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The Runner’s High: Urban Myth or Reality?

The Runner’s High? We’ve all heard about it, but is it real? Yes and no. A runner’s high is a very real, tangible by-product of running. So yes it exists and it’s not an illusionary, mythical condition.

If you’re a new runner, you’ve probably at least heard something about the runner’s high and wondered what the heck it is exactly. It’s that elusive, but feel good fix some runners talk about all the time like it’s some sort of magical state of heightened awareness.

It’s not.

The runner’s high feels nothing like some drug-induced feeling of euphoria. Instead, it’s a mild, post-run buzz that has more to do with contentment and satisfaction than anything else.

Here’s the inside dope (sorry). More than 40 years ago, researchers discovered that the brain produces its own mood-elevating drugs. Because these drugs act in a similar way that morphine does, they were tagged with the name endogenous morphines. Today, they’re just called endorphins and they are the naturally occurring drugs—if you will—that can lead to the runner’s high.

Endorphins can have many effects on the brain, but mainly they control pain and elevated moods. What triggers these naturally occurring drugs is stress, be it physical or emotional.

So a physical stressor like running can flood the brain with these endorphins that then block the transmission of pain messages to your consciousness.

Thus, you feel no pain. Not bad. It gets even better.

With the endorphins carousing through your system after a hard run, you may have a relaxed, comfortable feeling. Some describe it as a sensation of being able to run as long as they want without much effort.

The condition suffers from the description of being “high”. You’re not high (in the drug sense), but the post-run feeling is usually described as unusually enjoyable and very relaxed, maybe even legally buzzed.

Nice. Where can I get me some of those endorphins?

First off, research indicates that you have a better chance of triggering the endorphin rush by running hard and fast. You can still trigger them on a long, slow run, but your chances increase as the effort increases since endorphins are related to the amount of stress you’re encountering.

To quantify the effort, researchers say you need to run at least 75 percent of your maximum heart rate to stimulate the release of endorphins into your system. If you’re jogging slowly for 20-30 minutes, you probably won’t get an endorphin rush because you aren’t pushing yourself enough. Without stimulating max heart rate, you usually don’t gain any endorphins.

Interestingly, research into the distance you need to run to have an effect on the endorphins, is inconclusive. Some studies show that six miles is far enough, while another indicates that an hour isn’t long enough.

It depends on the individual runner. Some runners can trigger a major endorphin rush in only 30 minutes of running—if they are running hard enough. While others, can run for more than two hours with no discernible effect. But most runners ordinarily trigger the endorphins on relatively hard, long efforts, most often after a good race.

Armed with this knowledge, it is entirely possible to trigger your endorphins on a regular basis. For example, if you only run two or three very easy miles at a time, and wonder what the big deal is about the runner’s high, wonder no more. Instead of very easy running for two or three miles, step up to the plate and run harder, much harder and you should be able to trigger them.

That’s the trick—harder running at 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. It can be hills, a race or a speed workout, but that 75 percent of maximum heart rate is generally the sweet spot. Again, that’s why hard workouts (or races) seem to trigger the endorphins much more than a relaxed, casual run.

This might also explain why veteran runners seem to experience endorphin rushes on a more regular basis than beginners. Veteran runners are typically running harder and longer more often than beginners and consciously or not, know how to go to the well to trigger the pleasant flood of endorphins.

But it isn’t just running that triggers endorphins. The brain doesn’t know the difference between aerobic sports. Swimming and cycling seem to work just fine, provided you can move well enough to get your heart rate up to 75 percent of its max. For the same reason, lawn bowling, darts, golf or sailing doesn’t work.

Not every runner experiences the endorphin rush. Some just don’t for reasons we don’t fully understand. Older runners, for example, have fewer endorphin episodes than younger runners because endorphin production drops as you age—regardless of your speed or intensity. Fortunately though, your endorphins never just disappear completely.

So endorphins are real. So is the strangely great feeling you can experience after a hard, fast run or race.

Bottom line: You can get high on running.