The Runner’s High: The Science Behind This Natural Euphoria.

Runner's High

The Runner’s High is a widely celebrated phenomenon among long-distance runners and endurance athletes. It is often described as a state of euphoria, reduced pain perception, and a sense of well-being experienced during or after intense exercise. It has been a subject of fascination for decades. The science behind the runner’s high is a complex interplay of physiological, psychological, and neurochemical factors. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the various elements contributing to the runner’s high. We will look at its historical context, and the emerging research on this remarkable sensation.

 

Before all that – I was just at a club running session last night, which led me to write this piece. It was cold, wet and windy and at the start the mood was a little melancholy. By the time we finished our pyramid session – wow everyone was smiling, laughing and the mood was just fantastic. Real evidence in practice that the Runner’s High is real.

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Historical Perspective

The concept of a “runner’s high” is not a recent discovery. It dates back to ancient times when long-distance runners and endurance athletes described a sense of euphoria and bliss associated with their activities. Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle noted the mental and emotional benefits of exercise as written about in another of my articles. This was including the feeling of happiness it could induce. The Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (c. 369–286 BCE) famously wrote about the joy of running – one of our previous posts can be read here.

However, it was not until the 1970s that the term “runner’s high” became widely recognized in popular culture. This coincided with the running boom in the United States when recreational running gained popularity. Since then, researchers have sought to uncover the mechanisms responsible for this unique phenomenon.

The Endocannabinoid System

One of the central elements in the science of runner’s high is the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex network of receptors and neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in various physiological processes, including pain regulation, mood, appetite, and immune response. It has two primary receptors: CB1 and CB2. The CB1 receptors are mainly found in the central nervous system, while the CB2 receptors are primarily located in the immune system and peripheral tissues.

 

Brain runner's high

The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating the body’s response to stress and pain, and it also modulates mood and motivation. It achieves this through the production and binding of endocannabinoids, which are naturally occurring compounds similar in structure to the cannabinoids found in cannabis.

During intense physical activity, the body’s production of endocannabinoids increases. Anandamide, in particular, is often referred to as the “bliss molecule” because of its role in creating feelings of euphoria and well-being. Exercise-induced stress and discomfort, such as muscle soreness, trigger the release of endocannabinoids as a coping mechanism, leading to reduced pain perception and improved mood.

Endorphins and the “Second Wind”

Endorphins, another class of chemicals related to the runner’s high, play a significant role in modulating pain perception and mood. Of course endorphins are endogenous opioids produced by the body, and they bind to the body’s opioid receptors to reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being.

While endorphins have long been associated Endorphin release highwith the runner’s high, research suggests that they might not be the sole contributors to this phenomenon. In fact, the role of endorphins in the runner’s high is a subject of ongoing debate.

 

One of the reasons for the debate is that endorphin molecules are relatively large and cannot easily cross the blood-brain barrier. This raises questions about their direct involvement in the mood-enhancing effects experienced during intense exercise. Instead, some researchers argue that other neurochemicals, like endocannabinoids, are more likely to be responsible for the euphoric sensation associated with the runner’s high.

Nevertheless, endorphins play a crucial role in other aspects of the runner’s experience, particularly in reducing the perception of pain. Runners often describe a “second wind,” a state of increased energy and reduced discomfort during a run, which is attributed to the release of endorphins. These endogenous opioids can provide a much-needed boost to push through the discomfort that often accompanies endurance activities.

 

The Role of Dopamine

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, is another key player in the science of runner’s high. When you engage in prolonged, strenuous exercise, dopamine is released in the brain. This release contributes to the sense of euphoria and heightened mood that many runners experience.

dopamine high 1

Dopamine’s role in the runner’s high is closely tied to the brain’s reward system. The brain releases dopamine as a way to reinforce behavior that is beneficial for survival, such as eating and procreation. In the context of running, the brain may release dopamine as a reward for physical activity, which in turn encourages individuals to continue engaging in this behavior.

Interestingly, some research has suggested that the amount of dopamine released during exercise may vary among individuals, contributing to differences in the intensity of the runner’s high. Genetic factors, exercise habits, and individual sensitivities to dopamine can all influence the degree of euphoria experienced during and after physical activity.

