You push through the last half mile and feel it: that satisfying sensation of a runner’s high.
Or maybe you just feel tired and sweaty.
Why do some people experience a runner’s high while others don’t? And what can you do to increase your chances of sweat-sesh bliss?
What does a runner’s high feel like?
“A runner’s high is a sense of well-being during and after endurance or aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Mark Harrast, a sports medicine doctor and medical director of the Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium. “You can characterize it by feelings of euphoria, relaxation, reduced anxiety and feeling less pain.”
For me (no marathoner but someone who logs a couple miles most days of the week), a runner’s high isn’t a jolt of joy but rather a sense of calm that sets in subtly.
Partway through a run, I’ll notice that any anxious voices in my head have quieted and instead I’m left with a sense of contentment. Sometimes when I’ve finished a run, I will feel that rush of excitement and energy, like I could go jog more miles (though, admittedly, I have yet to act on the impulse).
What is the science behind a runner’s high?
Historically, scientists believed endorphins, or pain-relieving chemicals in your body that are released during exercise, prompted a runner’s high. But recent research from Germany has posited another factor: endocannabinoids.
“Endocannabinoids seem to maintain homeostasis in our body, making sure everything runs effectively,” Harrast says. “They have broad effects in appetite, digestion, metabolism, pain and mood, memory and learning, sleep, stress and even reproductive health.”
The German study found participants were able to experience a runner’s high even when they were given medication to block endorphins — meaning their endorphins weren’t the cause of the high. Instead, the study suggested the rise in participants’ endocannabinoids might be the cause.
Another reason scientists are looking to endocannabinoids is because endocannabinoids are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier (unlike endorphins, which are too big). This allows endocannabinoids to affect your mood and give you that high feeling.
If all this talk about experiencing a high (and the term endocannabinoids itself) makes you think of cannabis (i.e., weed), well, you’re not far off.
Endocannabinoids are compounds in our bodies that have a similar structure to the psychoactive drugs in cannabis plants, called cannabinoids. The high you get from smoking marijuana is caused by cannabis stimulating your endocannabinoid system. The high you get from running may be caused in part by your endocannabinoids stimulating this same system.
While endorphins and endocannabinoids help explain some of the experiences of a runner’s high, there’s still much more to be discovered about exercise bliss.
“This is probably the beginning of the story. It’s more than likely that there are a number of chemicals, like endorphins and endocannabinoids, that haven’t even been discovered yet, that may be playing a part too,” Harrast says.
How can you increase your chances of experiencing a runner’s high?
You want to feel that endurance-induced euphoria, but every time you go on a run you just … don’t.
Part of this has to do with a predisposition to achieve a runner’s high, Harrast says. Some people will be more likely to experience a runner’s high than others no matter how long or fast they run.
But there are some things you can do to tip the scales in your favor.
“A runner’s high is considered the body’s response to prolonged stress. You can boost your chances if you run longer distances for longer periods of time or vary your workouts, so your body is used in more ways,” Harrast says.
This idea holds true for me. I’m more likely to experience a runner’s high if I’m completing an incremental training schedule, where I’m progressively running longer distances, than if I’m just logging a couple miles to maintain my endurance.
Do you have to run to get a runner’s high?
There’s good news on this front for those who aren’t fans of trails or treadmills.
“Endurance exercise in general can trigger a runner’s high. Running, spinning, cycling — it’s any aerobic activity that keeps your heart rate up,” Harrast says.
Again, the idea here is to tax your body, regardless of what activity you choose to do. (Though, if you’re just beginning to exercise, allow yourself time to strengthen your body and build up your baseline endurance first.)
You should also keep in mind the amount and intensity of exercise needed to prompt a runner’s high will vary from person to person, and it might change as your endurance increases or based on the type of exercise you do.
What are other benefits to aerobic exercise?
Still not experiencing a runner’s high? This doesn’t mean you should hang up your sneakers.
Aerobic exercise offers plenty of other benefits, including reducing anxiety and depression, improving your immune system response and lowering your risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
Getting 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical exercise each week can lower your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease, while also improving your sleep, bone health and overall physical function.
If you had your heart set on an exercise high but can’t seem to achieve it, Harrast offers one last reason to keep running (or biking, swimming and moving in general).
“There’s your runner’s high and then there’s the finish line high, which is different. It’s the emotional high that comes after completing an endurance event that sometimes even lasts for days,” he says.
Think of this like when you finish a big project at work, complete a major exam or accomplish a life milestone. After putting in hours of practice, preparation and work, you’ve finally achieved your goal, which can make you feel elated, proud and even giddy.
So, regardless of whether it’s an achy, sweaty sprint or a blissed-out bike ride, there are plenty of reasons to keep moving. Your body and mental health will thank you.