Aerobic exercise – and running in particular – has long been known to produce endorphins that make us happy and excited after a hard workout. Known as a “runner’s high,” this feeling is what keeps experienced runners lacing up their shoes again and again. It’s a great source of motivation, it might help you keep going at mile 20 of a marathon, and it’s a wonderful way to finish a tough session.
But is runner’s high a real thing and – if so – how do you get it? Does it apply to some people and not to others? How can you chase that feeling of euphoria and what makes running such an addictive sport?
Here’s a quick look at what happens to your body and your brain during a run, how you achieve a runner’s high, and the longer-term mental benefits of running.
What is Runner’s High?
When you run, you’re probably used to noticing your heart rate increasing as your breathing gets heavier. Next, once you reach your lactate threshold, you’ve certainly got used to the lactic acid build-up in your leg muscles and that screaming pain as you try to push on. But, you’ll have also noticed that euphoric feeling once your interval training session is over.
Especially after high-intensity exercise, your body releases hormones called endorphins. These are at the source of a short-term feeling of happiness and excitement, or contentment as you complete your session and achieve your goals. While some research suggests that this feeling reaches different levels in people and some never actually experience it, it is the release of endorphins that leads to short-term psychoactive effects associated with the runner’s high.
For some researchers, it’s not the endorphins that cause the post-run euphoria, but rather a different set of biochemical substances called endocannabinoids. As the name suggests, these are similar to cannabis but produced naturally by the body. Neuroscience professor David Linden (Johns Hopkins University) has found that exercise increases the level of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream.
These substances can flow easily between the bloodstream and the brain, where we can notice the effects of endocannabinoids on behavior. Essentially, they appear to improve moods, reduce anxiety and create a feeling of calm.
How Do You Achieve a Runner’s High?
While intense exercise does seem to trigger a lot of feelings of euphoria and contentment, regardless of whether these come from endorphins or endocannabinoids, is this the only way to achieve a runner’s high? And do you need the endorphin levels (if you accept that they’re at the source of the positive feeling) to actually get it?
In fact, one can argue that there’s no such thing as a runner’s high, but rather a “finish line high.” This is what can drive many runners to compete consistently throughout the year, especially when looking at more long-distance running events such as marathons. You could say you get a runner’s high from a quick 5k, but what drives people to carry on pushing through the pain of a marathon or – even more – an ultra-marathon?
The finish line high
Competing in a running race is the culmination of a well-thought-out training plan that will have taken most of us at least several weeks to complete. Whether your exercise routine is focused on finishing a local 10k race or you have your sights set on running a 100-miler, the moment you cross the finish line is what you’ll be visualizing and hoping for the most.
Time, effort and psychological and physical commitment to a finish line justify many things: missing important events, foregoing evenings out, sometimes even modifying your vacation schedule. As a result, successfully completing the goal race will naturally trigger feelings of contentment and short-term euphoria.
It is also important to note that, as races become longer and more endurance-focused, there is an important psychological component to success. There is also a different definition of success: where experienced runners would aim to be in the top 10 finishers of a 10k, many will be happy with a simple finish on a 100-mile race.
The importance of mental strength and resilience in ultramarathon success has been noted in many studies, as has the notion that simple completion is success in these events. Consequently, after the strain runners go through in order to complete an ultra, passing the finish line will naturally lead to endorphin levels being high and a general feeling of achievement taking over.
Mental Benefits of Running
We have seen that a runner’s high is not just about winning, completing a high-intensity session, or ticking off aerobic exercise. It can range from a feeling of contentment for a “job well done” at the end of a particularly grueling ultramarathon to a short burst of excitement if you place in the top 3 at your local 10k. Moreover, regardless of whether you believe in the endorphin or endocannabinoid beneficial effects, you don’t necessarily have to be a runner to get something akin to a runner’s high: any aerobic activities can lead to these feelings.
However, there are many short and long-term benefits of running on mental health which bear mentioning here.
Regular cardiovascular exercise can spark the growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain, keeping you alert and in great mental shape late in life. Frequent runs (even shorter ones) can help stimulate a process called neurogenesis, which means the production of new brain cells.
Overall, this all points to improved brain health and performance and avoiding brain cell decline as we age.
Exercise is known for its anti-depressive effects and for reducing anxious behavior. Thanks to regular runs and aerobic activity, your brain has an outlet for the ongoing daily stresses of life, with beneficial long-term effects on your mental health.
Physical activity is good for enjoying fresh air and the outdoors, as well, which also has positive effects on psychological balance and counteracts the negative impact of many desk-based jobs in today’s workplace. Especially for those of us working indoors in offices on a regular basis, that runner’s high we achieve from a 30-minute jog at the end of a working day can keep us mentally fit for years to come.
Improved cognitive abilities
The hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with memory and learning – has been found to increase in volume in the brains of those who run or engage in some form of physical activity. This means that you can expect benefits such as improved working memory and capacity to focus, a better task-switching ability, and overall an elevated mood.
How To Keep Getting That Runner’s High
Ultimately, whether you believe the endorphin argument or favor the idea that endocannabinoids are the ones that trigger a post-run euphoria, or even whether you subscribe to the idea that a runner’s high is not a “high” at all, but a feeling of achievement and well-earned contentment as you tick off a goal, there’s no denying that an improved mood and generally better mental health are among the benefits of running regularly.
How can you ensure you get a runner’s high? Here are some quick tips from a combination of personal experience and research:
- Follow a structured plan and know what you’re setting out to achieve. Ticking off a goal will give you a sense of fulfilment. This applies at a monthly, weekly, and even session level – always know the purpose of your day’s run.
- Train regularly. Consistency keeps you progressing and will ensure better performance overall.
- Set achievable goals. Pepper your season with some races you look forward to completing or challenges you’d like to tick off. You’ll get the runner’s high when you cross the finish line and you’ll know your training efforts have paid off.
- Listen to your body. Don’t neglect the need to rest and recover and don’t over-exert yourself or push through pain and injury. This way, you ensure every run is actually enjoyable and ends on a positive note.
- Cross-train to keep your training fun and varied while boosting your overall fitness and strength.
A runner’s high can be a combination of many different feelings, so define what success means for you and you’ll keep feeling some sort of euphoria at the end of every session.