The Brain’s Reward System is the Runner’s High.

The brain’s reward system, often referred to as the mesolimbic pathway, is a network of interconnected regions involved in experiencing pleasure and motivation. During exercise, this system is activated, leading to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids.

The mesolimbic pathway is responsible for reinforcing positive behaviors by providing a sense of reward and pleasure. It helps to motivate individuals to engage in activities that promote their well-being, such as exercise. The runner’s high, in this context, can be seen as a product of the brain’s reward system, which encourages individuals to continue their physical efforts.

Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity

Exercise, particularly endurance exercise, has been shown to stimulate neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are generated in the brain. This process primarily occurs in the hippocampus, a region associated with memory and learning. Neurogenesis is believed to play a role in the runner’s high, as it contributes to improved cognitive function, mood regulation, and overall well-being.

Additionally, exercise promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity is a crucial mechanism for learning, memory, and adaptation to new experiences. Regular exercise, including running, enhances neuroplasticity, potentially allowing individuals to adapt to the physical and mental demands of long-distance running, and leading to an increased capacity to experience the runner’s high.

Oxygen Levels and Hypoxia

The runner’s high is not solely a result of neurochemical changes; physiological factors also play a role. During prolonged exercise, the body’s oxygen consumption increases significantly, leading to changes in blood oxygen levels.

Hypoxia, or a reduced oxygen supply, is commonly experienced by long-distance runners. When oxygen levels drop due to strenuous exercise, the body’s response is to increase the production of red blood cells and optimize oxygen delivery to muscles and organs. This process is essential for endurance activities, as it improves oxygen utilization and energy production.

The brain’s response to hypoxia can also contribute to the runner’s high. The reduced oxygen supply triggers the release of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells. EPO, in turn, can stimulate the production of endorphins and endocannabinoids. Both of which contribute to the feeling of euphoria during and after exercise.

Mindfulness and Flow State

The psychological aspect of the runner’s high is closely related to mindfulness and the concept of the “flow state.” Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment and experiencing one’s surroundings, thoughts, and feelings without judgment. Engaging in physical activities like running can help individuals achieve a mindful state, in which they become acutely aware of their bodies and the sensations they are experiencing.

The flow state, on the other hand, is characterized by intense focus, a loss of self-awareness, and a sense of being “in the zone.” Runners who experience the runner’s high often describe a feeling of flow, where they are fully engaged in the activity, and their sense of time is altered.

Both mindfulness and the flow state are associated with changes in brain activity. Also including increased activity in regions responsible for emotion regulation, and a decrease in activity in the default mode network. This is linked to self-referential thoughts and mind-wandering. These altered patterns of brain activity are thought to contribute to the euphoric and transcendental experiences associated the runner’s high.

Factors Influencing the Runner’s High

While the runner’s high is a common experience among long-distance runners, there is significant individual variability in its intensity and frequency. Several factors influence the likelihood of experiencing a runner’s high:

  1. Exercise Intensity and Duration. The intensity and duration of exercise play a critical role in the likelihood of experiencing a runner’s high. Endurance activities like long-distance running are more likely to induce the sensation, with higher-intensity workouts and longer durations increasing the chances.
  2. Individual Variation. Genetic and physiological differences can lead to variations in the intensity of the runner’s high. Some individuals may be more predisposed to experience it due to their neurochemical makeup.
  3. Mindset and Motivation: One’s mindset and motivation during exercise can influence the runner’s high. Being fully engaged, setting specific goals, and finding purpose in the activity can enhance the experience.
  4. Environmental Factors. The surroundings and atmosphere in which one exercises can impact the runner’s high. Natural settings, like forests and trails, may enhance the experience due to their calming and immersive qualities.
  5. Training Status: Regular exercisers tend to experience the runner’s high more frequently and intensely. It may take some time for the body and mind to adapt to the demands of long-distance running.
  6. Nutrition and Hydration. Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for optimal performance and increasing the likelihood of experiencing the runner’s high. Dehydration and inadequate nutrition can lead to fatigue and discomfort, diminishing the chances of achieving the high.

