You don’t have to be an avid runner to be familiar with the urban legend-esque ‘runner’s high’ — aka the phenomenon of being hit with a ton of endorphins and feeling really good during a workout. Even the name sounds mystical, as if only top runners can achieve this kind of drug-like euphoria.
There’s no definitive proof that it truly exists, but some small studies have found that intense endurance exercise does increase pleasure receptor activity in the brain. But since each individual experiences endorphins differently, it’s safer to assume that the runner’s high is more anecdotal than scientifically proven.
This begs the question: What does the runner’s high really feel like then?
Sure, we can feel ecstatic and victorious when we conquer the massive hill we used to struggle up — and yes, it feels triumphant to push yourself to the point of beating your personal best. But are these proud runner moments the fabled ‘runner’s high’ people gush about?
Unfortunately, we don’t know just yet. (Science, we’re waiting on you!) But for now, we can see what other runners have to say about this phenomenon and how their own bodies experience it.
Here are 10 people on what their unique runner’s highs feel like. Prepare yourself as they’re probably going to make you want to strap on your sneaks.
Neel Somani, college student
“When I get a runner’s high, there’s typically a light throbbing in my head. I get goosebumps and I start to feel warm, even if it’s cold outside. If I were to compare it to another feeling, it’s kind of like being mildly drunk. It typically doesn’t last very long for me, maybe about 5 to 10 minutes, and that’s assuming that I’m continuing to exert myself. During a runner’s high, I think my head feels the best, if that makes sense. It feels a little bit like getting a scalp massage.”
Nita Sweeney, author
“At the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ll say that runner’s high feels a bit like the afterglow of sex. There’s that rush like being in love. When runner’s high hits, my skin tingles and warm, positive sensations flood my body, especially in my chest and throat, but the feelings spread through my belly and down my arms and legs too. The pinnacle high lasts only a few moments but the afterglow lasts most of the day. It’s so pronounced that if I’m in a bad mood or depressed, my husband will ask, “Are you going for a run today?” He’s seen firsthand how a run can transform me.”
Christopher Duburcq, winemaker and triathlete
“It could be like when you were cold and wet outside and then you get inside a warm interior. All of a sudden you feel very strong and comfortable. It is a freshness sensation not linked to any other pleasure such as a good meal, a tasty wine, or a kiss. You feel as if only your body is giving you this good feeling!”
Walter Meyer, writer and speaker
“At first the runner’s high was like being a graceful animal, an impala or puma at full speed, but eventually it transcended that and it felt like my feet left the ground and I became a bird in flight. There is no feeling quite like a runner’s high, which is why I miss it so much. Any drug or alcohol high also causes some confusion or grogginess and there is none of that with a runner’s high. It is just a rush with no downside.”
Pat Sherman, personal trainer
“A runner’s high is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I also weight train, do yoga, I’ve taught group exercise classes — none compare to the feeling I get after a run. It’s a sense of calm really. A feeling that no matter how crazy life gets, a good run always makes it better. I’ve solved many problems on a run, relieved anxiety on a run, run away from stress on a run.”
Amanda Brooks, marathon runner and author
“Runner’s high is like stepping outside in shorts and feeling the sun warm your whole body after a week stuck inside due to a polar vortex. You stand a little straighter, throw your arms out to soak it all in, and feel a smile spreading from head to toe.”
Latoya Shauntay Snell, athlete
“Sometimes I hear nothing but the sound of my own breath when I’m in the thick of it. If there was a genre to match this sound, it would probably be some sort of West Coast rap/hip-hop like Tupac or a Marilyn Manson alternative/goth metal.”
Meghan Stevenson, running coach
“What I notice the most is that my whole body feels connected, like all the muscles are cooperating and working together to produce a run. Since we usually isolate what feels bad in our bodies (tight, weak, fat, etc.) and [we don’t] concentrate on what feels good (loose, strong, lean, etc.) the runner’s high gives me a unique, holistic sense of my body moving in space.”
Tahlia Butler, freelancer
“The animal I would be… it would have to be a cross between a cheetah and a lion. The cheetah represents the agility and speed, while the lion would represent the power and grace.”
Melissa Jannuzzi, PR account executive
“It’s the perfect balance between an immense surge in energy that also allows my body and mind to completely relax. My muscles are stressed to the point where they have no choice but to release pain and allow my body to be calm. At the same time, my mind is at ease because I’ve just accomplished one of the hardest tasks of my week. My runner’s high seems to make me see the world a little bit differently. If I run before I head into the city for work, that feeling of accomplishment lasts with me until nighttime when I finally get to bed. It gives me a sense of confidence that you really can’t get early in the morning unless you decide to push yourself.”