just 10 already-fit subjectsThe Runner’s High: Opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spiker, M.E., et al. Nuklearmedizinische Klinik Klinikum rechts der Isar, Technische Universitat Munchen, Munich, Germany. Cereberal Cortex. 2008 Nov;18(11):2523-31.. And while each athlete’s brain activity was scanned using advanced imaging techniques, receptor levels were not measured during the run, when the supposed “high” is generally reported. Another study showed a clear connection between 50 minutes of moderate intensity exercise and increased activity in the body’s release of natural drug-like compoundsExercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Sparling, P.B., Giuffrida, A., Piomelli, D., et al. School of Applied Physiology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA. Neuroreport. 2003 Dec 2;14(17):2209-11..
A 2012 study found that after intense endurance activity, fit subjects experienced an increase in endocannabinoids, the brain chemicals that signal pleasureWired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’. Raichlen DA, Foster AD, Gerdeman GL, et al. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 2012 Apr 15;215(Pt 8):1331-6.. This “neurobiological rewards” theory of the runner’s high has it that we humans might just have evolved to enjoy running! So despite a clear connection between exercise and the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, the support for a runner’s “high” is still mostly anecdotalEndorphins: The Basis of Pleasure?. Hawkes, C. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 1992 April; 55(4): 247-250..
The consensus? Endorphins released while running could create an euphoric feeling, but the scientific evidence can’t support these claims 100% just yet, as the effects of endorphins vary from person to person. And though super-fit research subjects experienced a post-run surge of endocannabinoids, these results seem to point to a biologically-driven urge to run, rather than a post-run high. While scientists have stopped short of drawing conclusions about whether changes in brain chemistry prove the existence of runners’ euphoria, the runners who claim a consistent, pleasurable high, well, they’re having too much fun in la-la land to really care.
Want to test the theory for yourself? Check out our awesome 5K Training Guide and Half-Marathon Training Guide for everything you need to know to cross running a race off your bucket list.