Emerging Research on the Runner’s High

Recent scientific investigations have shed more light on the runner’s high, uncovering new dimensions and insights into this intriguing phenomenon. Some of the notable findings include:

  1. Cannabis and Endocannabinoids. A study published in 2015 in the journal “PLOS ONE” found that the runner’s high and the high experienced from using cannabis have similarities in terms of the release of endocannabinoids and the activation of CB1 receptors. This suggests a potential link between the two experiences. Check out some fantastic research here.
  2. Non-Runners Can Experience It Too. While the runner’s high is most commonly associated with running, it can also be triggered by other forms of aerobic exercise. Such sports as cycling, swimming, and even dancing. This implies that the underlying mechanisms are not exclusive to running.
  3. Post-Exercise Mood Enhancement. Research published in “NeuroImage” in 2018 revealed that even brief bouts of exercise can lead to changes in the brain that improve mood. And increase feelings of well-being. This suggests that the runner’s high is not limited to long-distance runners. It can also be experienced by individuals engaging in shorter, high-intensity workouts.
  4. Music’s Role. Listening to music while running can enhance the runner’s high. A study in “Frontiers in Psychology” in 2018 showed that listening to uplifting and motivating music during exercise increases the release of endorphins, which may amplify the sensation of euphoria.runner music high
  5. Mindfulness Practices: Incorporating mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing, before or during exercise can increase the chances of experiencing the runner’s high. These practices help individuals stay present and focus on the physical sensations and emotional aspects of running.

Practical Implications and Benefits of The Runner’s High

Understanding the science behind the runner’s high has practical implications for both recreational and professional athletes. Here are some of the benefits and applications:

  1. Motivation and Compliance. Knowing that a runner’s high is a potential outcome of regular exercise can serve as motivation for individuals to stick to their fitness routines. The promise of an uplifting experience can make it easier to maintain a consistent exercise regimen.
  2. Stress Reduction. The runner’s high has been linked to stress reduction and improved mood. This can be particularly valuable for individuals looking to manage stress, anxiety, or depression through physical activity. Read about the benefits of running for mental health here.
  3. Performance Enhancement. The reduced perception of pain and increased motivation associated with the runner’s high can enhance performance during endurance events. Athletes can leverage this to push through difficult moments in a race.
  4. Natural Pain Relief: For individuals who experience chronic pain, the runner’s high can offer a natural form of pain relief. It may not eliminate pain entirely, but it can make it more manageable.
  5. Improved Cognitive Function. The neurogenesis and neuroplasticity associated with the runner’s high have implications for cognitive function and brain health. Regular exercise can promote learning, memory, and overall cognitive well-being.
  6. Social and Emotional Connection. The runner’s high can enhance the social and emotional aspects of exercise. Running with a group or partner can foster a sense of connection and shared experience, while the euphoric feelings can promote a positive emotional bond with the activity.

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Conclusion

The runner’s high is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that results from a combination of physiological, psychological, and neurochemical processes. While it has been celebrated for centuries, recent scientific research has expanded our understanding of the mechanisms involved. The endocannabinoid system, endorphins, dopamine, and the brain’s reward system all play crucial roles in creating this unique sensation. Additionally, physiological factors such as hypoxia, neurogenesis, and neuroplasticity contribute to the runner’s high.

Moreover, the psychological aspects of mindfulness and the flow state enhance the overall experience. Understanding these elements can offer valuable insights for both athletes and individuals seeking the benefits of exercise. Whether it’s increased motivation, pain relief, mood enhancement, or cognitive improvement, the runner’s high is a natural and enticing reward for those who choose to lace up their running shoes and hit the pavement.

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Finally as our knowledge of the runner’s high continues to grow, so does our appreciation for the intricate interplay of mind and body during intense physical activity. Ultimately, the runner’s high serves as a reminder of the remarkable capabilities of the human body and the profound rewards that come from pushing its limits.

 

In a nutshell after that heavy article. It makes you smile!

 

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