Long time, read-every-word readers will know instantly why I’m talking about this.
For the rest of you, here’s the cheat sheet:
1. Last year, I trained for and ran a half marathon and in six weeks and absolutely loved the entire process. Runner’s high for SURE.
2. This year, I’ve been feeling some serious anxiety, which is brand new to me, and I’m trying to make it stop.
3. Also this year, I have been running less than ever in my life before.
4. In October, I ran a half marathon. Even though the training was disastrous, I felt the most incredible emotional relief and clarity during that race.
SO: I wanted to do some digging into WHY we feel a runner’s high. Why some people seem to feel it more than others (a conclusion I made based on a few conversations with friends – so super scientific.) Why some people feel that high during other exercises and some people don’t (also based on my scientific process.)
Basically, I wanted to capture that incredible, natural, healthy high that gives me a clear head and vulnerable but joyful heart.
So I did some research to figure out the answers that I had: WHY is the runner’s high so powerful and HOW do I clutch onto that feeling.
Why do we experience runner’s high?
Most people think that endorphins cause a runner’s high. That might be right, but a recent study indicate that if endorphins do contribute to a runner’s high, they are most likely a secondary source. The real source of a runner’s high (or maybe I should say, the one that studies have scientifically proven) are endocannabinoids. (YES, that word does come from the same root as cannabis – as in marijuana – and YES, the physical response is similar.)
Super quick summary of the recent study: some awesome folks in Germany studied mice running on their little mice wheels. They were able to measure the anxiety (somehow) and sensitivity to pain (somehow) of these mice, before and after running. And they were (somehow) able to block the mice’s responses to endorphins in one control group, and the responses to endocannabinoids in another group. The group whose endorphin responses were blocked still experienced a reduction in anxiety, while the group whose endocannabinoids were blocked did not.
There have been a few other studies that indicate endorphins are NOT the cause of our runner’s high, but this is the only study I found that actually had a link to another cause.
5 Ways to Achieve Runner’s High
I was thrilled to discover that there are some things you can control to help achieve runner’s high and maintain it – it’s not completely hit-or-miss.
1. Push Yourself (but not too much).
This is the BEST tip to help achieve runner’s high. Yes, and super vague. Allow me to clarify… Both endorphins (we’ll still address these since we can’t completely rule them out) and endocannabinoids are released to ease your body when it is stressed. So you want to cause a bit of stress on your body – but NOT so much that you are in physical pain, because that initiates a whole other response than simply stress. (A response that tells you to STOP what you’re doing.)
This is also really important to keep in mind because what it means is that running three miles today might give you a HUGE runner’s high if that’s a challenge for you. If you keep it up and get to the point that three miles is nothing, you probably won’t achieve anywhere near the same high. This is a GREAT reason to mix up the type of workout, speed, distance, tempo, or do intervals (though those can also contribute to a runner’s high on their own accord.) That way you can still give yourself a challenge without needing to significantly increase your distance or speed. The only caveat is that it’s not a linear relationship – meaning pushing yourself even harder does NOT mean you get MORE of a runner’s high. Again, don’t push yourself until you’re in pain.
2. But give yourself rest days and slow days.
Overtraining seriously limits the runner’s high your body is capable of achieving. Simple as that.
3. Listen to music or run with a friend.
Okay, these are two but I am including them here because I’m guessing (more from a hunch than from my research) that only one of these will work for most people. But both of these are things that can contribute to the release of endorphins, and many people believe that either listening to music or running with a loved one can contribute to your runner’s high. Personally, running with someone else will never do that for me. But music? OH HELL YEAH. Maybe you’re lucky and they’ll both work for you! Anybody out there think they both help?
4. Pay attention to what works for you.
No, I’m not just referring to #3. Even if somehow you could have the exact same stamina, shape, fuel, abilities, etc., as someone else, your ability to achieve a runner’s high will not be identical. Pay attention to the level of difficulty or duration at which you experience your high during a run, what type of fuel contributes, what stage of recovery you’re in. All of that varies by person. Sure, there are a few things (like the first two) that universally apply to a certain degree – but none of it is universal to the SAME degree.
5. Add intervals.
I mentioned this in #1 because changing your intervals up will prevent your body from acclimating to your workout, thus reducing the push. But intervals can increase your runner’s high on their own, too! Add sprinting intervals, hills, stair climbs – anything to mix up the intensity at which you’re working. It will really increase your chances of achieving a runner’s high.
What kinds of workouts can cause a “runner’s high”?
Sure, we call it a runner’s high. But running isn’t the only workout that causes it. Again, this is personal and might vary. The types of exercises that are scientifically proven to cause a physiological change are all repetitive – like running, cycling, or swimming. So those are your best bets!